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Sunday, December 4,2011

People with Handicaps

By David Bruce

• Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French Elle, suffered a massive stroke that left his body almost totally incapacitated although his mind was fine. He was able to control only his left eye, but by blinking he dictated a book to freelance book editor Claude Mendibil, who recited to him the letters of the French alphabet by their frequency of use. When she pronounced the correct letter, Mr. Bauby blinked his left eye.

With practice, she was able to guess the word he wanted after learning the first few letters. The title of the book he dictated, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," refers to his life. His mind — the butterfly — was still active, but it was trapped in a body that no longer functioned properly — the diving bell. The book became a best seller, and it was made into a critically acclaimed movie with the same title. The process by which the book was dictated could have been disheartening, but Ms. Mendibil
 says that she cried only once. It happened when he was dictating a passage about his two young children, Céleste and Théophile. Ms. Mendibil  says, "I have a child, and I suddenly realized what it would be to be next to her and not be able to take her in my arms. The tears rose, and I had to go outside for five minutes.". When she returned, Mr. Bauby used eye blinks to tell her, "You look beautiful when you cry."

• When he was 21, Luigi (Eugene Facciuto) was paralyzed in a car accident. Physicians told him that he would never walk again, but all he could think about was dancing again. An operation on his eyes, which was necessary because the car accident had crushed his head, left him permanently cross-eyed. However, he kept hearing a voice that told him, "Never stop moving, kid. If you stop moving, you're dead. Don't ever stop moving." Through ballet lessons, he was able to rehabilitate himself, and he ended up dancing alongside people such as Gene Kelly. However, he was forced to become a jazz dancer rather than a ballet dancer because his crossed eyes made it impossible for him to perform pirouettes — he couldn't spot. He once auditioned for Lucia Chase, and all went well until she asked him to perform some turns in the air. Because of his crossed eyes, he couldn't. He remembers hearing Ms. Chase say, "I thought they said he could dance." As a jazz dancer, he performed with Judy Garland, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Donald O'Connor and Vera Ellen. Luigi's most important motto throughout his life has been this: "Never stop moving."

• Marla Runyan is legally blind in both eyes, but that did not keep her from being an athlete. At age 9, she started having trouble seeing. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed her with a rare disease that attacks the retina: Stargardt's Disease. Fortunately, she was able to go to school even with diminished eyesight. Her parents bought her an instrument called a monocular so that she could see the blackboard, and they bought her a machine that displayed the words of books very large on a television screen so that she could read them. Grady, her brother, also helped. When it was time to her to go to high school, he took her all around the school. That way, she was able to memorize the positions of her classrooms. She did have one problem, though. She was very good at getting around by herself, and sometimes people thought that she was snobbish because she did not greet them. They didn't realize that she couldn't see them well enough to recognize them. A track star, she made the United States Olympics team and competed in the 1,500-meter race at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. She was the first legally blind Olympian.

• Liz Hartel was a much-loved Olympic athlete in Denmark. Her story is remarkable because at the age of 23, in 1944, while pregnant, she contracted polio, which almost completely paralyzed her. She started rehabilitation by learning to raise her arms again, then learning to use her thigh muscles again. Eventually, she learned to crawl and then to walk with crutches. She never again regained complete use of her legs; however, she still wished to compete in dressage, so she told doubters, "Why can't my horse be my legs?" She started to compete, was successful, and qualified for the Olympics. Despite having to be helped onto and off her horse, she won the silver in dressage at both the 1952 and the 1956 Olympic Games. Each time she finished second to Sweden's Henry St. Cyr, and each time he helped her climb up to the second-place platform when the Olympic medals for dressage were handed out. Ms. Hartel lived this Danish proverb: "Life is not holding a good hand. Life is playing a poor hand well."

• Nahara Rodriguez' legs were paralyzed in an automobile accident, but she learned to swim again. One of the operations she underwent was for the purpose of implanting electrodes in her legs. Because she was paralyzed, she had no feeling in her legs, so she did not need anesthesia and stayed awake for the operation, watching "Pinocchio" as the doctors did what doctors do during an operation. The electrons helped her to stand up (a major accomplishment), but they had to be removed after her body began to reject them. In 1998, she won the Courage Award, which is given in honor of track-and-field athlete Wilma Rudolph. (She also competed in the 1998 Miss Pennsylvania American Junior Teen Pageant, where she finished among the top 10 and also won "Miss Personality.")

• Soprano Beverly Sells stopped singing and taking voice lessons after giving birth to two children with handicaps. Muffy, her daughter, was a happy child, but she suffered from deafness. Peter, her son, suffered from mental retardation. Ms. Sells devoted much time to her children, but eventually her husband thought that it would be best if she did more than look after and help their children. Therefore, for her 33rd birthday, he gave her 52 round-trip airplane tickets between Boston, where they lived, and New York, where Estelle Liebling, her voice teacher, lived. Ms. Sells began taking voice lessons again, and she began singing in public again.


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