A vast and sad gap in humanity

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

May 21, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Rebecca Ladew has cerebral palsy and it shows.

Her head is cocked at an angle.

Her body is hunched and twisted.

She needs a cane to walk.

Her speech is slurred, tortured, punctuated by erratic fits and starts as she struggles to get her words out.

Sometimes she closes her eyes -- so great is the apparent effort to speak. Sometimes she is forced to spell the word she wants. Sometimes spittle appears on her lips which she quickly wipes away.

I know that this is a brutal description of Rebecca Ladew and I apologize to her.

But I cannot observe the usual niceties here, for if I do, you are sure to miss the point about this northeast Baltimore woman.

You see, there is a vast and yawning gulf between the way Rebecca Ladew appears and the way she is.

Apparently, this is a very hard concept for handicapped persons like Ladew to get across: that they are human beings, sovereign individuals, with feelings, and quirks and talents that can be tapped.

Ladew is 49 years old -- bright, intelligent, and affable. She has an associate of arts from the Community College of Baltimore and bachelor's and master's degrees in instructional technology from Towson State University. She has won awards and commendations for her school work and her internships.

But, throughout her entire life, her entire life, no employer has ever seen fit to hire her, to make use of her abilities and talents and the bright sunshine of her personality.

"I want you to know," she said, "that employers look at a handicapped person's disabilities, not their abilities."

She speaks as I've described, but it doesn't take long to understand her.

"Does that make you angry?" I asked.

"More frustrated than angry," she replied, "because I know I had the skills. I know I could do it, do anything I put my mind to, but they didn't give me the chance to do it. All my friends had jobs."

"What type of person are you?" I asked, although I already had formed my own opinion. She seemed, on short acquaintance, cheerful and energetic. She laughed readily -- a quick, good natured giggle, covering her mouth and looking away, coquettishly, like a school girl.

"I'm very outgoing," she said giving her school girl's giggle. "I try to get along with other people, probably because I like people so much.

"I'm a lot like my father," she said. "He was a very likable person, a gentleman's gentleman. He could go into any situation and get along with other people. If I were able to talk a little better, I think I'd be very much like him."

While at Towson, Ladew found her professional niche -- writing and customizing educational software.

She waxed poetic -- sounding like the quintessential computerphile -- about the thrill of delving into programs, rooting out their flaws, and devising clever ways of correcting them. The problem has been persuading someone to let her do it for a living.

Starting this June, Ladew will get her chance.

She has been a volunteer at a literacy program at the League for the Handicapped, customizing interactive reading programs for other handicapped people. Now, the league has found the funding to make hers a paying position.

Ladew sees this as just the beginning for her. "I don't intend to stop here," she said.

Here, by the way, is a story within a story. The league has found that many, many handicapped adults have never learned to read and write simply because no one really bothered to teach them.

And they have found that stories such as Ladew's are the norm: intelligent, talented people who are unable to employ their abilities because employers are loathe to give them the opportunity. The place is like a mother lode of untapped potential.

"People are afraid of people with disabilities, uncomfortable in their presence," said Michelle Hughes, the league's director of developmental operations.

"Yet with Becky you have a person who is middle class, intelligent, well educated, has all of the family support systems, has a delightful personality -- but for one fluke at birth she cannot have what she should have."

And that is why I have taken such pains to describe Ladew's twisted limbs, the contortions of her face when she speaks.

It doesn't hurt us to look fully upon her or upon others like her.

And once we really open our eyes and look, we can see at last that the disabled are more -- much, much more -- than the sum total of their handicaps.

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