Monday, July 30, 2012

Guns, fear and human nature

My friend saw a man gunned down a week ago in a local parking garage in Downtown Gainesville. She was coming up to get her car after a night at a pub  when she heard shots. Instinctively, she fell to the ground and then run back to the closest bar for safety and banged on the door until they opened. It was only a day after the movie theater massacre in Colorado made national headlines. Had she shown up a few seconds later she may not have lived to tell us about it. The Aurora events launched another great debate about the ease of accessibility of firearms in America and I hear that in a fashion similar to the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks movie studios are now reshooting and cutting features involving violence and guns. I don’t have strong views on the Second Amendment either way. I was not born here, so I don’t consider carrying  a gun my birthright. As an attorney I would never get one. I wouldn’t feel safe operating a weapon of any kind as I would probably just injure myself as a result. I don’t mind others having them if it makes them feel safer and sometimes just having that comfort makes all the difference. I also understand how some people are uncomfortable just wondering what strangers may have on them. I do feel safer when people trained and able to use guns have them, provided that they actually do know what they’re doing as opposed to just carrying them around as an accessory, and know how to act in a crisis situation. As an attorney I  know  most positions on the issue and I could make any argument. The Aurora event is of course a great tragedy and I don’t want to play it down. But I don’t think it’s a good material for a Second Am debate given the months and months of preparation, the design, the chemicals and materials used. This cannot simply be lumped in together with gang shootings, the crimes of passion or somebody getting shot by mistake. It’s not a gun issue, it’s an issue of the human psyche bent on bringing pain and destruction. Quite honestly, I don’t think that our laws which our designed to regulate relations within societies will ever be adequate to deal with sociopaths, by definition having no regard or empathy for that society.

I wanted to focus on the fear aspect of this story. We’ll just end up more afraid to be out in the public, more scared of other people, always looking over our shoulders. We cannot predict and prevent all the ways we may ended up getting injured.  If it’s not guns, it’s clubs or knives, or knives or blades or chemicals and fists.There’s no end to human creativity. Someone will always find a new way to harm another human being if they are determined to do so. We can restrict and regulate everyone or everything. we can arm ourselves up to our teeth and never crack a smile. Or we can come to a conclusion that perhaps we are not out there to harm each other and events like that although tragic are limited and rare. With every story on the national news cycle that has  us fearing our neighbor I think a bit of fun is sucked out of our life and  while we can  never be a 100% safe. So why worry about things we can’t possibly predict? My brother told me once that he’d rather pay more money if there ever was an airline that allowed him to sign a waiver and skip all the security checks. You know, a fly-at-your-risk scenario that would let him just enjoy his life and travels without the governments having him wait in line and take off his shoes at his own risk. I can see that- it seems like we live in a world where we are more and more afraid every day. And that’s just no way to live a life. At the same time we put so much trust and faith in other people in ways we don’t even consider. We assume things about someone we’ve never met. Think about it. Every time we cross a street, we assume that the cars will stop for us. It’s one thing to think that they will not harm us intentionally, but we also assume that they can see us, that their senses, faculties and reflexes are not impaired. We assume that they are not drunk. We assume they are not on their cellphone, applying make up, looking for things dropped on the floor or too angry to react on time. What are we basing those predictions on given that we have no way of knowing who the driver is? Most of the time we are fine, but accidents happen. We have strangers preparing and serving our food. It’s one thing to trust they will not poison us, but what can we say about their health as they handle our food.  What about a room full of random strangers, do we worry about the viruses and bacteria from every person we shook hands with  every time we are out in public? We don’t think about that, because considering all the things that could go wrong can drive us crazy. And take out even more joy in our lives. Things in our own community in reality affect us more than stories from half way across the country. And every time something happens we are looking at having more laws, more regulations, more restrictions. For our own good. To protect us from each other and sometimes- ourselves. Life is full of close calls and near misses and that makes me appreciate life much more. I was hit by a city bus, I was held at gun point at a Subway restaurant, I rolled down a steep hill in Puerto Rico hitting my head. It didn’t really make much difference if it was accidental or intentional, a gun or a car. Things happen and life comes at you fast.

