Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Man in the mirror

I hate watching myself on video. In any recording I don't recognize the man I see and know from the mirror.  I guess it's true that a camera adds ten pounds. My face is rounder and I look heavier. There's a strange intensity in it that make it seem strained when I speak. I look angry or sad, especially when I'm tired or nervous. What's wrong with my eyes? My voice sounds different than I hear it in head. I like to think it's just one of those things I take after my mother, you can barely recognize her on the phone. Whose facial expressions are these? My spasticity is far more visible that I give it credit for every day. I look swollen, I really want go back and correct my posture and how could I leave the house with that hair. And yet, pushing for disability causes requires me to be public to an extent and come to terms with the fact that I how I see myself and how  others see me may be completely different things. Being public requires me to come to terms with how I come across. I guess we all think of ourselves as smart or fun or articulate or attractive to a degree. I may have a disability, but in my mind I see myself as everybody else. When I was younger, this external, unbiased look felt difficult to accept. Now I just say to myself: This is me. I can't do anything about it and I don't have the time or the energy to deal with silly small issues. For a few days journalism students were following me around Gainesville and did a swell job chronicling my life story. And I could spend days picking apart what I don't like about my look or I can focus on the message and ways I want to help the disability community. Sometimes we need to get over ourselves

Monday, October 29, 2012

Hippodrome: Old buildings and wheelchairs

I live next to a theater that puts on stage shows as well as play movies. It's an old post office building that is now famous for indie and European cinema and small cast musicals and dramas. I'm there quite often, not only because it's the source of entertainment closest to my apartment, I also enjoy experiencing something different. I try to never miss a play, in fact I'm an annual subscriber. Every Wednesday I buy a ticket for the film, regardless what is: documentary, foreign or one of those features that seem to end in the middle of a scene. But a building like this, as historic and atmospheric it may be. has a number of accessibility issues of its own. The biggest problem I've discovered so far was the restroom. When nature called I discovered there were no grab bars in the cabins and just like back home I had to manage leaning against walls and looking onto the toilet base for support. You never know when years of Conductive Education that taught me to adapt and use the functionality of my body come handy. Then I learnt that there are wheelchair accessible toilets in the building- in the ladies' room apparently.  I was so told. I wouldn't know- I'm not a woman and there is nothing that would inform me about it in the men's room. A really tight manual elevator takes me to the main stage floor. It's one of those stylish old things you see in the movies.The attendant  has to align it perfectly with the floor level. Sometimes this involves going up and down multiple times often with the production just about to start. The audience is sited around the stage, from three sides. When the floor manager knows I'll be watching the play he or she removes a regular chair in the front row and I simply roll into that spot. Last week my arrival somehow wasn't noted in their system so it delayed things a bit. Trust me, it's not a good feeling when everyone is waiting on you to arrive. So many things are involved with the mechanics of accommodating a wheelchair especially in a building as old as this. People who walk don't even realize how many people are involved so I can have this experience while they simply go up the stairs.  It starts with the ramp outside, not only because of how steep it is but also given that local bikers have been using the bars on the side to secure their two-wheels. It's often scary and dangerous when the handle bars stick out into the ramp area, as I go down trying to squeeze myself through the opening and I've written about it before.

Could it be that solution is as simple as letting people know? The Hippodrome put  a piece of paper saying " Handicapped ramp Do not block with bikes" on the grab bars. Nothing fancy, yet when I was there it seemed to have worked. There was no bike in sight. No one was threatened with a law suit or fined. Nobody was towed away. All it took was a printed warning. And the box office clerk said they have a few spares just in case. The message is simple:"This is not for you". And so far it gets through. Maybe people just need to understand.   As I was going home with my new found faith and hope for humanity, two bikes were blocking the concrete path to my apartment.

