Friday, August 31, 2012

Culture and fear of disabilities

Paralympics in London go on mostly ignored by the American media and once again it had me wondering why. It's not that the sport element is not breathtaking. Wheelchair basketball for example is spectacular. It's not that the people in it are not true Olympians. Why wouldn't something that is perhaps a little different but still amazing to watch find an audience? It's the fear of disabilities that makes it not your family friendly type of entertainment. It's simple.  Nobody focuses on the hard will, the determination, the hard work that gets these athletes to achieve what they do every day. A disability is a buzz kill. It makes people uncomfortable. They may think a missing limb is not attractive to watch. But most of all, they're afraid. They fear that this may happen to them. And it's not something you want to think about while you're unwinding in front of TV or having drinks at the bar. It's something that I recognize in the looks of people whenever I'm out with friends and I'm having a night out on the town. I've written about it before. It doesn't matter that I was born with my disability. It's all I know and I'm as fine with it as can be. People see me at a bar and they get uncomfortable. The see me and my wheelchair and think: car accident. Or injury resulting from diving. This may happen to them. It could happen to them that night. It's not something you want to think about while you're having drinks. Not in a culture, not in a town that promotes the care-free lifestyle of fun, drinking, dancing and sex. You don't want to think about the darker, somber part of life. And yes, you don't want to think about consequences. This again has nothing to do with me, and everything with the mental process of the other people. Think about it. NBCUniversal/ Comcast broadcasts a number of channels that show every variety of reality programming from how to renovate a house on TV to desperate single women in their 30's. I'm not sure what it says about our society, but they are pretty. I have yet to see a show that focuses on the intellect. That showcases people that are well read, travelled and soft spoken. Recently I caught a glimpse of a new show called "Gallery Girls". Other than it features a bunch of self-involved, catty women I have to say it's not about anything at all. I used to think that the point of these shows was to make fun of them as they appeal to our lowest instincts when feel better while others come apart and humiliate themselves on national TV. But people do idolize them. They become bona fide celebrities. Who cares what they offer? They are pretty. It seems like in our culture that's all we think about. I have no idea why I've heard of Kim Kardashian. I have trouble identifying what she is famous for. I do know what she looks like, I know she makes headlines on HLN and I don't know why. It seems to me, that we are fixated on appearance. On the external. What does it say about our society? Do we all buy into this vision of glamor? Is this what we should aspire to now?  I don't want to preach about the effects of the low end programming on the younger generation because I have no idea and it's not really the point . I also enjoy occasional bubble gum television especially after a stressful week. But I can't believe that families and heads of scheduling alike can't recognize how much you can learn about human spirit if we just focus on something else than hair, make up, fake breasts and six-packs long enough to notice these amazing people who challenge not only others but mostly themselves.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Conductively marching on

Those who know me remember that I’m a big supporter of Conductive Education- an approach to Cerebral Palsy devised in Hungary decades ago that took the world by storm in the 1980’s. For the last few years I’ve been involved with The Jordan Klausner Foundation, a small and local nonprofit started by a university professor in memory of his son that adopted this method for the school it was running in Gainesville. I’ve been passionate and vocal about making facilities like that one available in America and reaching more children in need. I was lucky enough to have benefited from the source if you will- I spent a few years in the world famous Peto Institute and that time was well invested as it made me more functional and independent, giving me a better balance and control over my body. The method is however not widely recognized and accepted in the United States. More often than not it’s the initiative of parents in small communities that put these programs together. And they deal with limited resources, lack of visibility and run on low funds when the economic crisis hurt or limited some of the public funds to depend on. Some of the big centers are in turn either too expensive for some parents or not conveniently located close to where they live.

The Klausner family put a lot of free time and effort into making their Academy a reality. James Klausner already had a job, one that was exhausting enough and paid his bills, when he did what must’ve felt like taking on a second one. He worked tirelessly to keep the Academy afloat for many years. He did to help all the kids and parents in the community that were not properly looked after. This year the Foundation decided to suspend the school activities. To have it run again, it would have to go back to the starting point. Find a new Conductor, a new group of students, figuring out a new financing model in the face of declining scholarship and a new location. I wasn’t there when this decision was made but I understand it.  Many of us have moved on, some out of State and the Conductor moved to London. Foundation will go on in some other form, honoring Jordan’s memory in Florida and his battle with Cerebral Palsy.

But, where’s passion, there’s hope. There’s quite a few Conductive Education programs in Florida, so I figured it must be true everywhere you go. I thought the biggest obstacle parents face is finding a way to pay for it and figuring out how to get there. Recently I got a call from a mother in a neighboring State of Georgia. She told me she would be perfectly willing to pay for a CE center if she could find one. Apparently there were none, free or fully paid for at least in her part of the State. She will come together with parents of other disabled children and form some kind of structure. They are looking into hiring a Hungarian Conductor and starting the H1B visa process. And it gives me hope. It reminds of the drive everyone at the Klausner Foundation had.  For as long as there are kids with disabilities, there will be parents trying to make it better. One school will close and the other will open. Nature abhors a vacuum. For as long as there is passion and dedication these kids will be fine. Putting a center together will not be easy of course, but I know first hand that parents will go through a lot just to help a child. And I will be admiring their accomplishments from a far.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Extreme weather

