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Role Models I Never Knew

After a little reflection, all of us can name those people who had had the greatest influence on our lives: parents, favorite teachers, etc. Sometimes, however, people who only touch our lives very briefly may have a significant impact as well.

When I think of why I grew up without believing there were the usual limitations associated with visual impairment, I realize that my attitudes were shaped, at least in part, by a number of people whom I never really knew and who were never aware of the impact they had.

Although they began raising a child in the 1940s, a generation before any disability rights legislation, my parents quietly communicated a belief in my potential. I suspect that they would have done this anyway, but two very fleeting experiences earlier in their lives undoubtedly reinforced this belief. My father remembered a female law student at the University of Illinois in the 1930s who was paraplegic from polio. I’m not entirely sure whether her disability or being an active member of the Communist Party made her more memorable, but Dad recalled the difficulties she had getting around a campus littered with architectural barriers and how she refused to let her disability limit her horizons. As far as I know, the only blind people my mother knew before my birth was a blind couple she saw going to work every day in downtown Columbus, Ohio in the Great Depression. These encounters were such that I doubt my parents ever knew the names of the people they described, but their self-reliance and ability to live normal lives made a lasting impression that was passed on to me decades later.

Growing up on a steady diet of “Perry Mason” programs every Saturday night, I was convinced at a young age that I wanted to be an attorney. I was sure I would win all my cases and save lots of innocent, beautiful women. At age twelve or fourteen, I knew that the law was an achievable goal because every two years one of our local judges, Judge Riddel got re-elected. I had no idea what it was that he did as a judge, but he was always one of the big vote-getters, and he was blind.

I had a vague awareness that you had to “practice” law before becoming a judge but I knew that Kay Arvin, who was blind, was a well-respected member of the Wichita bar. The novelty of her being both a woman in a male-dominated profession, as well as being visually impaired, just reinforced my belief that I, too, could also be a lawyer. I never met the Judge and was only briefly introduced to Ms. Arvin many years later, but their example touched my life at an impressionable age.

But, it was a high-school buddy of my father’s who had the most lasting impact on me when I was young. Proc Richie contracted polio only a few years before the development of the vaccine that prevented the disease. Although he was left quadriplegic, he was an active member of the family construction business, active in the community, and maintained all his many friendships from high school and college.

I only remember being introduced to him two or three times, the first time when I was an impressionable seven year-old. One of my mother’s sayings, passed down to her from her mother in the Depression, was “Don’t complain; there’s always someone who has it worse than you.” I’m sure I never gave that a second thought until the day I first met Proc. All of a sudden, at age seven, I understood.

What strikes me as most interesting about these anecdotes is that no one ever pointed to any of these people as object lessons. No parent or teacher ever said, “Look at so-and-so; you can do that too.” What they did and how they did it was far more important, but each of them, without ever being aware of it, contributed to my belief that I could live a successful and independent life. Whenever I think of these people and what they unknowingly gave me, I’m reminded that all of us have the capacity to make a positive contribution to the life of someone else whether we are ever aware of it or not.

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