Old buildings are difficult to deal with when it comes to making them wheelchair accessible. And quite honestly a lot of places in New York or DC don't bother. At least I can get in.  At least they try. I remember times in Poland when going to see a play or a movie presented a big challenge.  My dad had to pull me up with the  chair or carry me up the stairs on those few occasions we decided to go. As long as I'm in, compared to this I can deal with anything

Friday, October 26, 2012

Disability and me: Who I am

I could never match the expectations people have when they meet me. Quite honestly I have long stopped trying to. The image that they have when they hear or learn about me is never the complete picture and for many it is a problem. You learn about my disability, my wheelchair, my struggles, my fight and my plight, you focus on one aspect of me and you figure you know what I'm all about. I found it strange, but painfully reminded of it in this election cycle as well, how we choose to reduce others to those one or two things that they are like they are poster children for causes. We assume we know what it's like to be other people, how they should feel, what they should stand for and what should matter to them most. I've dealt with a lot of serious issues in my time. Life with disability is no laughing matter. I've faced surgeries, pain, self doubt and exclusion. Since I moved to America, I've dealt with a lot of rejection, misunderstanding and  neglect. I've fought for disability awareness, accessibility and things like my own law school and immigration. And I do think about those things plenty, I tend to over-analyze and I share my experiences on my blog. Before that I've had stories written about me in the local press. None of it is manufactured and I have a lot of passion for things that matter to me most, but there's more to me. And I've had people meeting me over coffee because they felt inspired by something I have said and written wanting to get to know me, leaving disappointing.

They were expecting to see a hero, a champion of human rights and all they get is me. The idea is is that I always am this highly focused, deep thinking intellectual, branded by life experiences like some form of otherworldly being. Someone sad, somebody serious, broken perhaps? Sometimes you can just see I'm not who they've hoped to meet.Many times I've been told by people they expected me to be different. That's why I don't even meet people excited to meet this media persona based on me anymore. In one way or another, if you think that's all there is to me, you're bound to be disappointed. And I don't think it's fair to put that burden on me.  If I can make you understand disability, I will do it but it is not my job to live up to anybody's expectations and it's not my fault if you don't like what you see. The truth is, I have a wicked sense of humor and I like having fun. I'm sarcastic and I take after my dad. Back in Poland he had a very risque way he would joke and when I first got here I found I'm very much like him to my own surprise. I've had to tone it down since. Humor to me is the most basic way I relate to people. Think about it. What an awful existence it would be if I just contemplated Cerebral Palsy and how I'm excluded from the world on daily basis. I'm not good at forcing conversation and I don't feel well around those who are square.

Having said that I'm serious and driven when I work and I always try to be respectful and mindful. Back in the law school I used to dye my hair blond and my mother would be concerned about my image. And to an extent she has a point. But if someone is not going to hire me or not like how I come across it will not be about my hair color or if I shaved that day or if I wore a tie that day honestly. Because I'm already different and I stick out. And I don't want to go through life apologizing for who I am or that I'm not as you pictured me to be.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


People always ask me: "Why are you wearing gloves?" That's the one accessory you will never see me leave the house without. If I cannot find a pair that matches and I'm in a real hurry, I just grab whatever right and left ones in seemingly good shape I can find. I use them for protection as I roll. It's sounds like a very obvious thing to say, but I subject my hands to a lot everyday. Over the years I've had to give up on my dream of becoming a hand model (kidding of course) as calluses and corns formed everywhere. Even before I finally settled in a wheelchair many years of walking with sticks in legbraces caused me to develop some really hard skin on my palms. At the age of 10 my hand felt so rough to the touch as if I worked at a coal mine all day. Before I wore gloves, I would irritate or cut my hands from either grabbing the bar while the wheels are rolling or the continuous friction. They would turn red, sometimes bleed from the constant exposure to the tire. When I go up a hill, I push hard and grip tightly, when I go down I pull the wheels with my hands to slow it down. My right hand, the one that is more affected by my disability, is probably not aligned properly to come in contact  less. I used to wear biking gloves. But if I didn't place the fingers correctly I'd end up hurting and whatever parts of my hand would stick out were getting dirty. I needed a full glove, and none of the ones on the market today last me very long. But I manage with what I have. Gloves became a regular part of my wardrobe and my mom sends me some of the fancier types from Poland. You wear them like other people do shoes, she says- they need to be presentable. But then nobody goes through a pair of shoes every 6 to 8 weeks. They tear usually under the thumb which is where I push onto the wheel the hardest. A little worn out area that just gets bigger until my skin is seen through a hole. Sometimes, because of the hot and humid weather the inner material reacts with my sweat and leaves a residue. On other occasions they just split at the seams. Football gloves, batting, climbing gloves were never designed to sustain such repeated abuse. Even the advertised Four season wheelchair gloves didn't last me a full one. There are pairs that I use on special occasions that fit with particular outfit. The ones golfers use are too delicate to roll outside, but they are white and clean and feel appropriate with a suit.  The right ones I ruin quickly,  the left ones I typically lose. Left hand is the one I usually do things with so I take gloves off for comfort and better precision. The thicker ones sometimes give me a better grip, but are much hotter to wear and feel clumsy. Every new type, every new thickness takes some time getting used to  As I sweat and they get dirty I need to wash them, which is not the best thing to do if they are leather.  .After I do many of them, irrespective of the material feel different. Tighter and harder. I have a box of gloves in my living room that either have a hole in them or  missing the pair. Yes, because of that my friends have called me Michael Jackson before. But you can never understand what my hands go through without looking at the gloves I'm wearing. When somebody asks me why I do I ask them to take a look at how tor and splitting they are and imagine they are  my hands

