Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Last night a man was hit by a car

How much of your time is a human life worth? 20 seconds? 30? A man was hit  by a car while crossing West University Avenue last night and the driver never stopped. I was on my way home last night when I saw a larger group of people standing in the middle of the road, from time to time screaming at drivers from either lane when they got to close. I thought their friend passed out or they were drunk themselves. When the police arrived it turned out they were doing something truly amazing. When they walked away I could see an older man with white hair and a longer beard on the ground. As it turned out they were waiting for paramedics and were afraid to move him so they decided to protect him with their own bodies by forming a circle around him. One of the girls described the car to the police and said that it was going really fast. She saw the man and when she realized what was about to happen she felt she wanted to grab him. It all happen in the Durrty Nelly's area it felt like they were all coming from Fubar or Mars with more of their friends joining them in in the matter of minutes. The man seemed aware but wasn't moving. The girl also mentioned a red light and that the car kept on going but I couldn't make out whose light it was. The driver nearly killed someone because they wanted to be somewhere else and fast. For some reason we always believe we're gonna make it. We overestimate our abilities, we forget that there are people  in  traffic, sometimes older, sometimes disabled, sometimes slower that may not react as quickly to the incoming drivers. That's when accidents happen- when you don't adjust your speed, your driving to conditions on the road.  I did see the police car taking off and speeding down University Avenue to find those responsible.

I always say that life is a series of almost hits and near misses. And I experienced it myself Monday night. I was crossing University by 8th to get to The Laboratory Cafe when the light changed leaving me in the middle lane just as I was entering another. The car that waited for me to go  started to move full speed at the one behind him didn't stop. The traffic resumed both ways with me in my wheelchair trapped in the middle. I shouted for some bystanders to press the button for me  when a man decided to walk up and stop the cars for me. The intersection was well lit, I'm sure they saw me trying to cross in my wheelchair. But they were not to be bothered, they were in a hurry with good Samaritans saving the day. And I try to avoid close calls as much as I can- I don't cross at the last second or in front of large vehicles. Yet still, sometimes you're out of luck.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Ron Paul: Americans with Disabilities Act should have never been enacted

I consider the ADA one of the most significant accomplishments in the legal legacy of the United States. It's important to note that the legislation received support from both sides of political isle. A product of the civil rights movement associated with the left it was signed into law by George Bush with further amendments passed under Bush junior. I think it's important to take any ADA discussions out of political affiliation context as support for it has been broad if not universal. That's why I found it surprising that a prominent  politician  with an otherwise very appealing platform spoke so fiercely against it. I understand why he would say that, but I also see the flaw in his logic.  As much as I like the man I will speak up when I think he's wrong.

The act places a number of burdens and limitations on private businesses, extends the powers of the government, creates additional administration, increases spending on programs and control, while Paul's platform aims at limiting the government and empowering individuals by lifting the restrictions placed on them. The problem with that reasoning is that there is no substitution for the ADA that would allow me to lead an active life in my wheelchair. I've heard stands on disability legislation  similar to Paul's  from a number of Polish economically liberal politicians before. Instead of programs that would require accessibility and job creation they would call for the government to stay out and offer tax cuts for families allowing them to remodel the house or get a wheelchair accessible van.  While I don't know what Ron Paul's whose integrity I have always admired views on every one of those particular issues are, I see how it would fit the strict economic liberalism doctrine.  As a person with a disability I can say that such measures are not sufficient. I don't want to rely on my family to be able to move around. I want to achieve my own goals using my own body and my own intellect. If it wasn't for the ADA I wouldn't be able to ride a bus because I couldn't get on it. I wouldn't go into a store, a movie theatre or a coffee shop because I would be faced with stairs. I would not even cross the street if there wasn't a ramp with a proper angle.

 You could always say that business owners would eventually see the need to have a number of those things in place because they would recognize that disabled people are customers too, but that is a naive thing to say. Wheelchairs are not inventions of the last 20 years, people with disabilities have been around forever and yet it didn't motivate places were not accessible until they were forced by law.  There was nothing stopping the architects from including these types of solution 30, 40 years ago. Except for the cost- you will not spend money until you have to.  It's not that people in wheelchairs decided to come out of the shadows in the last 20 years because of some global awareness. It's that we we're finally given the right kind of support. ADA has done wonders for people with disabilities, their empowerment, opportunities and ego. The pure economic liberalism doctrine was pretty much abandoned when it became obvious that you simply can't leave the market to regulate itself although it makes a nice theory. You need some form of oversight and regulation to prevent abuse and level the field . Some things look good on paper. Like when I read about the calls to get rid of social security/mandatory retirement programs from different part of the world. It sounds nice to say,  you keep the money  and make your own future, but what happens if you're not smart, you blow it and you're left with nothing? Should we just let you die? Or should we just let you become a burden and just plan for it beforehand?