If anything- the fact that the Aurora event is seen as a horrific tragedy and not something you see every  day is pretty telling that things are not as bad as we think. And it shouldn’t be stopping us from living our lives, because each of us only has one. That weekend I went to see Batman and I have to say I was pretty uncomfortable during the shooting scenes. But we got to shake it off. If we just give in to fear what kind of lives will we have and what kind of a world will we leave to our children?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Law: The imperfect tool

The law is an imperfect instrument. It will not bring back a loved one, it will not restore a limb, it will not undo the harm. While having your day in court might give you a certain satisfaction and a feeling of vindication it does not have the power to make people like you. Chances are they will like you less. While all of this is obvious, with my limited but expanding experience practicing law, I’ve been noticing how some people who stop and ask me for advice often  have some other agenda that it was not designed to address. They have goals beyond what law can give them. I often have to stop them and ask: will getting money (or an injunction) fix this, will it make you whole, will you feel better after all of this is done, because at the end of the day, the attorney will be gone and it’s the client who still will be living in that particular community dealing with the aftermath, and yes going against  family will make Holiday dinners awkward. Having money helps of course, but  the big question for me is, what’s the best possible outcome for that person and can the law help them accomplish it.  People always think that just because something happened to them, however minor, they have a million dollar case on their hands. They don’t realize that law  in general is designed to compensate, if you will, not pay out a premium, just because they caught somebody doing something wrong. It’s not a lottery or a bingo game. Sometimes if they pursue it, they will not get much, simply because they haven’t suffered much or at all. Other times the injury is more severe, but there was no one legally responsible for it. No one had the duty to prevent it. In certain types of cases for example the law requires the defendant to have a particular “bad”  mental state, like “actual malice”. Those times are particularly hard on me, because I see a client who suffered or may be suffering still, the damage is visible and real, yet they will not recover against that defendant, because the law places the bar much higher. Not all cases are worth going after based of what a person may get  in the end. A good attorney will try to shelter client from the negative aspects of the trail but I think it’s naïve to say that they will not be affected at all, that it’s not tiring or doesn’t require any participation. But then there are clients who have a good case,  yet they are afraid to come forward. And I see it in a lot of the ADA cases. They have the feeling of being alone against the world that I realize and relate to. I’ve been there.And there is only so much I can do to reassure them. Not only because we are ethically limited as to how far we can go when reaching out to a client and what we can do. At the end of the day they will be the ones affected and stuck with consequences. It’s their life. And law, as powerful of a tool it is, will not make all your problems go away.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Are wheelchairs at war with bicycles?

"Are wheelchairs and bikes at war with each other?"
The hipster culture seems to to have taken over the city.  Don't get me wrong, i can appreciate a particular style and sense of belonging. I'm happy that this generation finds new ways to have fun and new place where they can spend time. I'm not that much older than some of them and I remember the nights when I use to live it up after a week of law school.  But the city is for all of us to enjoy. We all need to get around. Everywhere I turn on some evenings these days, I see a bike. And I do mean everywhere. The Top crowd seems to tie their two-wheeled vehicles to absolutely anything in sight. Tuesday night I've noticed many of them locked to trees, stop signs, parking signs , lamp posts and anything that resembled a railing for up to two blocks away. And this often becomes a problem when they leave wheels sticking out into the sidewalk. You see, I'm in a wheelchair. When my path is blocked i simply can't get by. Now I've been in situations when I scratched myself all my chair when I tried to squeeze myself into the little area an inconsiderate biker left. I guess he was in a hurry or had somewhere to be, why would he ever concern himself with the needs of   others? Now, where it really becomes a problem is the Hippodrome Theatre. There's a wheelchair ramp that leads up to the building with a visible Do not block sign painted on the bottom. Still, I've seen people tying their bike to a railing it has and hopping over to Boca Fiesta. A lot of times, when I go to see a movie and I do so most every week, I see many them left there, tied to both sides, inside and out. It becomes really dangerous. The handles and pedals stick oculut, it's too tight to get through and the ramp is steep. You could see that none of their owners were even at the movies, not that it would make it better. I've been clinched between two bikes before and had to scream for strangers help to get me out. I have a lot of consideration for subcultures in Gainesville as they make our scene vibrant. It's a shame that I'm not offered the same courtesy. But then, it feels not too uncommon in Gainesville. Bars set up their portable waiting lines way too far into the sidewalk and are forced to move it as a I try to get by, while the police routinely parks cars in a way that blocks the ramps on the corner. I had to call a dispatcher a few times because I couldn't get off the sidewalk, because it seems nobody seems to think about how difficult it may be for someone like me.