Monday, October 22, 2012

Disability and doubt:"You're a real attorney?"

Some friends of mine seem to be really impressed with the fact that I'm an attorney and often use it as a conversation piece even if I'm nowhere near. A couple times I walked into an ongoing discussion only to learn that my name was already brought up and somebody was waiting to introduce me to their circle. Many people often didn't believe me until I give them my card, as if it's seeing it printed, using the most generic template from an online service made it official. A few Saturdays ago I was having a fun karaoke night at a bar  with a couple of drinks while my friends decided to smoke outside. When I went out to check on them introductions begun. He doesn't believe you a real attorney- said my friend a bit frustration, pointing at a man she just man. I didn't care- I was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, I've had a drink or two. I wasn't looking very lawyer-like: no pulled back gelled up  hair or a suit. I wasn't too upset, even if he didn't believe me, I was hoping for a fun night to relax. I wasn't planning on being professional that night. But then I gave him my card, which I use to advertise my blog rather than a law practice and he was really impressed.  I guess it's a well spent 12 dollars (printed front and back) My friends were the ones annoyed, as if I was insulted and they were fighting for my honor. Yes, some of it has to do with be being in a wheelchair, but the more you do it, the less you care what people think. I'm a lawyer because that's my profession. I don't do it as a gimmick or to impress people. I don't need to prove my worth. I worked really hard to get my three law degrees from two countries. Later, many weeks spent on crunching for the Bar exam. Blood sweat and tears if you will to have me license to practice in two American jurisdiction. For me it's a natural consequence of everything I put into this. I didn't just land on my lap, I'm hardly an overnight sensation.

Many years of pushing and fighting with a lot of people doubting if I can do it. Because I'm in a wheelchair, because I'm from Poland. I used to think that it would make me feel so good to show all the nonbelievers  what I have accomplished and how their negativity only fueled me to worked harder. That one day I would say, I'm vindicated and I have arrived, what so you say now? But I don't feel different. Not in the way that makes you get back at people. I'm educated, I'm trained, more knowledgeable, I have better perspectives but being a lawyer is what I do, it doesn't transform me into a different person. One of the things that UF students interviewing me for their journalism project asked me was: Do people that used to dismiss me treat me different now that I'm a lawyer? And the truth is you see it in their eyes. How they go from feeling better than you, because the first thing they see is a wheelchair, to impressed and wanting to hear more. "You're an attorney? A Real attorney"-they say as if there is any other kind. One woman even declared she'll make sure I am by researching me with a Florida Bar. If I pretended to be one I'd be in trouble because unauthorized practice of law is a crime. But I don't practice law to get attention. And I think every person has worth and every profession has a reason. I have friends who are clerks, masseurs, bartenders, waiters, mechanics, artists, actors among others and I don't really understand why some people think I'm allowed to feel better than anyone. And would I chase down the people who were once dismissive to say: Look at me know? Why would I care?

Friday, October 19, 2012

American politics.