 I understand the fear of American right wing politicians of creating new special interest groups and elevating new minorities. But what ADA does is not simply giving perks from having some diagnosis but it's essential to self realization and independent living. Imagine not being able to do anything by yourself through no fault of your own and letting your intellect and energy go to waste. I guess the ADA critics would say tough luck, you are in a wheelchair get used to it. Or wait 20 years, maybe someone will decide to put a ramp in someday. It's very dangerous to attack a bill that created a wealth of opportunity for many like me, especially if the comments come from people who can never fully relate or are affected by it. It is very disappointing because I believe that Paul is a capable politician and I would like to see many of his ideas implemented. Some of his most extreme positions are very unlikely to gain political support if he was elected so it's not that the future of ADA would be in jeopardy anyway, but it's sad that he fails to understand how it transformed our reality?

If anything I think ADA is very smart in its holistic approach. That it regulates issues all across the board. That it introduces standards everyone abides. That it addresses issues before they become major social problems. And that it spreads the cost of creating a more accessible reality rather than having it burden the budget.  And it is a trade off- if you don't have ramps you get an entire population that is disenfranchised from public life and completely dependent on others. If you don't make provisions in education which is a great equalizer you're not giving an important segment of the society a fighting chance. And I think it's better to have people work than to have them collect unemployment even if some of the policies are a pain to deal with. And I think inclusion and self realization of people with disabilities are key not only to their well being but a better society in general. Because it's easy to say, the government shouldn't deal with this area area or impose strict standards, but if we didn't set it up properly it would  snowball to a point where it becomes a bigger and more costly problem. And we know by then it would come back to rely on public money.

Friday, January 27, 2012

American Dream is not over.

Seven years ago I moved to America to forge my own path. Everything I am I owe to the hard work and support of my family as well as my own determination. I was in a wheelchair, by myself, in a strange country fighting for what I felt was my life and my future. Nobody gave me anything. I had to face a lot of rejection at the law school and a complete lack of understanding from immigration. I was pushing, pleading , stressing for years and I refused to give up. I was successful, but not a day goes by without me thinking that it could've easily gone the other way. Because sometimes things don't work out and then you need a a different plan. I came out of those struggles in many ways on top, but in some ways broken and most definitely humbled. I try to work hard, but have no expectations.

 Barack Obama believes that "American Dream" is in trouble. I disagree. Life is and has always been what you make it. I'm living mine. I think a lot of it has to do with the misconception of what this "dream" is. It seems to me that many people have sense of entitlement.  They feel they deserve to have what they have their sights on, to be in a better place. And they get frustrated. I understand frustration. I have fought for many years to become an attorney and get my green card. I felt stressed, trapped and misunderstood. Even today I look at the Foundation I'm involved with and I think that after all the hard work it should be well known, recognized and financially successful. We're not there yet and sometimes I feel like I'm failing myself, the Klausners and all the kids I should be helping but can't reach. But it only makes me work harder. Regroup. For nothing comes to you without hard work simply because you feel it's your time to shine and you deserve it. Sometimes you work hard and you seem to do all the right things and still you're not getting the pay off. I don't think that the "American Dream" was ever meant to allude that you will always get it, every time. A myth popularized by the media, I'm sure that for every success story there are countless others who crashed and burned. Because hard work is not enough. We also need opportunity  and luck. A lot of times it's about the right circumstances.