Monday, July 23, 2012


Did you ever have anyone, a close friend, somebody you just met, a stranger on the street, touch your life so profoundly that they put you on a different path? I would not be an attorney today if it wasn’t for one faithful night eight years ago when I missed my last bus home.  Looking back at my life,  given how some things just seemed to come together for no apparent reason at the right time,  I really have to wonder and perhaps do so against reason if it was just meant to be. Maybe  life is there to help you out when you’re running out of options and puts the people on your path if you just learn to recognize and reach out to them. That’s how I feel about my friend Josh.  He was an undergraduate student at UF on his way home, walking with friends when he saw me sitting at a bus stop thinking I was in trouble. I was a graduate  law student from Poland, six years his senior, just a few weeks into my program. He became concerned and decided to wait with me for a bus that never came. Then he offered to find me a ride home. It was striking to me how open and caring he was at that time. I soon learnt that this is how he was, always surrounded by friends, passionate and involved, trying and searching to be a better person, to be spiritual and self aware. When I moved to America I decided to be as friendly as accepting as I possibly could, sending as much positivity to the world, hoping it came back to me and in that I felt I found a kindred spirit. Josh it seemed had but one goal- to change the world one person at a time and looked for a good vessel to do it. Thanks to me he was able to observe what it’s like to have a disability more closely. To deal with forms of prejudice and discrimination he never knew. That in turn made him even more sensitive to people’s needs and was   one of the factors that contributed to his choice of a career when he decided to be an attorney. Over the years we had countless conversations about life, purpose, inclusion, future and destiny. But it wasn’t until a few years later when he realized that I have Cerebral Palsy and that he could help- and make me helpful and productive as well.  Josh volunteered at a local Conductive Education facility- an Academy for kids with neuromuscular disabilities. He was playing with  and assisting children for months until he put the two and two together. Little did he know that I was very familiar with this method having grown up with it. This is how I met James Klausner. And this is how I’ve learnt his son’s tragic story.  Josh was just one of those young students wanting to help and do something meaningful. I remember how we were sitting in a restaurant in Tampa and I was telling him about my problems with taking the LSAT test. When I was explaining the difficulties of standardized testing  and how stress and time limitations affect me he suggested we have a rally at the law school courtyard after I jokingly referenced a scene from ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ where an entire school ends up chanting ‘Donna Martin graduates’ in support of a student. That week we printed flyers and met with fraternities. It was a crazy idea and I remember my mom saying:Now you’ll never get in. It wasn’t a big turn out (It didn’t help we planned for the morning after Halloween), and I don’t think I made a lot of friends at the law school back then, but  (after a Iot of footwork) I did get in. Josh also got some of his friends who worked at newspapers interested in my story. My immigration attorney was also a contact of his. In turn, he decided to become a lawyer as well, and help people fight for their rights. He didn’t go to UF but moved to Washington DC for law school. Years later he would  see me take my Oath of attorney for District of Columbia. Over the years  he’s been inspiring me to push further, to reach higher and showing me that hard work can pay off and that people are essentially good. So many things have happened over the last eight years and our lives became intertwined in ways I never imagined. It’s funny to think it was all set in motion in 2004 at 3 am. And we have a common goal.  To educate people with disabilities about their rights, to protect those in need. And we want to help more. On Tuesday Josh will sit for the New York Bar exam. Please keep your fingers crossed. I don’t know anyone who deserves it more. Good luck my friend!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Small town accessibility: The dilemma