The hurricane season seems to be in full swing again. It rains intensely and it gets dark soon. This past week Floridians were bracing themselves for the arrival of Isaac, a tropical storm. Living as far north as Gainesville means that while it can get really nasty outside, I'm usually never in any real danger. The winds  will not be breaking our windows or flooding up the neighborhood. Still, I often get stranded indoors. Rain bands mean I have to cancel whatever it is I had planned for that day. Sometimes it's not even safe enough for me to get food. I'm not fast enough and far too exposed sitting down to roll around in the rain. It starts and it stops only to pick up again with no warning and for no apparent reason. In the past I had to deal with electricity outages for hours with food going bad and the refrigerator. These days I live by myself, so if something that extreme happens I won't even have a roommate to help me. Naturally, I prefer to be with other people. For as long as I lived in Gainesville, University of Florida has been converting some of the campus buildings into shelters, not only with students in mind, but also those in mobile homes and people who don't feel secure being by themselves. The ballrooms in the student union had reinforced walls and back up generators or so we were told. There was food, plenty of room to sleep and  safety- the police officers were with us if something bad was to happen. But the time to get there was limited. If the rain and gusts prove to intense the bus system suspends all routes. Also, a lot of times we've received warnings over the weekend, when transit goes out of service earlier anyway, so we needed to plan by anticipating what would happen anyway. I moved to Florida in 2004. Those who remember that year would say it was a pretty extreme hurricane season, if I'm not mistaken, we've had three in a row. That first week I was with my parents in Orlando watching blizzards moving down International Drive on TV, very close to the motel where we stayed. I was convinced it was just the irony of life- I flew in from Poland to die in hurricane just a few days later. As you watch the weather maps and things unfold on TV you really don't know if you should go hide in the bathtub already. It's a scary time for a foreigner with no such experiences. Plus, after you hear the stories of the elderly of people with disabilities getting injured or dying, you realize that being in a wheelchair puts you at risk if there's a need to evacuate for any reason. I can't run, I'm not as mobile, I will not be hiding under furniture or climbing through windows. Over the years, I've heard stories of apartments getting flooded, branches smashing windows and debris hurting people. It seems like Isaac was easy on us here, but still the intense cold rains make it virtually impossible for me to risk it and be outside. Seems like extreme weather is part of Florida's charm. Only last Monday I saw rains and winds so intense they were bending  trees and the world looking out of a window seemed to be behind a wall of water. I was outside only 15 minutes prior. Seems like batteries, flashlights and radios are things as obvious to get here as bread. And having mobility issues doesn't help. For that reason I will keep up with UF's monitoring the storm's path and if told I should seek shelter I will do so.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Lawyer on wheels.

I try not to concern myself with what people may think. It's not my goal to impress anyone. But it took me quite a few years to finally accept that I'm my own person and I keep whatever company I choose. When I first came to America I really wanted to belong and find a group of friends where I could easily fit in. That was all these years ago. Today, I have friends from all walks of life. Straight and gay, younger and older, hipster and goth, I try to reach out to people in all places and feel comfortable everywhere I go. A friend recently told me how impressed he was seeing me transitioning between all those cliques, talking to everyone and never feeling out of place. I know that I'm different from most people I know. For one, I'm Polish and in a wheelchair. I can be loud and I'm very visible. But that's the way I am. People can either accept me or have an issue with me, whichever it is I will never change. And it's a great relief to not care so much and just be yourself. I'm surrounded by friends. I make friends everywhere I go, yet I'm an outsider. Not fitting anywhere completely gives me great comfort of being able to interact with different groups and just being me. To me, being different is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives me a unique perspective. "You've built quite a recognizable profile" said a friend to me once over drinks and I do think he's right to an extent. The key to succeeding in Gainesville, in life really is being able to navigate among different people, getting their respect. And turning your circumstance into something positive. I see everyone as human beings, I relate to them on individual basis. Their stories, hobbies and inspirations are fascinating to me. I could care less about their subcultures and how they choose to label themselves. The reason I have a group of diverse friends is because they are fun to be around. But I will never be like anyone else and with this comes a realization that no one will ever understand me fully.

 What is it like to be me? I'm never lonely, but in my struggles with disability I'm alone. And it takes strength that nobody else can give me. Sure, my friends may get upset that a  place is not wheelchair accessible. That it doesn't have a ramp. That it doesn't have a bathroom I can fit in, or if we're out that I can't roll up to the bar. But it's not their fight. It's mine. Sure, it's nice that they understand and support me, but they're not the ones that have to think about those things 24/7. I do. If they so choose they can just leave me behind and go to any place they desire without a problem. But again- I don't mind this. Not only because I try to put others before me, but I have a great passion for making a change and I have a will of a warrior. My mother used to say that only the parents of people with disabilities can understand what it's like. And she has taken on a lot and sacrificed even  more. Yes, she understands struggle, but her perspective is different than mine. When I was a child although she was with me most of the time if she went out without me then the stairs, accessibility, curbs where not limiting her in any way. Wouldn't it be nice if I could take a day off from Cerebral Palsy? It's true, I don't mind it most of the time. You can say that I never walked properly so I can't really miss it. But that's not so. I know what being different feels like. I have met people with disabilities who choose forever to be single. I don't support it, but I understand the sentiment- if you're forever alone in your mind, in your struggle, what is the point of having someone else involved? I'm happy. I'm driven. I chose to celebrate not so much the things that make me different but my life. But in when I push myself, when I win or lose with my body, I'm alone.  And I accept it. Be as engaged as I can, with this somber realization that there are aspects to me others will never relate to. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


The BBC launched 24 satellite feeds to cover the Olympic Games, all free-to-air, accessible across Europe and most in High Definition. Polish Television repeatedly was running out of airtime to put commercials in and apparently did everything from interrupting tennis matches to delaying live coverage to appease sponsors. The Hungarians unencrypted one of their channels, so that people abroad could follow their national team. Polish Public TV did exactly the opposite- and scrambled their usually encrypted info channel citing licensing limitations. American TV station NBC famously delayed the broadcast of the opening ceremony so more people would watch it at home with an impression that they are seeing it first as it happens live. The point is of course, that the London Games were a big thing. A huge media production, with a lot of built up expectations from the competing states and disappointments when the national teams did not deliver.  You could write a book about what is wrong with professional mainstream sports today. That’s why I rarely watch it. With all the money, sponsors, expensive training trips and methods, injections that can block the pain and tabloids that can tear you to shreds for disgracing your country, where’s the fun in that?  Doesn’t it feel a tad mechanical, like a factory of medals?  Few remember that way back when Olympic Games used to feature amateurs.