 Now, don't get me wrong- I'm not rich and often I struggle, and my American Dream is to help kids with my type of disability. I worked on my body, I worked on my intellect to get better and I went through law school in a foreign country to give myself the edge. And yet I struggle still. But I would never dream to blame others or look to what other people have thinking I should have what they do because they have enough! Nor would I dare to occupy anything. There are so many false  assumptions about what the American Dream should be. America... it's not the land, it's not something in the water or air that makes people successful. Yes, it helps to be here because the bureaucracy is smaller and taxes more " user friendly" than many other countries, but a place can only do so much to give you an advantage. And I feel that some  Americans are so caught up in the noble ideas of  " The Dream", hope, change freedom and liberty that they begin to think of them not as goals that we should all aspire to be, but reality they demand. I make my own change, I always have faith and I never look to other people to give me hope. And sometimes we need to accept failure.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Police

A man got up during the prejudice forum I was a part of last year to ask a question . It was more like an emotionally charged statement directed at the forum and public alike. He asked the panel to comment on "the war the police declared against our black men".  A lot of people were offended by the wording, but I could see his point. Race, color, as well as other  characteristics of minorities are definitely prominent factors in a lot of these situations. While "war" is as I take it a figure of speech and a broad overstatement one could write a book or teach a class about potentially abusive behavior in police practice  that raise a lot of constitutional concerns. I remember studying a lot of cases like that in law school and they were not solemnly about race. Every time there was a minority with a potential of falling through the cracks because of their weaker position that exposed them to some kind of mistreatment it did. It's easy to fall through the cracks. Children, women, people with mental health problems all encountered some issues with the police, be it about their right to remain silent or right to counsel and in a lot of those cases courts sided with law enforcement in what felt like curving into Miranda and Massiah. One of the more interesting scenarios involved the police lying to the attorney that his client was in custody, using tricks to get a confession and arresting a woman for a non prisonable offense.

The feeling is that the police have a lot of power, and even my criminal practice professor fell victim to some racial profiling or greater interest from officers because of his skin color. Being different seems to put you at more And I can relate to some extent. When a couple of years ago I was waiting on a bus at night an officer came up, asked me for my ID and checked something on the radio. What was going through his mind I have no idea, I assume he might've thought I was in trouble. Insulting and presumptuous? Sure. But I prefer them being impolite than being affraid to ask, because one day someone might be in trouble. Last  year a police car stopped me on my way to my downtown apartment. "Do you live here"- they asked and when I said yes, they waited until I got on my sidewalk to the door and then drove away. I guess they thought I was homeless and couldn't wrap their minds around the concept that someone like me lives in such a nice neighborhood. I wasn't looking for cigarettes on the ground or going through trash, what was the point of stopping me? I might be oversensitive, although I really don't think so, but I'm not imagining things.  And I think a lot of those issues have to do with awareness and education but personal traits like consideration, sensitivity and kindness as well.

Then I got to think about the young man with  Cerebral Palsy who was pulled out of his chair during London riots. I'd like to think such a thing could never  have happened in Gainesville. But I remembered the scandal, the long months of press coverage and subsequent firings when a graduate student from Africa I  believe, ended up in a hospital in a severe condition after he came across local law enforcement. But what I think is this. You do need to be rough around the edges and have a certain type of personality to go into this profession. A lot of men in the service are my friends.  Would I say that all the people on the force are necessarily the most educated, open minded and kind?  Not really. But I also know that when harm happens we are not looking for somebody delicate, but someone to protect us. Someone who can be effective, catch the crook and bring justice. To an extent it comes at a price. I do believe that it's a trade off. I don't excuse abuse of power, but  I understand where the close calls come from. And when I'm stopped going home next time I'm less annoyed, because I may need help one day myself.                                                                                                                                      

Monday, January 23, 2012

Now and then: These friends of mine (2006)