Let me tell you a secret- no matter who wins the American presidential election the world will not end. Regardless of what is being said right now, with either Obama or Romney we should not expect any major shift in governmental policies. Yes, the country may shift slightly to the left or right, highlight some issues over other, but nothing drastic is ever happening in spite of the political background of the person in office. One thing that I've always admired in American politics as changes at the helm happen is this overall sense of continuity. And one thing I've always found amazing is that no matter how cut throat both politicians may be and however trying to appease their base they always seem to gravitate to the center a bit once elected on their harshest ideas. I don't get to vote in these elections. I will just be affected by the outcome. For now, media try to build it up as " a really big deal", all my friends take it really personally, some attack each other and defriend on Facebook as if the morning after one is picked over the other we were to wake up in some entirely different world. Some claim to plan to leave the country after Obama is elected. A drunk student on a bus was telling me that  he's moving abroad if Romney gets the job.  How will it affect everyone's everyday life? Chances are, not so much. Is it worth losing a friend over? Can you undo the hurt and unspeak the words spoken? Four years ago, my black Republican friend told me he would vote for Obama. And I couldn't understand it. 'Watch and see- he said- there's not much difference between McCain and Obama". And to an extent he was right. The president continued some of his predecessors politics, kept Guantanamo Bay open, though he said he wouldn't and got US involved in a few fresh military conflicts right after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.  He was firmer on immigration than a lot of his predecessors, which typically is part of the  Republican platform. Not only do I mean deportation statistics  but policy and paperwork that universities dealing with international  students now produce.Within the two party system there's not only no room for fresh ideas, as they become more and more a like, but each include supporters with views that often differ more within one party than between moderates across the isle. Having only two candidates not only means that you will never find one that matches your world view exactly, but also that you need to prioritize issues that are important to you and compromise on others. Do you care more about low taxes, gay marriage or abortion? And if you care about all those issues can the other candidate hurt them less within the likely tools at his disposal.

A recent Warsaw Business Journal poll shows that only 38% of Polish people approve of Barack Obama. They will of course not be electing the American president so you can dismiss that statistic as irrelevant. I'm a Pole and it matters to me. And I think it signals a problem for the US in the international arena. American presidents have long showed very little understanding of Europe's history, protocol and customs, but maybe don't have have to- across the pond they live in their own universe. I guess USA is a big and powerful country matters regardless of how little regard it has for its faithful allies. Barack Obama scrapped the Bush planned missile shield in Poland, which was intended to provide us additional security. As a country squeezed in between Germany and Russia for centuries craving any additional ounce of security we can get. He didn't visit my homeland until much later in his presidency, which in diplomatic circles was read as high disregard. In turn, Lech Walesa, the legendary leader of Solidarity refused to meet with him. He also called Auschwitz a Polish deathcamp, all while presenting a World War II survivor with a medal. Media and politicians demanded an apology, which the President has yet to make. I think he just doesn't understand the gravity of his words and that Polish government devoted significant resources into tracking and correcting false accounts of WWII history, linking Poland to Nazi Germany, lumping the victim and aggressor together. But then, my Republican friends  don't understand what the big deal is either. Must be an American thing. They also were surprised with the outrage at Michelle Obama for putting her arm around the British Queen, which was not something the protocol allowed.  Mitt Romney has problems of his own. He visited Poland on the other hand prematurely, before elected, part of this campaign. He's not a head of state, yet he gets other countries involved in his internal, American affairs. And he used Lech Walesa for a photo op. Barack Obama last time around was also visiting places in Europe to get a campaign boost making other governments quite uncomfortable.  The funny thing is, Obama is attacking Romney for his international gaffes while having a share of his own.

Obama is not that liberal, Romney isn't that conservative. When he came out in support of gay marriage, the President felt very uncomfortable about it, as if the statement was forced out of him. For most of his career Mitt Romney was running as a socially liberal Republican. In his debate with Ted Kennedy he famously identified himself as further on the left than he was on gay rights. Now he seems to run not so much against Obama, but his former self. In a series of ad campaigns for Barack Obama, I've heard that Mitt Romney wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, and take away women's  right to choose. I'm surprised, that Obama, a former constitutional law professor would ever allow such nonsense in his campaign. It implies that overturning abortion rights would be easy and in president's power to do. The statement was lifted from a point that Romney made in 2007 saying that if presented, he would sign a bill limiting abortion rights. That is surprising as well, given that the challenger received a juris doctor, so he must understand that bill that "overturns" Roe v. Wade faces constitutionality issues after he signs it. One thing he didn't say he would do is actively pursuing undoing  that holding. He didn't say he wants a Constitutional Amendment that would prohibit abortion (and he would never get the required majority), or that he would replace Supreme Court Justices to vote accordingly if such issue  ever reappeared before the Court. I can't even think of a scenario where somebody sues and meets all the legal requirements of a proper case for someone having a right to abortion. The Court rarely simply reversed itself at when it did it was mostly in support of individual rights not against it.Besides: The beauty of the Supreme Court is this: You can't predict how the justices will vote regardless of who picked them, some of the Reagan and Bush nominees proved more moderate than expected. I guess you could eliminate funding or slow down procedures if you really wanted to, but Romney never said he would. The other argument that I hear a lot is him reinstating the Clinton era "Don't ask Don't tell" policy, which because it was done via executive order he could technically do. The approach promoted gay servicemen to keep their sexuality hidden otherwise they'd face dismissal. I can see the cavalcade of law suits from men and women in duty who came out with former administration's blessing only to be dismissed under Romney. People's lives and interests would be hurt. You can't undo it, once you did it.