But there are different games, set to begin on the 29th- The Paralympics. While UK will get a slightly reduced coverage on four Channel 4 feeds, Polish Television is set to only show bits and highlights with nothing broadcasted live. There was an online petition floating around the  internet urging NBC to show the games  and I wouldn’t hold my breath that it was successful. This event in contrast is not generating a huge media buzz, every reporter in the world does not what to be there for the adventure of their life, TV stations are not competing to show it, advertisers are not killing themselves to get their ads in at obscene cost. There seems to modest at best interest in the games and I guess the feeling is viewers would not turn to the channel showing the games. And I really don’t understand why. Would people really turn away from watching people with disabilities on air? To me those are the more interesting of the games with the concept truer to the original idea. People with limitations pushing themselves further to accomplish  greatness. To raise above physicality, to have the mind conquer the body. They  don’t have the huge corporate machines behind them, but they have will and dedication. Why isn’t this beautiful?  It seems as much of a personal challenge as it is a competition with others. My body doesn’t own me, I own it, and there’s nothing I can’t learn or train myself to do if I push myself. Isn’t it something András Pető would say. A celebration of human spirit. If we move away from counting medals and focusing on the gain/loss analysis, perhaps we can appreciate the people and enjoy the sport. Giving a wide exposure to those great men and women with disabilities could bring awareness to the disability causes. It would show is that we all have our struggles, we are all very much like everyone else. The more you’re exposed to something, the more normal it becomes. Quite honestly I care about this more than the really tall man with long arms winning yet another swimming medal. Is there something shameful about having a disability? Are they not sportsmen like the ones worshipped in July?  Are their accomplishments less worthy because they are blind or in a wheelchair? Seems like that’s the message. Clearly they are not worthy of airtime.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

True awareness

My interest in disability law isn’t just something I invented or myself while I was figuring out what career path to take and weighing my options. It’s a legitimate field of concentration for any attorney. It’s an area, first and foremost, where people often don’t know their rights, are often neglected and mistreated that could involve anything rom building accessibility to education and employment. A fascinating scope for any lawyer, yet not that popular as a career choice.  I don’t think I’m special in that regard and I’m sure there’s plenty of people in wheelchairs facing some of the same issues I do every day. Yes, I might have more of an insight  into ADA related problems  than some of my able-bodied attorney friends, because my perspective it’s different as I know how to watch out for these things. If you don’t have a reason to spot them you will most likely miss them. The truth is, unless you have some reason to try and see the world from a wheelchair perspective, you will most likely not know about half of these things. A human reaction really. I don’t pay attention to a host of other people’s problems I’m sure. I don’t see a lot of them or never even thought about them, because unlike disability it wasn’t my experience. But then I’m made aware and I start to notice. My mom points out that this could be my niche. As this is a frequently overlooked field that can produce a consistent supply of cases and clients I have an all too visible personal reason to want to do this. But to me it’s not so much about being able to understand ADA better and have empathy for my clients’ concerns. It’s that ADA and its application concerns me today and always will.It’s more than a clever concentration, it’s my life. And getting people to care feels like my job. A lot of times I feel I can’t even make a dent in the wall trying to break through to the other side get someone to understand. But sometimes it feels like I did something right. A lot of my friends often say: I never paid attention to any of this until we spent time together. Or: I never knew how difficult it can be for you to just get around. One of them rented a house and was very excited to report that it had a ramp and I could visit her often. Another took me to the movies a few weeks ago and was amazed how I needed to go around a building to get off the sidewalk to the theatre and then I would roll through traffic. Because when you walk you really just go forward and there’s no need to pay attention. Someone who is a flight attendant was outraged to discover that elevator at their airport was all the way on the other side, a lot of time and effort wheeling back and forth. Not something you think about when all you had to do is jump on the escalator. A lot of bikers commented after my article about how they block wheelchair ramps and sidewalks that they simply didn’t know. One man told me that since he walks everywhere he never had to care where people tied their two wheeled vehicles as he can simply walk on to the street, but that it opened his eyes. A lot of my friends now pay attention to ramps and curb cuts, where they are, how visible and how far from each other. Often, I’m not even there. Many report things they found absurd. When a friend was driving through a neighborhood of white picket fences with  stairs in the front she wondered how I would get inside and it made her upset. That is my little victory. To get people to care about things they wouldn’t otherwise and feel passionate about it. You can fight the requirements or you can follow them either out of fear of losing  business or a  strong personal belief.   Because ADA will never truly work as long as people will simply view it as a nuisance, a technicality, something you need to get around. They need to see it as something that transforms people’s lives, reintroduces them to the society, allows them to be productive and fulfills their goals. Let’s be honest: People in wheelchairs are not large enough of a group to have a shopkeeper consider putting in a ramp otherwise not required by law. The cost would be too great and gains probably minimal. Nothing you can’t afford to lo  lose if it was optional. But to have more and more people have a strong positive emotional  reaction to it is priceless. It’s more than any penalty or lawsuit can accomplish. The true awareness comes from people becoming strong advocates for a cause that is not their own simply because it’s the right thing to do rather than fear of consequences. And this has to stem from getting the concept to spread in the local communities. Quite simply, sooner or later we have to get people to care.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Tragedy of lawyers