It's a funny thing with people in your life. One day your best friends and the next thing you know it's five years later, they have kids, got married and you wonder when has the time gone. Back then I was so excited to meet these people.  Now I haven't been even  included in their weddings, I didn't even know they were dating. I was so focused on myself, on my own struggles and battles that I let my life and people pass me by, although when I first got here I swore I never would. Could it be that we grow out of friends like we grow out of jeans? I've been so caught up with the stress of my mission to get into law school again, then to get my green card, the constant fear of what immigration will do to me and then the bar exam that I haven't noticed that they had their lives too and they grew  out of me. Most people hope for a normal life, to have a family to have kids, to leave a mark, maybe grow a tree... I never had dreams like that. And I still think  that the only thing that lasts is the people you touch and the good that you do. I  don't care for great wealth, but I wanna help people. And live my life one day at a time. This is a note of mine I dug up on Facebook six years ago. Oddly I haven't been keeping in touch with anyone in it, except for one person and these people have shaped my life:
I made great friends in Gainesville, wonderful people who have touched my life. They've included me in their lives and cared about me not because of what I did, where I came from, who I knew or dated but because of who I was. For that I will always be grateful. But it's something about me that has changed in the process. Coming here I got a clean slate- nobody knew who I was or anything about me, so I had the power to become who I wanted to be. No more sadness- I vowed and decided to be more open, welcoming, warm and outgoing. Florida sun made me glad to be alive. It's been months since I felt like this. I would make friends in most unusual places. I remember going to an international fraternity meeting in the Fall of 04 at Mellow Mushroom but ending up meeting a soldier who just got back to town from Iraq. Recently divorced, he was excited about his daughter Nova, and he even had her name tattooed on his arm. I never made it to that meeting, we talked for two hours. Hey, people were always the most important element in my life. Josh Kaller is in my inner circle of friends and I met him at a bus stop. Needless to say it was after 2 am, so the bus we waited for never came. He called his friends and they eventually drove us home. Forget party buses! It was a party car... but that's another story. Over a year later Josh would sit with me at the law school and watch me write my LLM paper four days and nights without sleep. I would then watch him write his two projects and step in whenever he started flirting with the girls too much. Josh took me to one of my LSAT exams... an hour late and he finished packing up my old room when I passed out on the floor after I was doing it for 36 hours straight. If I'm ever down on faith or want to talk about God, my purpose or the essence of being, Josh is the one to call.
Ravi Pattel, who I met Friday night at the Reitz quickly became my friend, and he knew all the right people in the section, so he introduced me to a lot of people. He used to say that there's something about me that attracts others to gather around me. I wish I believed that. He helped me get a lawyer after a bus run me over in 2004 and teased me passionately for being Polish. An Indian making fun of a Pole how precious was that? He made me make up all kinds of silly things about women's situation in Poland only to annoy Sara Denny and it worked!

I wasn't too eager to get involved in the law school things. I was skeptical about getting a group of friends. Interpersonal relations are always evolving on a one-on-one basis, rather than a group. Michael Eatroff's emails made him sound.... well, pretty lame and dorky, what can I say. I ended up going to one of his pre-parties by accident, and lame it wasn't. I like people with sense of humor and self irony, so naturally he quickly became one of my closest friends. It was Michael who took me to my first LSAT in his pajamas parked in front of my Camelot apartment at 6:20 sharp. I remember him telling me about this girl he really liked. It was a pretty, warm, Indian lady named Katrina (not to be confused with Catrina who also appears in this story). Ms. Thomas quickly joined our ranks. But what I never counted on was the fact that, while Michael gained a girlfriend I gained a true friend in her. Katrina never loses her optimism and her faith in me. She reminds to go to church, which I never do (Hey, anybody willing to give me a ride sunday?) And she's there to listen to my incoherent mubling. I cheer her on and I'm proud of everything she's accomplished. Michael and Katrina were the ones who saw me vulnerable in Puerto Rico when I went down the hill and hit myself on the head ending up in ER. The Eatroff days were really crazy. I know Katrina or to me "Katie" might not like to reminded of all that but for me those were the happy times. And my face healed up after three days anyway. We would go drinking, bowling, hookah smoking or whatever else Michael thought of at the moment. We would discover a new bar or a club every time, sometimes do two or three in one night.From X's to Alley Katz we were all over the map. Does anyone remember the time when I broke that martini glass the night Mike met Katrina? How about when I broke (yup, I break things apparently) the hookah pipe at Farrah's? And who could forget our tequila shots at fUs?. Michael lead us to Daytona for the races we knew nothing about, to his mansion in Tampa for the Superbowl - the two Poles and one French guy knew nothing about. Eatroff took us to Puerto Rico although Katrina did all the planning, and Grace Kim, Adina, Jenny and Grant Watson joined us for the most amazing Spring Break ever.

The original brat pack consisted of essential ingredients: me, Michael, Katrina, Diego Puig and Olivier. Diego is a really cool Puerto Rican guy that would drink too much, get wild and then sad. But then again, he grew up here. We love him still, though at one point he stuck a burning cigarette in my ear. I blame Michael's white Russians and jello shots. Olivier was like my silent French sidekick, a good friend and a silent supporter. I remember he was an excellent cook and wanted to have a restaurant. Yet, he decided to go back and have a career in Paris. His girlfriend was there and he loved her deeply. Olivier has got to be the only person who appeared to be in pain while watching the movie version Phantom of the Opera. Grant became my closest friend, but I bet Katrina would blush if she heard our 12-yearold-boys style conversations. Then again she knows us.