A lot of things being said and done with one purpose only. To have voters come out, to have them excited, to have them turn up. For Democrats it's: they're taking away our civil rights! For Republicans it's: they're disposing of our morals, taking our property! While it's unlikely people switch sides, if they don't see in them men of principle , they simply stay at home. Whoever wins will be charged with the mission of uniting Americans under one leadership. Because if there's one thing they're capable of doing it's standing behind the President. They argue and fight now. Yet the day after election, all will be back to normal.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gainesville accessibility stories

Since I wrote about the biker behavior in Gainesville few things have changed. They still block wheelchair ramps and lock their wheels to just about anything in sight that resembles a railing. The Hippodrome Theatre, which I wrote about in the opinion piece published by the Sun decided to put an engraved plaque with a warning that the locks on any bike tied to either side of the wheelchair ramp will be cut. It doesn't mean that people pay any attention to it or that any locks actually got cut. All it means is that there is a sign. It's amazing to me how I can go there every week for my Wednesday serving of alternative cinema and I'll find more bikes piled up on each side of the ramp, on the inside and outside of it than there are people watching the movie. They're not here to get any kind of culture- they tie their bikes and skip over to a trendy hipster restaurant Boca Fiesta a few steps away.It gets dangerous- even if the bike is tied to the outside of the ramp the pedals and handle are still sticking in, meaning they take up space and I can get stuck or hurt by them, especially going down.But one thing has changed. The young crew working at the box gets really upset when people leave their bikes like that without a care. They know me, they see me every week and they see how the ramp serves a purpose. Blocking it becomes a real problem for a person with a name and a face. It's not an empty rule- it's my safety and my access that's at stake here. A week ago, the creativity of bikers with new ways to obstruct my path reached new highs- or should I say in this case- new lows. Someone decided to tie their bikes almost standing up, with the front wheel reaching over the railing and into the ramp. As I didn't feel safe, I told the box office clerk. Genuinely concerned, he decided to find the grinder to cut the lock. Before he did, he lifted and moved the bike so I could go home. He also told me of an exchange he had a few days prior. She was trying to tie her bike to the railing like they always do, and he told her that she's not allowed. She then tried to argue that her bike wouldn't be taking that much space at all plead and reason with him. I don't care, he ended abruptly- this  ramp is for wheelchairs. They don't get it- he said. They may not get it. But I'm happy that he does. See we may quote the rules, we may scare people with the law, I may even sue if I get injured. But people will never understand it and be considerate until they see that it actually serves a purpose. That there are people in wheelchairs that are trying to get in but can't. That same week I was at at The Top a popular Gainesville restaurant. They have male and female restrooms usually with some waiting time involved and one unisex cabin for wheelchairs. Whenever I go there, it's usually occupied and never by a person in a wheelchair. It's just convenient. But it's the only restroom that I can use in there. As I waited for my turn I asked the girl that was leaving it if there was a reason she used that one. 'There was a line to the others" she answered honestly. To her it was just another restroom. She didn't want to wait, so she decided to skip the line. She didn't know or care to think that accessible sign was there for a reason. And I use it because I don't have a choice. And there are conditions that require  getting to it pretty quickly. When I went there again that night I noticed that somebody vomited on the toilet seat. As I went to get the staff to clean it, somebody already went it. When it was my turn again, a girl was banging on the door for as long as I was inside. 'I thought you were changing or having sex in there'- she said-'Rude people hold them up all the time', ' But you're OK'. I didn't need her permission, as the bathroom was designed for me and not for her. It's amazing that she didn't get the irony or was shamed into going to a regular bathroom. So yes I did it. I said "I hope you don't have to use one of these for real one day"