I saw a man at Starbucks yesterday. He was sitting a table away from me and I could hear his conversation pretty clearly, without even trying. He was meeting a client at a public café. I tried not to listen  and give them their privacy as I was sipping my late, but they were not really keeping it down. “I’ve been doing DUI’s longer than anyone in Gainesville” was the one sentence that stuck in my mind. He was trying to get the person he was meeting to agree to whatever course of action he decided on. “But it’s your money” he concluded. He was a middle-aged man. Dressed up, looking professional and presentable, grey hair matched his grey suit. You could tell he was not new to this game. Yet, instead of his office he was meeting a client at Starbucks. It must have been before lunchtime and if I were to guess, I’d say the place was chosen to accommodate the person he was advising. That’s the tragedy of being a lawyer, especially if you have your own practice. It doesn’t matter if you’re 30, 40 or 50. You’re always on the look out for the next client and you’re eager to land one. Because we all have bills to pay. And it never stops. I was lucky enough to take a “Law practice management “ class back in school. It did exactly what it sounded like- showed us how to start our office. The gist of it was about keeping track of our own time, setting up and yes, billing people. My professor, an accomplished local attorney, encouraged us to always bill people, friends and family alike, even if we were to give them a 100% discount. Only then they will understand that this is your work, this is what you do and it takes a significant amount of time and effort to structure a case. It also requires a lot of commitment. People often don’t understand it, asking for legal advice on the fly. But if they will see it listed out on a bill, with every thing done itemized, they will see what we do has value. Only then will respect it. I have a lot of friends approaching me with their bigger or smaller issues, expecting more of a ‘quick fix’ than actual representation. And I try to help as much as I can  but mostly I tell them to get an attorney. Because as much as I want to help people, if I would never charge anybody for my time I  would never have any money. I do have bills to pay and these are actual bills and rent that I pay every month. And sometimes, after a slow month I still have to ask my family to help. I hear about those rich attorneys who really have made it. Good for them, they worked hard. But I know more struggling ones that are just trying to get by.

What is really tragic about practicing law is it seems that a lot of our work stems from heartbreaking personal drama and turmoil. And we profit from it.  When I saw online pleas for attorneys help in some really painful situation, I used to think: Be human, just help them already. Make an exception, don’t you have a heart? But now I understand that attorneys big and small only have one thing of value: their skill and can only profit from the time they put in. If they all just made an exception for every person that genuinely moved them they would feel better about themselves, but they wouldn’t eat. It’s not that the moving stories of people looking for pro bono help don’t grab my heart. You wish you could do something to take away their pain, you really do. But I’m not established enough to afford it. It’s really not about being greedy. Books that teach new attorneys how to set up an office say that it takes a year if not more after setting up the practice. And it’s a continuous process, you have to attract new clients every day. Some will never go forward, many  will change their mind in the middle of it all. This is what we spent tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars in education money. Many of us are still in debt. There is a website called Avvo, where people with legal questions try to get as much information as they can and attorneys do what they can do reveal as little as they can for free and have them call them. The goal- to land that client, to show him he needs to hire you.And that never changes. Thirty years from now I could be at that very Starbucks trying to convince a young student  to get me to help him with his parking tickets.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I want to do good!

Our idea was simple. If the problem with individuals with disabilities starts with them not standing up for themselves, why don’t we test that theory and educate them. If the goal to inclusion is promoting rights awareness why don’t we empower people by explaining what they are entitled to. If the procedures are confusing, why don’t we show how to go about them and what to expect. We thought everybody would welcome this concept with open arms. After all, we all want to help those with physical and intellectual disabilities alike reach their full potential, right? Education is key they say and the more you know the less likely you are to be brushed aside. I also thought that the general, abled body public should learn a bit about those things too. It’s a human trait to be curious about the world that surrounds us. The more we know, the less bizarre those things appear. And after all, we all share the same reality. Our idea was simple- to travel across Florida (and beyond perhaps in the future) with a traveling workshop if you will, a presentation if you will of the most common features of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related legislation, mostly the State counterparts because they are rarely taught. We also wanted to focus on opportunities in education. I consider them a great equalizer. It gives individuals with disabilities more sought after skills and unique qualifications that put them at a better position on a job market. But in order to get to those advanced degrees a person with a physical  or mental condition needs to complete all the stages leading up to it from elementary school to college and often face disability related problems. And they need to know what the law allows and how to overcome them. I’m not surprised that I see so few people in wheelchairs at my American law school for example, if it’s so difficult to get there in the first place. And it’s that much harder if you have a condition that can derail you off your path at so many different junctions. A lot more  things could go wrong if you have a disability. The problem is the law schools don’t really teach disability law. If they do, they do it rarely and limit the scope to mostly the federal component. What is offered to the general public, that is not studying to be attorneys, I don’t even know. I’ve written about it before. People with disabilities are often mistreated, they don’t know they should talk to an attorney or at least demand service, accommodation or access when riding the bus or frequenting a venue. We wanted to fill that void. We wanted to dedicate our careers or at least a good chunk of them to empower people, because knowledge is power, as idealistic as it sounds, make the world a better place. It would not give us a lot of money, but a sense of satisfaction. To be able to look at yourself in  the  mirror is priceless. Nothing would give me greater joy than doing something I believe I and feel passionate about for a living. But now, I’m sure if it will ever happen. And it’s not easy to let go of a dream. As I spent all of my life with a disability and most of in a wheelchair I wanted to use those experiences for something good.