Ying Jang - the crazy Chinese girl would join us for some events. Alcohol would cause her to run around screaming "I'm drunk, I'm drunk", and Diego flirted with her which thankfully neither of them remembered. But if I ever needed a ride or a Spanish speaking lawyer I called Diego. Ying had a talent of making all the Asian guys in town do exactly what she wanted, which was really helpful if we needed a car. Tired of listening to Grant telling me that girls "suck" I introduced them and now they're getting married!

We did 8 seconds twice, but Alex Thomas really hated it so we left quickly.
Michael wanted to go to UC but we never got to do it. I did it by myself in the fall of 2005 shaking at first. It's a small town, and that's a gay bar and I'm hard to miss. What would the bus drivers say who are with me on first day basis. And truth be told nobody here cares who does what. Our friend even wanted to try out as a female entertainer after assuring us that he's very straight and macho but that never happened.

Michael made me realize not only how important it is to balance studying and fun but he gave me memories. This is what I will look back on when I'm old and grey.
New semester, new friends: Ben Stetler: quiet, warm cynical genius. Just watch him land that Supreme Court gig! He kicked me in the right spot annd that fueled me up to keep me going. Jan Suggs and Catrina Campana, the two girls I love but don't know well. But they will type anything to make my jaw drop. I remember how much fun we all had in Property and try as she may it wasn't the instructor's take on the material. Thank you Frisco and Brian Ellison for the amazing support in difficult times. I guess it's true what Josh said that soon enough my friends will come together. I have no idea who Holly Miller is but her picture makes her look like an escaped Pussycat doll so I really wanted to tag her ;). If we succeed I hope to get to know most of you better.
Isn't the multicultural experience amazing? I know people from Saudi Arabia and Afriaca. Catholics and Jews, even those damn democrats. I learn from you all.

I would like to thank the people who were too different than me to be in my life at this point, Adina, Maciej Szymanski, John Trimarco and also Stephen Brown for my first Thanksgiving dinner.

My friends I used to think how great it would be to be 19 again and go to UF as an undergrad. I take it back. I'm proud of everything we are and everything we accomplished. We can still party like it's 1999 but we are driven and we have goals. Having spent time with 19-yearolds I feel I'm not very much like them. I love you all and I will watch your moves. For now to all of you, all of me. Let's make new memories Thursday.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

And I am not always fine.

My parents did whatever they could so I'd feel as "normal" as possible. When I was little and my cousins went on running in my grandfathers orchard my mom picked me up under my arms and I played with them. All my classmates from my elementary school had seen me crawl, exercise or in a wheelchair since we first met so through the years for everybody in my life my Cerebral Palsy wasn't anything unusual. It was the normal state. It was obvious and understood that I did things differently but I really didn't feel that different from anybody else. And 'till this day I really don't consider my disability a major problem. It's not something I think about, it's not something I analyze. It isn't until I see reactions of other people that it becomes a big deal. It's true, that it's their problem, not mine, but when they become uncomfortable, so do I. It wasn't until I moved to America, that I got into all those hang out spots with my friends that I actually begun thinking about how people perceive and what they think. I saw the stares, I saw the odd looks when I would get on the dance floor just to have fun. And sometimes, even as I was not feeling it I would make myself do it anyway, maybe not to show them, but to have fun regardless of what they think . Being in a club when you stand out as much as I do, when people look at you as if you just landed from Mars can be a pretty stressful experience.  They are also crowded and sweaty and have narrow halls, you end up running over people's feet and you really need to be thick skinned as you go. Other than getting out of the house  and trying to do something fun it felt like making a statement. I AM HERE AND I ACCEPT MYSELF.  It's something else trying to live in a college town dominated by the bar scene full of very young people.And as I grow older I do those things less and less. I'm okay with myself most times. But there are days when I don't have the energy for it, that I don't wanna feel like the odd man out trying to blend in and I think that's okay also. I'm not staking out new territory anymore and I mostly stick to venues that receive me well. A friend I was getting drinks with at a bar couldn't understand why I was being loud at a very noisy club. Then he understood. I'm easy to be overlooked, the bartender may easily ignore me while people bump into me or literally walk all over me. It can be a very hostile setting. All of that requires energy that I don't have all the time. Especially if I want to have an entertaining night. But maybe I don't feel I have to make a point anymore.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Florida Bar wants me to switch to GEICO