Monday, October 15, 2012

Puerto Rico

My first American Spring Break remains one of the best weeks of my life and the most fun I've had since I moved to Florida. And I have my amazing friends to thank for that. I've never experienced nothing like that before. It was something I've seen in the cheesy teen TV shows. A bunch of friends spending a few days together in the sun after months of hard work in law school. It feels like an American college tradition, if you can afford it. Kids flocking to exotic locations like Mexico or the Carribbean. You want to experience something different, let your hair down and relax and then get back to reality like it never even happened. I grew up thinking that my disability would always be a burden on others. Every trip I've ever taken before moving to the States my father was always with me. And I would see him struggling. As he was lifting me, moving, loading and unloading me, his back suffered. Such trips were few and far between. And I always felt guilty, that I'm putting him through this. Even as I was getting to wherever I was going I worried how whoever I was with would manage as we get there. Will there be stairs? Will it be a task getting into the room and would I have to stay in most of the time because going up and down was just not worth the exhaustion. Even as I moved to America, getting an apartment with a student I didn't know, my parents tried hard to get on his good side, felt I needed to develop a relationship that would prevent him from leaving me behind, in a way to make up for having a disabled roommate. I guess I was always seen as someone who relied on others and then had to win them over so they wouldn't hold it against me.

But then my friend Michael told me he was planning a group trip to Puerto Rico. Without hesitation I said I wanted in. And it wasn't a problem, as they were happy to have me. I thought he did all the work as we were buddies, but it was actually his girlfriend at the time and my soon to be good friend Katrina that dedicated a lot of time to go in and change all the reservations to include me. I thought, it can't be that bad, because it's an American territory and everything is more or less accessible in the US. If there will be any lifting involved, we'll have strong, young guys to help. And maybe they won't won't mind, because they'll be happy to have me there. And maybe I won't have to prove anything. Perhaps this one time I can just have fun without having to worry how having to deal with a wheelchair spoils everybody's fun. And I can stop feeling guilty and wonder what it's gonna be like. And guess what- We've had a blast. I've spent a week with these caring, amazing people and the only time I had to stay behind was when they went to the rain forest. San Juan proved to be a nightmare on my wheelchair. The bumpy, brick streets, the narrow sidewalks with holes. This wasn't America. My friends ended up assisting me a lot, but it was short term. They were happy to do it and I wasn't so hell bent on being independent all the time. The goal was not to prove anything, succeed against the odds at all cost, it was about having fun. Jen, Adina, Michael, Katrina, Grace and I rented a van to move around the island. We went to the beach where I swamped my chair for one of these beach models with big wheels. We visited a casino. On my first evening I miscalculated how steep the hill was, couldn't slow down, lost control over my chair and hit my head as I drove into some rocks. My friends were there as I was on the X-Ray table. I was actually told not to eat and not to sleep that night, but we no one really understood the doctor even those of us who claimed to speak Spanish, so I went straight to bed. And then I had breakfast. I didn't mind that happening and I wouldn't trade it for anything. Because I had fun. And I was fun to be around. And I felt included and loved in strange country miles and miles from home.

Friday, October 12, 2012


I can do a lot of things and I try to be independent. But there's one thing I have to relate on others for. If there's an engagement that requires me to be up and running first thing in the morning in a place that is many hours away from where I am. Wednesday night and most of the following day I've spent in Tallahassee and not because I wanted to explore Florida's beautiful capital city I might add. All of the new attorneys are required to attend an 8-hour long workshop filled with ethics related panels and presentation, usually within their first year of practice. While they have to to continuously educate themselves by watching lectures, this was the only one that demands attendance in person. Failure to timely comply with this results in sanctions against the attorney. The class is offered in a number of often exotic and tropical locations, never in Gainesville and it's always one date, one place ever couple of weeks. You'd think that a city with a big state university and a highly ranked law school would get it once in a while, but not from what  I had seen. If I chose any later date, I'd have to decide on Southern Florida, which is even further. Miami is, I believe about eight hours of a drive away.

