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.

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