There's a certain amount of fear when I open my mailbox to find a letter from the Florida Bar.  What now? How much money do I owe? It's got to be official business, right? Otherwise it would not have the organization's official seal on it. Wrong! This time the Bar wanted to introduce me to the great benefits I'm missing out on if I don't  switch my car insurer. It was an offer from GEICO and it even had some additional flyer inside falling out. It was basically not very much unlike the everyday junkmail  that company sends in their own envelope but with the Bar's seal on it. To my readers from outside America GEICO is an insurance company that vows in it's campaigns to save money in ten minutes or less and uses funny commercials starring a talking gecko with a British accent as its spokesperson. Now I don't drive and I don't have a car, but this is not the point.  Few senders make me sweat as much as the Bar (IRS would be the other one and in fact I also found a letter from them today) and to have them use that authority in that way leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It is one thing if they negotiate and inform me of retirement plans or health benefits tailored for the betterment of the profession across the board, it is something completely different when they let private vendors  push their commercial products on me. What's next? Furniture? Toasters? Coupons for free pizza with membership? I've been dealing with a similar kind of issues ever since Wachovia became Wells Fargo-  my mailbox became populated with life insurance or roadside assistance  offers and I could even get a free GPS, something Wachovia has never done. But then again, Florida Bar is not a bank, it's not a business, and they perform important, justice related functions crucial to the state...

Friday, January 13, 2012

In the press

On Thursday, my picture appeared in a newspaper again- page 4B of the "Gainesville Sun". It was taken at the non profit expo where I was explaining the benefits of Conductive Education and the potential it holds for Cerebral Palsy children. [See it here]
For that reason I decided to share the links to some of the prior pieces written about me in one place. It will help you understand my background, my story and my  passions:
In 2011 I was nominated for the Spirit of Gainesville Award [Read]
In 2010, IN Site Magazine named me one of Gainesville 18 most interesting people of 2009 [Read]
In 2008, Alligator dedicated its spread to my story [Read]
In 2008 The Gainesville Sun published an article about my immigration issues [Read]
and in 2006 about my problems with LSAT accommodations [Read]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Network'd.... for disabilities

A few weeks ago I started a campaign asking my friends to share a message on their social media networks that we are looking for children with disabilities to offer our free services to. The idea was simple- as one person  becomes interested enough to write about it to their own words with an explanation, hopefully someone from their circle will see it and do the same. That way, a cause spreads. Ideally of course we would hear about some Cerebral Palsy from the area. However for me it was more a device to get the word out. To tell people that we exist and what our work is. To get people to think about Cerebral Palsy, how they see it, what they know about it and what they assume. I also wanted to give my friends an opportunity to stand behind a cause that isn't asking them for money. We turn away from charity work because everybody wants us to give, give and give. It's a tough economy, but clicking doesn't cost money or require  much involvement. There's no reason not to help. Nearly 500 people read the text over the holidays.

But this experiment also showed me that I can find something else- new connections that open me to new opportunities, things I didn't even think of before. That I can network with people all over the State and the country. Our search got me in touch with most unexpected people. Like a marketer in New York, a law student with CP and another non profit in Florida that deals with that disability. And it got me to think that we should do something together. That there is a lot of small local nonprofits out there that got started because somebody's child hand Cerebral Palsy. One small voice is hard to hear, but when we act in concert, we can bring awareness. If you have Cerebral Palsy, I want to hear from you. Share your success story with me. If you have a CP nonprofit, I want to hear from you. Tell me what can I do to help your cause in your area and I will do it.  I don't drive, but if you need me there, I'll make myself available if you need to bring me to the area. I'll gladly talk about my experiences and do media appearances if you can arrange it. Tell me how we can coordinate our efforts to shed the stigma. Maybe we can  launch joint campaigns, maybe we can  fundraise together? Email me, we're wasting time already!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The restaurant.