Accessibility is a big deal to me. Not only because it affects me personally everywhere I go as I’m in a wheelchair, not only because it’s the right thing  to include people rather than exclude them, but it is also the law.  Florida regulations are often stricter than federal standards, but what  good does that do? Is it fair that many businesses take those requirements more seriously than others, often at a great cost? And that  doesn’t always mean money. I’ve known bar owners that eliminated certain amenities, because they couldn’t make them wheelchair accessible and they wanted to play fair and do the right thing, while others just wouldn’t be bothered You hear stories about lawyers  that ride about town stopping at every small town shop and venue, nit picking at every little thing they’ve done wrong, every way they’re non- ADA compliant, threatening them they’ll get sued unless they pay up. I don’t know  if people like that really exist or if it’s a myth. I do know that there are places that are not up to the code and the owners don’t seem to care much about it. Often, when you try to talk about it, in the friendliest fashion, say “You know, you really need to have a ramp to that new stage you’ve built” you get an attitude. And it’s completely unnecessary. But at that stage I have a choice- either I will stop hanging at that place all together or I’ll do something about it. And I really don’t ride around town looking for a fight. I don’t go into places searching for things wrong with them. But those regulations are there for a reason, and it’s  not to make someone’s life difficult. It is so people like me and not me alone can use the establishment like any other patron. I don’t look for those things, they find me. I’m there like everybody else, just out  to grab a drink, have dinner, sing a song. And I really don’t want to be ‘that guy’. You know, the person that shuts establishments down, gets them fined or otherwise in trouble. I’ve known someone who would go into bars with a clicker counting everyone inside to see if they were over capacity. He wasn’t really doing it it to be a pain. It’s a genuine fire hazard and safety concern and quite frankly, venue operators should have known better. It did get him banned from most places. That’s not really what I’m  afraid of, but I’m not out there to spoil everyone’s time. Gainesville is a small town and I’m not looking for that kind of reputation. But mostly I have great interest in seeing local venues succeed. Because I’m part of this community and I believe we all should watch out for each other, especially in this economy. A lot of bar owners are my friends. Some level with me, saying yes we really shouldn’t have public on that stage and we were not planning on it [but we do]. It happened more than once.  On the other hand it feels I’m more concerned with them than they are with me. What I want to do is establish a type of practice based on fairness and honesty and not gimmicks. And that’s why I’m conflicted. Because if nobody does anything, how will they ever learn? Yes, it’s the law, but I feel that until they realize that it’s simply the right thing to do rather than a hassle they need to deal with, they will always find ways to get around it. No one seems to question the fire or health code and why they’re there, yet for many people accessibility issues pose a problem.  There is very little understanding of why certain things are standard and very little awareness of how the social benefits outweigh the costs. And that truly is the issue.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

33 and Happy Birthday to me!

This Thursday I will be celebrating another Birthday. Please say hello in the comments, I’d love to hear from all my readers! The big question for me right now is what next and I still haven’t figured this one out yet. I know where I want to be and I what I hope to be doing but I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there. I want my skills and education to make a difference in people’s lives. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to structure programs that assist people with disabilities, promote independence and inclusion. Until then I will be open to any opportunity to make a living and be useful in and out  of Florida. One thing I was never afraid of is hard work. I’m not ashamed of my age but I lived in Gainesville for eight years. Don’t get me wrong, the town has been good to me, but there is only so much you can learn in my place.  I’ve met some great people who bonded with me and for ever changed my life. I’ve moved here from Poland, isn’t that crazy? Every year brought something different that shaped me as a person and was a learning experience. Teaching me mostly about myself. When I first got here I proved to everyone that I can function in my wheelchair by myself, survive and succeed. That I can go to a foreign country and… just start a law school there. The next few years taught me just how much I can take and how fiercely I can fight to prove my worth. The Law school admissions board had their doubts about me when I applied for my second American degree program, but with a lot of footwork I was able to convince them. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t a sure thing. And my book awards and Dean’s lists prove that they made a right decision. If I thought that was hard, clearly I had no clue about what I was going to face next. It took me many years to convince immigration to let me stay in this country. It wasn’t easy and it took multiple tries. I was getting frustrated that I couldn’t make them see why my mission to help other people like me was important. As months went by I was getting more and more frustrated and something broke in me. With no hope in sight I felt I was in a dark place for a very long time. But in the end I won. And it taught me how much I can take. And it taught me strength and patience. Strength not only only for myself, but for my parents who were back in Poland, worried about me. But also strength to be far from home. While I was away my dad had a double bypass, my brother had two kids and my childhood dog died. And there’s nothing I could do. But then powerlessness was an emotion that I experienced a lot over the last few years. At certain point you need to let the fear, the disappointment and resentment go or it will eat you up inside. But this self realization came at at a price. I was happier, more naïve, engaged when I got here. In ways I feel more broken, more reserved and cynical. Something was taken from me and I will never get that back. I have three law degrees know and various certificates, I’m an attorney in two jurisdictions. I have a green card that allows me to travel and move to anywhere in the United States, I have that freedom I always wanted, why am I still in Gainesville? Part of me wants to move somewhere and start over, although my law licenses limit my options to DC and Florida, I do want to see more and experience more. I was on the phone with dad a week ago. And he said:’I think you overstayed your welcome in Gainesville a bit. But then it’s hard to just move somewhere without anything lined up’. I do think that he is right. I’ve been letting my fear and familiarity hold me back. I do want challenge and I do want change. While I’m working on putting together a law firm and a nonprofit was it just an excuse to stick to what I know? How do I go about grabbing life by the horns? I am getting a bit anxious waiting for something to happen