 Orlando and Jacksonville are the closest- also a bit of a drive and filling up quickly. By the time I was able to find a ride to one of those cities, registration was already closed  The  Bar wasn't able  to get me in that class, although they did understand my problems, so they have given me a one year extension. Still, it was a requirement I needed to complete, that was hanging over  my head like a sword.  The extension  deadline would eventually be up, and they might as well have given me twenty years to complete it, still it wouldn't make getting around Florida any easier for me. So you can imagine how relieved and incredibly grateful I was when one of my friends offered to take time off work, drive me there and back staying the night., We all practice law on the same plane, either I can make it work or I can't. I guess those are the reasons why the Bar wouldn't offer alternatives, like watching the lecture online. I rarely if ever advocate for different treatment of people with disabilities, but I never quite understood why anybody had to be there in  person in the first place, especially given the cost and logistics of being there particularly on a  weekday. All I could think of was, since ethics are very important, they really wanted  us to see it. But the truth is, sitting in that room for many hours from 8:30 am mad it very difficult to digest any information and many people struggled to stay awake. The early beginning time was not really helpful to people coming in from other places and hotels. Ideally you would break it down to a number of lecture days, but nobody would be able to stay there or be away from work for that time. I was lucky to have an excellent professional responsibility professor so I knew a lot of those rules and cases already and she made us work hard in class to be able to talk about them in some detail. But I can understand how the Bar can't really be certain what and how some of those school teach and what the attorneys know about it. The format was really hard on all of us and there were very few breaks, which meant I would be sitting in my wheelchair, in that fixed position for many hours. Understand one thing- there was nothing about those presentations that made it really necessary for us to be there. Audience participation was minimal.  Some of the segments were prerecorded anyway. You could have just as easily ask local law schools to set up live feed presentations throughout the state in a way bar review courses do if they were that concerned with people attending. A lot of the information was very Tallahassee specific, although most if not almost all in the room had no connection to the area. Yet we listen about practicing there, organizations to join there, socials I would never attend it was very strange. It was one thing that the lunch wasn't provided (although that wasn't clear from the materials)- we were not even given any kind of maps or ideas where to go. And once again people in cars drove away in search for food and I stayed behind. The odd thing is some people got in from South Florida or other States because their deadline was up. So all of us would only come  in to the city for one night, only to watch this. Finding the place, finding parking was apparently tricky on many people That's the thing about America. Everybody has a car, there's this presumption that it's so easy to get around a lot of places don't really worry about effective public transit. Having a class at 8:30 meant we'd have to stay over night. I ended up booking an extended stay studio, which was just as expensive as a hotel but apparently they only did housekeeping every seven days. Finding a two bed wheelchair accessible room proved to be really difficult in Tallahassee and I had a Priceline agent looking one up for me. And the closest he could find was  one bed with a pull out sofa. "Whatever'- I said. I just wanted it to be done.

At the convention center itself the day went on not without adventures. The wheelchair cabin was so small I could barely closed the door and I slipped on a puddle of urine that nobody chose to clean and ended up washing myself with soap and paper towels as the lectures picked up again. Not a good day. Not a fun day. Don't think I'll be going to Tallahassee again anytime soon.  But at least it's done. On our way home again, stuck in one position for few hours going numb I dozed off for a good portion of the trip. And if there ever was a thing that would make you never want to practice law again it probably would  be that class. It was dark and depressing as one of my colleges commented when we were told that if we ever do anything wrong the Bar will find us and likely we'll end up there. But content is not even the point for me, because I'll always do what the bar asks me to do if I am able. I just hope it asks me to do things I'm able to do in the future.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


When my friend Claudia heard I would be meeting a group of UF students to talk about a project they wanted to do about me, she laughed. "I hope they will forever ban you from that class"- she said jokingly. Most of the articles and media released about me started as some type of a class assignment. In ways, I can see her point. She did a photo presentation about me in 2007 that followed and was followed by Gainesville Sun Articles. David met me for a spread in Alligator. Some girl whose  name I don't remember took pictures of me for a photo class. Andres'hard work landed me on the list of Gainesville's most interesting people. Not every project ends up published by I'm still happy to do it. Two years ago, if not  more I was asked to help a student with his interviewing presentation and I jumped at the opportunity. Because whatever it is that people want me to do to learn more about my disability I will do it. In all honesty, it's been three years since anything was published about me. In many ways I feel like a different person. Not only have I finished law school, I have passed the Bar and got my green card. The Conductive Education Academy I have worked so hard to succeed has since collapsed. I'm now weighing my career options some of which may take my away from Gainesville. It's a very scary but also a very exciting point in my life for anyone to observe and chronicle.