The idea was to start a non profit with a sole purpose to explain the ins and outs of ADA, an educational structure. To my friends it was one of the  more interesting career possibilities, to me it’s more of an mission. And I don’t know how to do about it, I don’t have the resources to launch a project like that, I can’t do it alone. The original concept was to involve universities to bring the program in and let us do a presentation. They are educational facilities after all. Not only do they have experience putting things together like that, it would also further their mission.  I also think that students with their youth and drive will be the ones transforming the world anyway, so let’s give them the tools to be the new, driven, aware and unapologetic generation of people with disabilities. I decided to start talking to some schools.

Easy, right? Wrong. They fear us. They fear me, I should say, because I’m an attorney. In their eyes,I’m there to solicit clients. To snoop, to figure out whatever they do wrong only to sue them later. And I can understand how you would not trust a lawyer. And I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall trying to explain that I’m only here to educate, but I can’t get their guard down. Some say they have legal departments or ADA attorneys, but do they offer large-scale, structured campus wide presentations? I’m running out of options, I’m low on energy and I’m getting frustrated. Maybe it’s just not meant to be? Maybe it’s stupid to have this dream?

At this stage I’m open to suggestions, cooperation, help or anything that would let me do the things I wanted to do since I applied to law school. If you know or run an institution or a program that could be a good fit for me, let me know. If you’re an educator, a lawyer and you want to do something together, let me know also. Because it’s time for to make a decision and figure out what is realistic and what’s a quixotic dream. While I want to help others and my needs are small, I need to find a way to make a living on continuous basis.  If I can’t make this work I need to refocus my goals. I may not do what I hoped but at least not only my family would never have to worry about me, I wouldn’t have to worry about them. Please share and retweet this

Monday, August 13, 2012

People of Gainesville

It’s that time of the year again. People move out, others move in. So many neighbors I never got to talk to, although many walked by me or bumped into me at the mailbox every day. I used to be much more open and eager to start a conversation with strangers turned friends when I first moved here. That’s the thing I liked about Florida. It’s not the weather, although the warmth and not having to dress in layers is nice, but the humidity ruins that anyway. It’s the people. I’m reminded of that of that every time I see someone loading a moving van. Open and approachable, relaxed and curious of others. I come from a big city in Poland where pedestrians are more private, very much to themselves. You would not start a conversation with a random person, they would not stop to compliment you. I couldn’t count the times I got sucked into a conversation on the bus with someone I didn’t know. I would not be able to tell you how often I ended up cracking jokes with someone in the check out line. You would say it’s because they were closer to my age, Gainesville has a youthful scene and that attitude is part of the college experience. But I also remember that when I first moved here and my parents stayed for a few weeks to help me get situated some girl turned to my mom on the street to say ‘I love your dress’. She turned to me thinking she misunderstood something, because how and why would anyone approach a stranger so directly to say something so random and so nice? It’s not that the Poles aren’t nice and helpful people. Apparently the tourist that visited Warsaw during the Euro 2012 soccer championships were amazed how willing the locals were to give them directions. But this is not how you make friends, at least in a big city. When I was in New York and the crowds passed me by never looking at me, noticing me and just going their own way, that feeling was familiar. There’s a scene in the Tom Cruise movie Collateral where the main character mentions that you could be dead on the NY subway for many hours before someone realizes you’re not breathing. This is the feeling of anonymity and unimportance in ways that I recognize from big cities. Avoid contact, be always suspicious. When I moved to Gainesville people were interested in getting to know me. I was also much curious of other people. My new found independence gave me this new medium to meet people and go places. So I engaged in a lot of conversations and exchanged phone numbers plenty of times. I’ve lost most of them and I forgot most of the faces. But this ease with which you can approach anyone has helped me a lot and given me confidence. I remember meeting a soldier that just returned from Iraq to his newborn daughter. He had her name, NOVA tattooed on his arm. We talked about life, hope and fate and it was fascinating to me how you can connect with a random stranger with insight and perspective so different than mine. I was going to an induction ceremony at an honors society that I skipped completely. An unexpected friend seemed more interesting than any on campus activity. It was 2004. I don’t remember his name but I remember the experience. And I had many long and random conversations since then. Not planned and going on for hours. Since then I got more cynical and in ways more structured. And I miss that sense of wonderment in how I saw Gainesville, myself in it and my freedom. I remember thinking- why do people tell me there’s nothing to do here as they get lost in sex and booze when there’s so much you can learn from another human being in the middle of the night. That’s also how I met my friend Josh (I wrote about that last month). Bars, shops, cafés all became exciting places to meet people with amazing life stories. Then, the law school drama unfolded. Then, I was dealing with immigration for many years, just trying not to fall apart. Being in a dark and lonely place changes you and of course you grow up. I still try to put people first, I live in a town where people come and go and I have a profession that involves studying and understanding others. And once in a while I get that feeling back.   

Thursday, August 9, 2012

2006: My fight for education

In 2006, Levin College of Law originally refused to admit me for my second American and third total law degree. But I never gave up and with a lot more pushing and some more convincing I did get in that coming Spring. Sometime before that happened the Florida Law Docket published this text I've written about myself.  While it feels miles away and years if not decades ago it helps to remind me where I came from. Although today I practice law in two jurisdictions, it keeps me grounded. And it reminds why I got into this in the first place, having very few allies, feeling lost and alone.
This is the text as published in the Law school Docket. Thanks to Frisco and Brian for making this possible. 

I was twenty-five when I first arrived in Gainesville. My goal in leaving Poland was to find a place where my wheelchair would matter as little and possible. I wanted to succeed, to have a normal life and career—or at least more normal than conditions at home would permit. In my journeys I have overcome a language barrier and the trials of cerebral palsy. Coming to America was a huge leap, but the administration of the Levin College of Law has been my biggest obstacle.