Monday, July 16, 2012

Being Polish: Who we are

'”You don’t talk about being from Poland all the time” said a friend to me a few weeks ago, when she was telling me about a foreigner that she knows. She couldn’t understand how, after a person has lived in America for many years, being from somewhere else is still essential to how they think, talk and identify. To tell you the truth, the reason why I don’t talk about being Polish that much anymore is that I’ve run out of stories to tell.  At one point people around me were very interested to hear about my life in Europe, my education, our culture. To my American friends I often felt strange and exotic. Many of them never traveled abroad, some never even left the State. I told the same anecdotes over and over and over. It was difficult to keep track whom I told what story. So I stopped all together. Eight years later I don’t feel any less Polish than I did eight years ago. America is a melting pot. And there’s this strong tendency to think that we’re all the same and whatever brought us here, what we experienced is in the past and doesn’t matter. Call it Western culture if you will. We all dress the same, we all listen to the same music, we watch the same movies we all must be alike, right? Wrong. Poland to me is not just a place I came from. It’s a place that shaped me, made me who I am today.

 I was raised differently than kids in America. I was brought up on different literature, writers that would find great pride in Polish history. I’m very much aware of times of our national greatness, but also our historic  spectacular losses, wars, insurgencies and  patriotic movements. I grew up witnessing the fall of communism and great hopes for a change that came after.  We didn’t  have much. I still remember times when new jeans were a sensation and kids collected cans and bottles from the West. I didn’t grow up having 500 TV channels, but I read a lot. My parents’ generation was fighting for freedom and the type of life they thought we all  deserved. Many sacrificed a lot, but  it only shoved us that there are values that are worth it. Sense of patriotism and hope and great national pride was something that allowed  Polish people to find comfort in the pain. I doubt that the young Poles of today, raised on MTV and Cartoon Network can relate to some of those things the way that I do. Times change. I have a very dark, sarcastic sense of humor, that I don’t think many Americans can easily understand. The things that I saw and read, the values that my parents have given me, have formed how I think, how I see things, how I joke, what worries me and what I’m afraid of. I will always be very ‘Polish’ down to the core, in a cultural sense, not just in terms of geography. Decades ago, at the height of Communism, many  workers from Poland immigrated to America. Some did so legally, many did not. They were looking for a better life. A lot of  them didn’t speak the language or have any advanced education, so they ended up getting jobs based on their phy6sical strength in industries like construction. I used to think of them as tragic victims of the system, suspended between their old homeland and the new country they now called home. Years have passed, but to them I thought the time has been standing still and they would not recognize Poland today as the place the left behind. And the cultural differences  somehow stopped them from truly belonging. At first I thought it was the lack of skills and the language barrier that held them back.  But I feel like that sometimes. Not that I don’t belong, but…. different at times and separated from others in a way. Because it’s still a very important part of me, a part that I have no intention to ever giving that up. But then there are other important aspects that shape us as human beings. Americans seem comfortable talking about and accepting differences  in the ways we appear. Everybody understands the importance of race, color and gender, but we rarely talk about things in our psyche. Those friends of mine who suffered the trauma of abuse or poverty, grew up in broken homes are changed by those experiences for life.

The ‘American way’ seems to be to get over it. Because everybody grows up with something. We are all different, but just because you can’t see the things that make us that way does make them less important. Being Polish affects me everyday in a profound manner. Just like having a disability. Just like being foreign. Sometimes one becomes more evident then the other, in some instances those features act in concert. I couldn’t tell you where me being Polish starts and ends, just like I would not be able to tell you what my life would be like if I didn’t have a disability. All those things form who I am today. Because we all are black/white/Asian, etc. Male/Female, Straight/Gay/Bisexual/Asexual/Autosexual, of some national origin, with some talents and strengths and experiences that all shape who we are.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Falling down.