You get used to doing a lot of things differently when you are in a wheelchair. When you visit a venue you often enter through a side or a backdoor because the owners decided to impress customers with elaborate stair designs. Parts of clubs and pubs have entire sections and floors that are not accessible to you, stages have no ramps because those  places were  running  before the ADA and codes were enacted, grandfathering them in. Most of the problems that I've encountered involve really old businesses in really old buildings. Still, even in those scenarios the owners usually try to do something to accommodate their customers in wheelchairs. It's better for business to let customers in rather than keep them out by artificial barriers. I rarely find those kind of problems in newly renovated and open places. But I did Friday night.

My friend and I decided to grab a bite at the Smokehouse Restaurant during their inaugural week. I know one of the people who works as a cook there and he did a really good job circulating invitations on Facebook. It wasn't something we were planning in advance to do; rather a spur of the moment decision. I knew I would not go through the main door as it had a giant step in front of it. I remembered seeing a sign a couple of days before  that wheelchair access was through the other door so I wasn't too worried. There was no sign of this sign when we finally arrived. The host although very endearing had no idea what to do with us. My friend even  offered to lift me and pull me up through the door. It seemed for a minute that nobody there knew where the other entrance was as the greeter was checking with other people. After a while somebody showed up to lead us to the gate of the Luna club next door. We went through a cluttered courtyard that wasn't lit. The waiter, I assume, that's who he was was using a flashlight so we could see our path to the side of the building. It was obvious, as nice as everybody was, that they were not expecting to have a customer in a wheelchair. They didn't plan to have anyone see this area as it had more of a hidden backyard feel. There was no light, no signs and it wasn't cleared for customers to walk by.  It didn't seem like a proper entrance. On our way out my friend simply decided to help down the step rather than going through this complicated procedure again. I was surprised by this experience. Again, I'm used seeing many unorthodox solutions. I did not expect them to rebuild their front door. This is a new business and a new construction  however- Smokehouse opened after many months of remodeling of the building that previously housed Rue Bar- a dance venue. In the age of the ADA and modern building codes I expect the staff to at least know what to do and be ready for a customer in a wheelchair. Maybe then my appearance wouldn't cause such a consternation.

But of course there are other places in Gainesville  that have all kinds of ADA and accessibility  related problems. Rockey's Duelling Pianos  Bar doesn't have a ramp to their stage [typically the law requires a specified length of a ramp per every inch up of the stage in Florida] and this is a new construction, oddly located next door to Code Enforcement; Double Down Live! is not too concerned with their stage either while Looseys has a 3-step on the way to the bar.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The need for legal services

How can you enforce your rights if you don't know what they are? How can you find the right person to advise you if you don't know where to go? James Klausner has been thinking about establishing a legal services division within his organization from the moment he realized how difficult placing children with disabilities in the school system can be. He  was looking for a local attorney with great expertise in a very limited field. He wanted to find somebody to help the parents negotiate with the school boards and take other steps if necessary,  but also to advise them and educate them on their rights. A lot of the parents were not very knowledgeable in the subject and needed guidance. Some would not even think to talk to an expert even if they could find one. Because to seek help you must know you've been wronged. Dr Klausner was looking for an attorney who focused his practice around education related provisions of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (504RA). To his surprise he had an incredibly hard time finding anyone in this part of the State who did that at all and I believe he found one person quite a drive away. He felt that although we have free legal services programs in Florida their practice is too broad and their time and knowledge too limited to handle such delicate matter. He also thought that there could be a lot that parents could do by themselves if they were told what to do.

  This is how I got involved with The Jordan Klausner Foundation. Using my law license and my own experiences with disability to launch this program. Don't get me wrong. I was more the willing to become a spoke person of sorts for Conductive Education as what the Foundation is doing now for the kids is what I went through as a child, and with my functionality I guess you can call me a success story. I don't mind talking about my experiences and I'm determined to make it work. But my motivation for going into this is a bit different, more personal. I've seen many ADA related problems, some affecting me with people often looking the other way. I've even threatened to sue the local transit system when after calling in a complaint I was told that the ADA non compliant driver did nothing wrong and that was the way there have been trained for years. I wanted to make sure  this would not happen again and didn't  really care to go into a legal battle. I heard what I wanted to hear, only after I disclosed I was an attorney. But this got me thinking. How many times, in how many situations are people with disabilities brushed off, told they don't have a complaint even though they do because they are poor or uneducated or will simply believe what they are told? They will never think about going to see an attorney. Even if they could afford it, they first need to know they should speak with a professional. How can you fight for your rights when you don't know what they are? This is the problem with institutions like Three Rivers Legal Services. You need to come to them. And to do that, you need to know something was wrong. I think we need a more proactive solution. I would like to establish an ADA rights traveling workshop that would drive around the State to teach people not only what their rights are, but how to protect them. I want to take James Klausner's idea and make it broader. Not only about children, not simply about education. Because the needs of the disability community are bigger. I have seen so many bizarre things in this city alone. From wheelchaired riders banned from the city bus [was there some some kind of a decision? Can they appeal it?] to new businesses openly disobeying the ramp to stage requirements. I can pick up on those things because I know to look for them. But how many things  go unnoticed? I invite attorneys, fundraisers, sponsors and community organizers to join me in this effort. Without a structure and yes, without money we will never get this project to take off. Please contact me rstrzalkowski@jordanklausner.org or Facebook me at http://www.facebook.com/rstrzal 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Get out of Gainesville!"