In my home country, I was in the top one percent of my class. Despite that my grades and writing skills merited awards and scholarships, I was not able to take advantage of them. Courts and offices lacked ramps and elevators. Mass transit systems were not designed to accommodate wheelchairs. I might have looked really good on paper but in the real world I was just a disabled person with a diploma in Latin, not being able to run errands, get to clients or even to the firm's office.

The international LLM programs generate a lot of publicity for the Levin College of Law. The administration is caring and helpful and smiling foreign students end up on informative brochures. I took part in this program, and everything was fine until I decided to apply for a JD. It seemed like the logical thing to do, as I’d be able to remain in the US and practice law. All I had to do was take a standardized test and apply. 

I was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that not only creates problems with writing but also involves muscle spasms and tensions. For UF exams, my disability accommodations usually include extra time and scribe assistance. However, coming from Poland, I didn't have the proper ADA standardized documents that would permit me to be accommodated. I did get evaluated by the UF Infirmary, and the UF ADA office reviewed the findings and suggested that I receive accommodations. Yet, the LSAT administration refused my requests, saying the paperwork was lacking. Even if it was I had nothing to do with it, as all the documents were filled out and faxed by the UF Infirmary. 

My application for the JD program was rejected based on a poor LSAT score. UF knows I need disability accommodation and has always provided them, yet it has no problem accepting a score that it knows does not reflect my potential. The LSAT people told me that I cannot appeal their medical findings and they refuse to explain precisely what is wrong with my application. I've met with a number of people working with the administration thinking that I haven't been vocal enough about my problem. The Admissions Committee seemed genuinely sympathetic so I felt encouraged to file an appeal. The appeal, and everything else I’ve tried, has proven futile.

When I met Dean Jerry for the first time to discuss my problem he mapped out possible solutions and even offered to investigate. When I met him again two weeks later his attitude was different. He hadn't had the time to look into what happened and he seemed very eager to ship me off to another Florida law school. All in all, the Dean did nothing but smile and shake my hand. The UF Law administration has not helped me and no other public schools are willing to allow me to advance the credits I've completed here. 

The UF ADA stopped responding to my emails ever since I've graduated. My appeals have succeeded only in irritating the administration. Dean Patrick informed me that a decision would be reached within two weeks. It took them six and the denial was written on my birthday. The extra month they took for no apparent reason was the time I would have needed if I decided to attend any other school. Getting settled in a new town takes time if you're in a wheelchair and without any support from friends and family. By the time I got my letter, a week before going to New York to take the Bar Exam, it was clear I would have to stay in Gainesville. UF’s delay sealed my fate.

When the decision came, I appealed again, this time to the Disability Admissions Committee that apparently exist within law school. I figured if anyone can appreciate the role my disability played in the whole process it would be them. Sadly, my petition was denied. UF claimed to have properly accommodated my disability. It is true that they were appreciating my disability at every exam that I've taken. But in the admissions process, the LSAT is simply the most important of all the factors considered. Without intervention, my LSAT score and rejection for the UF JD program both stand.

I'm being denied not because I'm not qualified to be admitted, but because of bureaucratic red tape and administrative apathy. If I don't get back to school or get a job, I'll be on a plane by February, headed home to Poland. Thinking back what has happened to me, I can only conclude that logic, reason and compassion clearly went out the window when my application was considered. This letter  is my final recourse.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wheelchair Celebrity

Raf_s7973A man held the door for me last weekend as I was leaving the local pub. ‘Hold on, I’m helping this Polish guy’ he explained to the person he was talking on his cellphone. I didn’t know who he was, I’ve never seen him before. As he was hanging up he explained he read my editorial in The Alligator. I’ve never  written for that newspaper, a few years ago they wrote about me. I did have an opinion piece printed in the Gainesville Sun more recently, no pictures though. Yet, a random person recognized me on the street.  Quite a bit has happened to me since I moved to America. I’ve had a number of local media write about either my fight to get back in law school or my struggles with immigration. Some highlighted my independence, my decision to move here from Poland by myself in search for a better life, the hardships and sacrifices my family made when I was growing up. It was attractive I guess to feature me, because it went against a lot of things they’ve assumed about people with Cerebral Palsy this advanced and people in wheelchairs in general. I was young, foreign, motivated and funny. Quite frankly I don’t see a whole lot of people with advanced disabilities in Gainesville. There was only one other person in a wheelchair at the law school when I was there. Now, once in a while I see one or two undergrads in a chair if I travel through campus. It’s mostly older people that are me visible, honestly, barely managing moving those big hospital style things in the poorer districts of town. The Gainesville Sun wrote two pieces about me, The Alligator dedicated their spread to my story, while InSite called me one of Gainesville’s 18 most interesting people. As the articles were coming out about a year apart from each other it gave me some sort of visibility and recognition. People were stopping me on the street although not too often to tell me that they’ve read ‘my article’ and too ask how I was doing. At that point I understood what it must be like to be Paris Hilton.  At times I have a person on a bus turn to me to say they remember reading about me five years ago and they were curious how that ended.