When I was little the goal seemed to be to make me as mobile as possible. But this newfound mobility came at a price. I was at a greater risk of falling down and hurting myself than ever before. I wrote about how my parents sent me off to the world famous Institute for children with (mostly) Cerebral Palsy a number of times before. I talked about the sacrifices we all have made as a family and how it affected all of us. During the first few days, right off the bat really I was fitted for braces to keep my legs straight. First pair was made of plastic like synthetic material, the next ones were metal ad leather with a release like mechanism at the back of the knee. These were pretty heavy. They wanted me to walk around using sticks. I would lean on them and make a movement from the hip. It was very easy to fall, in fact in the Institute I did it a number of times. It wasn’t uncommon for  a Conductor to walk off to focus on other kids while I was walking around the room. The floors were very smooth, made of PVC or something similar and my sticks were rubber. It was very easy to slip. The stick would get away from me making me lose my balance. At that point my dad became concerned. For weeks back in our apartment he’d make me stand in front of a couch and then throw myself on it while throwing my sticks to the sides with my hands stretched out. And again, and again and again.

The goal was for me to know how to fall down so I would protect my face and avoid head injury. Until it becomes an instinct , a reflex and you know what do without even thinking about it. Back then, the rubber on the tips would wear off quickly and the sticks would slide on sand and certain types of carpets as well.  The story my mom likes to tell is how she was walking and pushing my chair and didn’t see the sidewalk was ending suddenly. She pushed me over, but when she realized I was falling she grabbed me by my hat and that’s all that remained in her hands while I went face down in the puddle. She laughs that we found the one puddle in the entire city. I was ten and that was in Budapest. But the lessons my dad taught me about how to fall I use till this day. I may be in a wheelchair, but if there’s a crack in the sidewalk that I don’t see it may sent me flying and it happens from time to time even till these day. I remember walking out of a store one time thinking the ramp was in front of me, while it was actually on the side and I rolled into a concrete drop. I took the fall on my elbows. Once a painted crossing tricked me into believing a curb cut was right there when it wasn’t. I can get injured every day ad it doesn’t get better over time. If anything, if I get cocky I’m more likely to hurt myself. Scrapes and bruises are not that uncommon on me. Sometimes I get hurt regardless, because I overestimated something or wasn’t paying attention. Once I made a dent in the drywall of a restaurant’s bathroom with my head when I decided to jump into my wheelchair while it moved away from me. It happens. Mistakes happen. But the ability to try to protect and guard my body serves me well today.

Monday, July 9, 2012

My 2007 speech

Ralph_Strzalkowski_Esq-130x1205 years ago I was asked to be the key note speaker at the Jordan Klausner Foundation’s annual fundraiser. This is what started my long running adventure with the organization and it was right before I began law school again that month. Understandably, we decided to keep an uplifting tone and eliminate  mentions of my problems with getting into the program and issues with immigration. Still, I feel I did a good job talking about Cerebral Palsy, Conductive Education and my experiences in Poland. This was 2007. Today I’m an attorney in two jurisdictions but it’s still a good read. This is what I had to say with WCJBTV20’s cameras present.