... said a girl Monday night when she heard I was an attorney- "You would be much further and more successful anywhere else". We had a brief conversation while I was getting ready to go home after a night of karaoking and drinks. And I can't stop thinking about it. Although she might be mistaken as to how easy is to get ahead in the legal profession I can't say this isn't something that hasn't been on mind ever since I took my oath of attorney. Should I be here or should I start elsewhere. Maybe there is a place for me where things would be easier for me and I wouldn't struggle as much. And is there place where I would finally be content and say, this is where I need to be. I feel that partially this is the drama of the first generation immigrants with virtually no family in the United States. No particular reason to stay here, no real need to move. I could pick any random place on a map and just start from there. Bigger city would create greater opportunities for sure. Torn between here and elsewhere, with one foot in Florida, the other in Poland, I'm waiting for the next big thing. "Move. You should only vacation in Gainesville" the girl continued, "You will not get your big break here." "It's a good place to learn, but then you need to get away, while you're young". Have I been letting my fear hold  me back? I've always been saying that the foundation needs me, but have I been using it as an excuse to stay?  Moving to America felt like no risk at all. I had to take a chance somewhere, I had nothing to lose. Am I still here because it's familiar and safe? I can always find a cause I believe in. And what if I can't make it work? Yes, something has got to give and it better does soon, but what if it doesn't? There are things about being here that I like. The transit system is fairly efficient,  things are wheelchair accessible. But the town feels smaller and smaller and younger and younger. It excites me less and less. I feel old although I'm still young and there's plenty of things I want to see and do. Her words resonated in my head as I was going home  that windy night. I haven't figured it out but I will keep my eyes open.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Top ten blogposts in 2011

I started this blog for a number of reasons. I wanted to bring exposure to the Jordan Klausner Foundation, our activities, mission and history. I also hoped to chronicle my own experiences with Cerebral Palsy, an adult life in a wheelchair as I reflect on my childhood with Conductive Education, face prejudice and stereotypes and venture off into the field of law practice. Somewhere along the way hopefully a rights education workshop will emerge. As the New Year begins I decided to list 10 most popular posts I've written so far. I try to add content pretty regularly, three times a week.

1.Help us find kids with Cerebral Palsy! My appeal to friends to help us spread awareness about our school and CE program in Gainesville. Many people have shared and reposted it during Holiday season. 258 people have put it on their Facebook walls alone.

2. "Gainesville Community forum: prejudice For some reason , this very local experience of a discussion panel organized by the city that I was asked to join had a lot of hits.

3. Cerebral Palsy stigma I wrote this text about the perception of my disability, ridiculed or pitied in American culture

4. A blast from the past: This is me- then Old pictures from Budapest and the Peto Institute

5. I'm in a wheelchair, I must be homeless On my way home people sometimes offered me money or bread.

6. Cerebral palsy costs over $900000 per person in the US The social cost of CP means some real money. Isn't it time we made people with disabilities more functional and independent rather than having them depending on state care?

7.The wheelchair was my boogeyman. To motivate me, my parents made my wheelchair into something scary and final. I think it was a mistake.

8. To the inconsiderate driver  Just one day, just one instance of what it's like to be in a wheelchair and what it's like to find the access ramp blocked. It happens a lot.

9. A Conductive World. I get requests for help from around the globe. Desperate cries from the disability community from the furthest corners of the world. But I don't have the means to assist them.

10. Manifesto: My dream I dream of this organization being being big, strong and able to launch new programs and therapies. If we only had the money...