Some people told me that reading about me inspired them to go to law school. I’ve had a first year law student come up to me to say hi like he was star struck. He explained that not only he went to law school after he read about me and my struggles, but he decided on UF to meet me. It was very sweet and moving, but also very strange. And I was never vain enough to seek that kind of recognition. I think people should be known for what they do and the things they accomplish, not simply for being something. I also think that when people actually meet me they’re bound to be disappointed as I could never live up to the image in their heads. They expect someone who is very serious, focused, analytical, dare I say cerebral, while privately I like to be silly, sarcastic, I  joke a lot and I like to have fun. And I don’t want to be charged with a responsibility for other people’s life choices. I don’t care to be a celebrity, I just want to do my job. I do recognize however that America responds best to human interest stories. That I have to be out there so I can deliver a more positive message of what is like to be my age and have a disability, to help the non profit causes I believe in, to give Cerebral Palsy a human face. If there’s anything I can do to help, motivate or inspire I will do that. Because I’m not ashamed of who I am, what I have and where I come from. But never for a minute do I think that this recognition is real, earned and deserved.

Monday, August 6, 2012

American Chicken sandwich

I was hoping the Chic-fil-A gay marriage debacle wouldn't escalate the way it did. No one came out of this conflict looking good, except for the food chain, of course, that showed record profits. It wasn’t too surprising. I knew that the chicken giant that already surpassed McDonald’s as the biggest fast food franchise in America in terms of revenue per restaraunt would not be harmed by this. They have long associated themselves with the so-called traditional family values and if anything, their customer base will love them even more. The restaurant profile  was of course no secret or mystery and anybody that read anything about Chic-fil-A or its’ founder wasn’t shocked that he speaks strongly against marriage. None of this was really new information. The only thing that isn’t clear to me is if it’s the chain itself or the man behind it that donates to the ant-gay causes, because I’ve seen conflicting reports. As part of their business model they have been always closed on Sundays a move that many say costs them many millions of  dollars a year. I’d say whatever they lose on that day they might just as well be getting back during the week by creating a stronger sense of loyalty among the strongly religious Christian families. By showing that the business is willing to sacrifice good money for the sake of observing the  7th day Chic-fil-A established itself as part of the community, as “one of us” for many people. I will never understand people who have such strong anti-gay views just as much as I will never understand how people can have such strong views on other issues that don’t affect them or their way of life. But whoever thought it was a good idea to let this issue blow up the way it did on either side was seriously misguided. Chic-fil-A couldn’t pay for this kind of publicity and the sale volumes speak for themselves. Was that the idea? To give them more business? And right wing politicians lead to this absurd notion that it’s your civic duty to go and buy a chicken sandwich. That you need to stand for American values by letting a private business make even more millions of dollars. That, as if this was a matter of national concern, you’re going  wait in lines that last Wednesday were extraordinarily long in Summer heat to buy from this one vendor as if you were fighting some kind of cultural war with fries on the side. I sure hope that those who encouraged people to shop at their restaurants or have a stake in them or were well compensated. Because you couldn’t ask for a stronger endorsement and you couldn’t dream of a better campaign that will never go away. In the minds of many people Chic-fil-A now forever be the all-American restaurant that respects values and cherishes families. It will be seen as the underdog, although it is a market leader. Soon people will not even remember the details, but the general notion that America loves Chic-fil-A will remain.

I don’t believe in politicizing food.  If I were to avoid a food place it would be for reasons involving their product or service. I remember there was an issue involving low pay of produce pickers I believe at one of the vegetable suppliers for the University that got a lot of people upset. I’m not sure how I feel about minimum wages, but I understood the controversy.   I’ve eaten a Chic-fill-A before, for a few months it was the closest restaurant to where I have lived. I’m not a big fan of their food, though I read that their  fries cooked in peanut oil are believed to be healthier than the deep fried ones. I’m not a big fan of boycotts. They never work. I remember when one of my very liberal friends tried to pass out bumper stickers encouraging people to not watch Fox News. She of course never watched the channel never was somebody they catered to , she was never part of their base. So they wouldn’t be hurt by her deciding to still not watch it as they were not selling anything to her. It’s a tough call. I pay for a service, I’m happy with the product, if it’s good value, should I care about anything else?  We never think of those things as endorsements of any kind If I go to a store, I order a pizza or hire a cleaning service and everything is satisfactory, I don’t know if the owner is spending it all on guns or drugs or prostitutes. I don’t know if he’s racist, misogynistic or a homophobe. You can say the difference is- we know, the man came out and said it. But then again none of this is really new information. And one of my friends pointed out that they may be supporting anti-abortion movements as well. And that wouldn’t be surprising either.  While I’m disagreeing with the Chick-fil-A head on this issue, I’m on the other side of many others from Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins or Tom Cruise. Should I boycott their movies too? Or can we separate a product from the person, a viewpoint from art? Instead of boycotting anyone or anything, the movement should be proactive. Say, a “Get a sandwich at Relish-day” (that has much better chicken in my opinion anyway) or send a receipt from any other fast food to Chick-fil-A day. Why didn’t anybody think of that?  Many people just got up and bought a sandwich simply because they believe that politics should stay out of food, businesses should be allowed to grow and people can have any kind of stupid and small minded views they desire. Is it better to not know what somebody thinks when you’re giving them your money? Just because they don’t say it, doesn’t mean it’s not going through their head. At least when you know and you decide it bothers you you can go elsewhere next time. What is really unfortunate, those who came out to support the restaurant based on their free marked believes will forever be lumped together with those who oppose gay rights. I can imagine the record turnouts being used to spin that agenda and encourage future activities by the ‘traditionalists’. But there is also another issue. 

Chick-Fil-A is a franchise. Your friend, your neighbor, someone from your community who runs it and put in however small investment would hurt if the boycott was successful. I was surprised that the lines were long even in Gainesville, a college town in Florida, seen as very liberal, with very visible gay minority student groups often funded by the University. I would guess that the only locations that hurt from this might’ve been the campus ones. If so, University would suffer UF Chic-fil-A’s are maintained and staffed by Aramark, just like Subway or Starbucks. A business is more than a person and their views. It’s the employees, suppliers, franchisees, contractors. That’s what makes it a tougher call. And sometimes there are repercussions, unintended consequences that may  lead to something no one ever predicted. Some people will always be prejudiced, but they should never be silenced. You can try to educate and reason, but some people will never be convinced. There are as many  opinions as they  are people. Confrontation is never a good way to go.