When I think of conductive education in Gainesville I can't help but remember my own experiences in similar facilities. There's been quite a few of them, both in my native Poland and abroad. My parents tried every rehabilitation method available from Bobath Concept through Peto’s Conductive Education and Doman approaches, worked extra jobs and spared no expense to improve my motor skills. When I was younger my mother stayed at home until I was in my teens to provide a few hours extra of physical therapy a day at home while my dad took additional shifts to provide for the family. I will always be grateful for their dedication. Now I'm 28 years old. I have poor right hand control, I can't straighten my knees beyond 90”, and I'm in a wheelchair. But my left hand is pretty skillful, and I live independently. I've studied four languages, I have Master of Law degrees from universities in both Warsaw, Poland and Florida, I have worked as a media journalist from home and my wheelchair takes me where I want to go. I am about to start Law School at the University of Florida, I have a busy social calendar, a great circle of friends, plans and goals and the outlook in life for me looks GREAT.
Quite honestly I don't contemplate my own disability that often. I've come to accept that I do have to do certain things in a way  different from other people. When there are stairs I look for a lift or an elevator; when I need to cross the street I seek the lowest point on the sidewalk. It's the reaction of other people that I find most disturbing. When I go to a club it happens that kids there, afraid or unaware, give me a look of death or that I'm showered with uncomfortable questions that I've answered so many times already. And yes it sometimes hurts to realize that in some people's eyes I will always be reduced to an image of a guy in a wheelchair. But I will always remember what I had to go through to be where I am; and I am grateful that I can travel the world and live my life independently.
How did I get to where I am today?
I came from Central Europe. I grew up in communist times. Ironically, the region that produced the acclaimed Peto Institute of Conductive Education also did a lot to keep the disabled children away from the public eye. In the Communist lands where everyone was supposed to be content, fulfilled and equal, there was no room for illness, there was no need for ramps and elevators. Kids in wheelchair and with movement disorders were never seen in regular schools. There was however an extensive system of special schooling that mixed all types of disabilities together, often in common classes. Teaching would of course be slow and inefficient. The alternative was individual teaching with a single instructor visiting a students every day. My parents wanted a different life for me. They wanted me to have a better start. First, by arrangement with the teachers, they would sneak me in then officially got me in my classrooms carrying me up the stairs everyday. I knew my parents were getting older, I wasn't sure at what point their backs would give in causing all this to end. My parents started a trend. Many others tried to do the same. Most didn't last until graduation. Studying was never difficult for me and I loved to write. It never took me long to finish reading a book. But it's math and experimental physics class that I chose in high school, inspired by my parents who wanted me to follow the footsteps of my brother, the programmer. Yet again, no lift; my classmates carried me up and down the stairs. After school I decided to try out for a spot at the prestigious Warsaw University of Law. It was the Rector's Disability Office people, of all, trying to discourage me from pursuing that career. Classrooms are full, they said, often inaccessible, and how would I practice afterwards? It wasn't that bad; mostly because of the university volunteer assistants and paratransit. I did very well in school, I excelled in many contests, mostly international, I've graduated summa cum laude and completed courses at two foreign law clinics. But the nay-sayers were partially right. How was I ever to practice law in a country with offices, prisons, courts that still remember the golden era of communist style architecture? How can I function not being able to use mostly inaccessible public transit, having to rely on paratransit booked two weeks in advance for rides? I never knew if I could succeed in a different setting but I had to try. So I decided to enroll in a Master of law program in a town I've never heard of before- Gainesville, Florida.
At first the adjustment was difficult, but in the right setting, I found buses with wheelchair lifts, ramps and lifts, and it turns out I can be mobile, I can get to be all over town and rely on my own body strength. It's the determination that my parents have given me that drives me. And I'm not the only one. I spent four years of my childhood in the Peto Institute of Conductive Education in Budapest. There was a group of children from Poland in my group, and at that time the parents would stick together. And those kids were affected in many different ways and to different extents, and from what I have heard, blossomed into wonderful people driven my ambition. One of them writes his thesis in London, the other, whose condition was much worse than ours, as he couldn't speak or control the spontaneous movements of his arms at all apparently rides all over Warsaw with the control stick of his motorized chair wired to his foot. I recently went back to Warsaw after 3 years, only to learn that not much has changed in Poland, now a EU member state.
I know that my quest in life brings me back to the United States where I can attend Law School at the University of Florida and eventually help others like my self enjoy a free and open society where accommodation for people with disabilities are routine.
I feel a little awkward talking about my disability, having spent most of my life proving how insignificant it is for me as a person, yet I'm here today because of it. I am living proof that conductive education WORKS!. If there is one idea I can leave you with this evening it is that the only way to counter CP is through hard work. It's an investment. What you put into it pays great dividends--work, work, work. As my old doctor said, it's not about perfecting some movement for the sake of an exercise, it’s about getting everybody off the floor to do the best they can.
That's why I'm extremely grateful to James Klausner, for his Academy and Foundation and for everything he's doing for children in need in this great community. It takes great strength and great effort. This work needs to continue. Thank you all for being here this evening and thank you for you continued support of the Gainesville Conductive Education Academy.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The jacket

