Arthur Nierenberg, 75, activist who gave job training to disabled

April 08, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Arthur A. Nierenberg, a disabled activist who spent his life tearing down barriers to employment, died of a heart attack Thursday at Sinai Hospital. He was 75.

Mr. Nierenberg was a co-founder in 1952 of Abilities Inc. in Albertson, N.Y., which grew into a world-renowned work demonstration center that trained thousands of the seriously physically and mentally disabled for gainful employment in competitive industries.

"He challenged everything. He expanded our sense of what was possible," said Daniel F. Goldstein, a Baltimore lawyer and longtime friend. "Art had a passion for trying to communicate to people that he was to be defined by his abilities and not disabilities."

Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a butcher, Mr. Nierenberg was stricken at the age of 2 1/2 with polio, which affected his legs, right arm and chest.

"Because he was in a wheelchair, he wasn't allowed to attend high school until he learned how to wear braces and walk with crutches. I think that's what caused him to become a fighter," said his wife of 18 years, the former Susan Dean.

His parents became his advocates. His father taught him how to sail in Long Island Sound and outfitted a 16-foot sailboat with a special winch so the youth could hoist himself aboard. He became an accomplished sailor -- so much so, that his parents allowed him to take his brothers sailing.

His father also carried his son on his back to remote trout streams in upstate New York so he could teach him how to fish. Fishing became a lifelong passion for the younger Mr. Nierenberg.

He began his studies at Brooklyn College, which he left in 1949 to establish Art & Wood Co. with several other disabled people. The company, which is no longer in business, manufactured wooden children's furniture.

Three years later, he founded Abilities Inc., which included a training center for disabled adults and a school for severely disabled children. He later served as general manager and president of Abilities for 31 years before retiring in 1983.

That year, he co-founded the Breakthrough Project on Disability Inc., which later became Breakthrough Disability Inc. Through seminars, it teaches health care workers how to work with the disabled.

Amy M. Pleet, director of special education graduate programs at Towson University, met him 20 years ago after attending a seminar.

"He shifted and challenged my life," Dr. Pleet said. "It was like dropping a pebble in a pond, which causes ripples to travel outward. I shifted my students' lives, and they will shift the lives of others, and it's all because of Art."

A resident of Randallstown since 1987, Mr. Nierenberg also served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities and was a member of the Maryland Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He was an adjunct professor at Adelphi University, where he taught graduate courses on the adaptive process of physical and special education teachers.

Because he had fished in his wheelchair at several handicapped-accessible sites in New York before moving to Maryland, he wondered why no such facilities were available locally.

After turning to Trout Unlimited for help and working with the state Department of Natural Resources, an 80-foot-long wheelchair-accessible fly-fishing pier was built on Morgan Run in Carroll County. Opened in 1995, it was the first such facility in the state.

Tom O. Gamper, a Baltimore architect and former board member of Trout Unlimited, recalled Mr. Nierenberg's efforts on behalf of the disabled.

"How do you describe someone that heroic? He ... broke through any barriers that said he couldn't do something. He did more in his own life than most able-bodied individuals," Mr. Gamper said.

Though his hands were crippled from polio, he learned to tie his own flies. He also knew the rhythm of the seasons, which made him an expert angler, friends said.

"He taught an armless boy how to make ties and fish with his feet," Mr. Goldstein said. "He rigged up something for another young man who was paralyzed from the neck down so he could reel in his fish with his teeth. With Art, everything was possible."

In the 1930s, a physician had recommended that swimming several times a week was therapeutic. Mr. Nierenberg complied, swimming three days a week.

Mr. Nierenberg was an accomplished woodcarver and musician who played the cello. He also enjoyed gourmet cooking.

"He learned life was a gift and remained fully engaged so he wouldn't miss out on any part of it," Mr. Goldstein said.

At his death, he was completing a memoir, You Can't Build A Bridge From One Side of the River. The family hopes the book will be published this year.

"The memoir tells the story of how a disabled child and young man was able to cross the bridge from the world of disability to the world of people," Mr. Nierenberg wrote. "It is to enable the reader to become aware of the chasm between these worlds."

He hoped that his life and book would encourage parents raising children with a disability and teachers in special education and would inform the "millions of individuals who see disability as something fearsome, uncomfortable and something to avoid."

Services were held Sunday.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Matthew C. Nierenberg of Randallstown and Saul "Buddy" Nierenberg of Holbrook, N.Y.; three daughters, Linda Eichler of North Hills, N.Y., Ilene Kaye and Myra Ameigh, both of West Palm Beach, Fla.; two brothers, Norman Nierenberg of Boca Raton, Fla., and Ben Nierenberg of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; a sister, Marion Waxman of New York City; and six grandchildren. His first marriage ended in divorce.

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