Friday, August 3, 2012


Last weekend made me realize what I really don’t like about Florida. We went to Celebration, a Disney engineered  town outside of Orlando and near the theme parks designed to be the perfect family community. My friends say it looks a bit like something out of the Stepford Wives with the perfectly painted houses very close to each other in residential areas and pretty, well maintained streets and condo buildings. That’s the thing about Florida. Everything seems to be a driving distance away, but you need to drive. You can go through one of those small towns and never see anything but a gas station and a one story shopping strip every few intersections. Many of my friends who complain about finding a place to settle here when I mention Orlando also point out that it’s very spread out. Everyone from that area seems to be living in one of those places that have a separate name and are 20 minutes away from work. By car of course, Americans love their cars. On top of everything a lot of things you see from the road, the oversized banners and decorations sticking out of buildings feel very kitschy. Advertising for souvenirs and theme parks everywhere. It looked odd in 2004, still does eight years later. It’s random and over the top like Las Vegas. It has a nice downtown area full of life, pubs, restaurants and entertainment, but when we were out at night the music was blasting into the streets. A little too loud a little to crazy. Miami, I haven’t seen much of, but what I did see was very industrial and dirty. I was beginning to think that there’s no place in Florida that would fit my needs.  The humidity makes it a hard sell anyway. The heat you can get used to, but every day feels like sauna. Some years you feel you got used to it, others – like this Summer, it bothers you again. I need something a little more condensed or a place with good mass transit you can get around. It narrows it down to either a bigger city or a small town, because Gainesville feels like everybody here is just waiting to graduate and get out. Then, we discovered Celebration. And I fell in love with it. It feels like in many ways it doesn’t belong in Florida. It was as if we drove for hours to discover this movie like town out of nowhere. It did seem like a film set with how clean it was, how bright the colors were and how well designed and detailed it was. We drove pass well kept houses with American flags to squares with shops, parks, something that felt like a marina on a lake. My friend called it a New England type of town. Oddly some restaurants invited us to try Portland style cooking. It seemed like a place frozen in time, the ideal American town with a 50’s-60’s style diner and a movie theater that was not a multiplex that seemed to be directly from that era. We drove pass the elementary school and the high school, that I joked was so big every child got their own class room. Why would anybody go anywhere else? There’s even a university. I went there once before and I wanted to investigate. It was my birthday, so my friend took me there for the weekend. I think we both had fun. It was great to get away from the college kids if only for few days. I believe Gainesville topped the charts again of the best places to retire in. I wonder why and what is there to do exactly if  university dominates the town and bars are our main industry. One of Gainesville’s pluses is of course proximity to Jacksonville and Orlando, but why would you want to live somewhere only to drive somewhere else. Celebration is a new town. Built in the mid 90’s. Perhaps I’ll move there one day. I know I’ll be back. People were friendly (and adult), but most importantly, although though it’s a new place built around an idea purposefully to recreate that feeling of nostalgia, to me it had character and atmosphere.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Make it fun!

My mom did a lot to motivate me to do my exercises everyday and make it fun. I might’ve been five or six at the time I first remember, but she made all my toys talk to me in their own distinct  voices and comment on everything that went on in the room. I also knew that there was a witch watching me from the balcony if I was bad or didn’t do what I was supposed to. As a child I was really scared of witches and nurses. I’ve had quite a few injections when was was little and going to get them was a traumatic experience every time. Once my mother misspoke and said that a nurse is watching me from the other building, a fact that that I immediately picked up on. Which is worse? -my mom asked- I don’t know anymore- I replied. Having a lively, engaging environment and a room full of of friends, although all voiced by mother made the dull exercises that I had to do each day, rain or shine for hours a little less boring. Our apartment was full of rehabilitation equipment that might’ve seen unusual to my school friends but felt like ordinary items to me. I’ve had wall bars in my room that doubled as shelves for my plush toys and a gym mattress that was also good for playing or doing homework. All these things seemed natural and obvious as  part of our furniture and so did doing the exercises everyday. When I grew older my mom again tried to make it a little more entertaining when I would walk around the house  with sticks in my leg braces. The goal was 10 rounds, but I always had something to look forward to. Every so often we’d agree on a break and a piece of chocolate or she would challenge me for a reward. My brother’s cassettes that I remember till this day- Michael Jackson, Sandra, Pet Shop Boys among others made things a little more pleasant. When I was out with my braces the goal was to have me walk al the way to the video store and I could rent some cartoons if I wanted to. It’s not that my mom was bribing me and it’s not that I didn’t want to exercise or didn’t know that I should, but she felt that keeping me excited and motivated was important. It was a win win situation. She wanted me in leg braces either standing or down on my stomach for  many hours after all the other things, I wanted to read my favorite novel or watch a classic sitcom. And it’s something I’ve seen in Budapest as well. While most days looked exactly the same on some occasions the conductors prepared something extraordinary. My understanding is, once in a while they were getting evaluated and while exercise scripts remained the same they would get creative and switch things up. On those days they got in character or prepared little prizes for us to collect. I remember getting a pendant made of clay and a Pepsi sticker. They designed the backstory and context just to make it a little more fun and memorable. I remember very little, but it was interesting and different. Routines are repetitive, but they don’t have to be boring.  Like everything in life, you have to keep it interesting.