A few months ago I was on my  way to grab  a drink (I believe I was meeting some friends) when a familiar face stopped me. The man was scratched up and had blood on his face. You could easily tell that he had his share of alcohol for the night already. I didn’t know him too well, but I recognized him. He worked at one of the local bars, either as a bouncer, a server or a bartender and he was always nice and helpful. He told me he just got beaten up, but he was too afraid to talk to the police. The attackers, he explained, took his clothes and walking around half naked he would only attract unwanted attention. I’m not going back to jail- he vowed. You could understand his concerns a bit- he was in an awful shape and being covered with tattoos of flames, skulls and daggers clearly didn’t help. He asked me if he could hold my jacket and have me walk with him to his bar. ‘You know me, I helped you so many times’ he said. While that never actually happened it was December, we expected for temperature to drop that night and the wind was picking up. I was more concerned about the guy than the jacket and I knew that although I had a pretty good idea  were he worked and who he was chances were I would never see my jacket again. I liked it too. It was unique, my mother got it as a souvenir back when she was working on the Polish production of Big Brother. ‘I’m not going to  walk with you to that bar, because I have other plans’ I explained. But  why don’t you borrow my jacket and  meet me on the corner of University and Main at one?  He didn’t show up. Still, I was happy I helped a guy out. He was a good kid and he was in trouble. It was more of an impulse and he wasn’t a stranger either. I lived across the street, he needed it more than I did. But I

He no longer worked at the place I knew him from, still I was told he comes by. I asked his co-workers to tell him I still want my jacket back. That was in December. I didn’t see him again until tonight. I decided to  chat with a friend who runs a hotdog stand downtown for a good 30 minutes. When we talk I see a familiar face coming up to buy food. Don’t I know you? – I asked and it took me a few seconds to realize who it was- You have my jacket! Washed ad pressed, he said as we exchanged numbers. Who knows

Thursday, July 5, 2012

When life gives you lemons…

A street preacher in my neighborhood whom I had known for quite some time told me recently that my mission is to make people understand  what it’s like to be me. I wouldn’t put it quite like that but there’s a lot of truth to it. I’ve written about it it before: Cerebral Palsy will always be part of my life, affect me in one way or the other, so I might just as well accept it and move on. This the thing people will always notice it first when they meet me, so why should I ignore it? It will always be the elephant in the room.  I have always said, it’s been a bigger issue for the world around me that it ever was for me. But when I see people who pity me,  want to give me money or assume things not knowing the first thing about me, well that’s when it starts to affect me. When I go places that turn out to be not wheelchair accessible and nobody seems to care it affects me again. The problem is not how I feel about myself and how I see me,  it’s what the world throws back at me and what’s reflected in their eyes. Because I’m fine and I love my life. But if I can’t make it a non-issue, I want to control the narrative. I want to grab this thing by the horn and turn it into an asset. Rather than seeing it as a social issue and a health problem, why don’t we talk about it as one of the  many, many things that defined me. And I think on many levels it’s a fun story to hear. How I moved here from Poland in my mid-20’s looking for a place where I could finally be independent and self realized and included and how I had to battle everyone from my own law school to immigration to be where I am today. Let’s talk about how my disability partially shaped my ambition and my drive to succeed, my sarcastic and dark sense of humor.  How about how all the things that happened to me made me want to get involved and help other people, do things that I think matter and I hope make a difference. Let’s talk about kindness and humanity.  I want to make it about the celebration of life. About mind succeeding over flesh. About passion and excitement. Because at the end of the day it is a distinguishing characteristic and people these days will do anything to stand out. I didn’t have to have a sex tape out or be photographed without my underpants in a cab to be where I am today. I want to grab the bull by the horns. Because I do have a choice. They can either pity me or be curious what it’s like to be me. And I choose the second option.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Pick up a copy of the Gainesville Sun Monday

I wrote a letter to the editor of my city’s leading newspaper  last week. I quite liked what I wrote. I thought it was poignant and funny, maybe a little edgier  than the things I typically post on my blog. As I read it to myself I thought I really didn’t mind if they didn’t use it because then I would just put it here for everyone to read and that would save me the effort of having to write another piece. But then I got a phone call from the opinion editor at the Gainesville Sun. They were not going to print it as a letter to they editor. They said it was too long for that., but they liked the text. They did however ask my permission to print it as a guest column on Monday. What is it about? I’m not going to reuse it on my blog, so I decided to tell the story with pictures I took one Wednesday night while strolling about downtown. I’ve noticed how people who frequent local hipster bars tie their bicycles absolutely everywhere- trees, lampposts, street signs, often in a way that blocks wheelchair ramps and sidewalks making it sometimes nearly impossible to get around. And they have more choice in transportation and mobility than I do. You can read the text here:

Also a frequent practice: Those portable entrance lines to clubs taking up most of the sidewalk.