 I want to do it, because if anyone can do my story justice it will be the young journalists of tomorrow. They will have the compassion, the understanding, the kindness everybody's personal story needs and the drive and determination to be seen and heard. As we set down trying to bounce off ideas off each other, me trying to interfere as little as possible, I've decided to be pretty much an open book. I always talk about the sacrifices my parents made for me,  how moving to Gainesville was pretty much a spontaneous mved although though through  in many ways not so much in  others. How alone I felt through the years I thought for my green card, how misunderstood in my quest to get into law school. How abandoned I still feel at times. We were sitting at a creamery strategizing over Gelato and I adored their passion, excitement and involvement. Some of them had a personal reason for wanting to do this. And in that way, I think their work will be fired up and true. Even if their work doesn't make it outside of the classroom I  don't mind . Whatever I can tell them, whatever I can show them perhaps one day will inspire them to dig deeper, to care more, to uncover great human interest stories. Because I've seen students working much harder, delivering much better work than some professionals. And if I can put fire under them to set them on a quest I will do my best to try. The mission goal is awareness, truth and hope. The dedication it takes to shed the layer of routine and show people with disabilities as real human beings without the sensational tone is something I hope this can accomplish

Monday, October 8, 2012

Freedom: I need more

I was 19 when I started studying law at the University of Warsaw. I felt like I have arrived, like things from that moment on would be different, I felt more free than ever before in my life. In elementary school and all through high school my parents were always with me. They would walk me to school, walk me back, sometimes be there between classes and my mom was at home, always there throughout most of my childhood. I didn't really go anywhere or see anyone unless my dad drove me there and that was very infrequent. Friends would mostly have to come to me and we would spend time in my (or my brother's room. It wasn't bad really since our apartment was always filled with kinds who would be fascinated with one of the first computers in our neighborhood. But the older you get, the more space you need. My teen years were a bit hard on me. You can't walk away to be your own person, you can't physically leave, you can't separate yourself from your family if you wanted to.  At times like that you feel that the only place that is truly yours and really private. What University did for me is it took me out of that environment. I would disappear for three quarters of a day at a time for the separation, a change of scenery I needed so badly. The paratransit minibus would pick me up every day, take me home every night. Yes,  I would have to know my schedule two weeks in advance, because that's how you booked those things and I'd be penalized for canceling without proper notice.   Now as I look back it strikes me how there was nothing remotely spontaneous about my (original)  college years.  But what mattered to me is that I could go, function as my own person, that my dad wasn't involved as much. On Fridays I would even have them drive me to see a movie at one of those newly built multiplexes at wheelchair accessible shopping malls. When you grow up with a disability in a place like Poland you learn to lower your expectations. You know you live in a wheelchair inaccessible city,  but what can you do? It will not change overnight. It will most likely not change in your lifetime and you've got to make the best of it somehow. Figure out what your "box" is and how you can function within it. Most places felt off-limits to me. As I got older and heavier the more difficult it was for my dad to take my anywhere. 

 Once in a while, mostly before highschool he'd muster some strength to take me to a museum, a school trip or the opera with my class. He'd pay for it with his health and I would never be able to do on my own. You just grow up knowing you don't do certain things and it's mostly school and home and home and school.  Every bit of freedom gained felt like a gift. Yes, it was repetitive and pre-planned and structured but I was out of the house. And I didn't really think about what else is out there and what was fair. Many people in wheelchairs in Europe live like this every day I'm sure. I felt free. At that point I have just discovered that I could be a prominent media writer... from my bedroom. The internet allowed me to be heard, people read and valued what I had to say. At the University, with all the extra centers and courses I've taken on I was too busy to wonder about any different type of life. A lot of my disabled school friends from other majors I often shared a life with would still have their stay at home moms hop on the bus to go to school with them, well in their 20's. I wondered, would they also be there with them to wipe their mouths on a first date dinner. i was glad it wasn't me. And it felt like it was enough. Until it wasn't. 

I wanted to be able to go shopping on a whim, step out for a coffee as I just thought of it and go absolutely anywhere and everywhere you wanted to. Freedom feels like a drug in that sense, a strong addiction. You just want more. And nothing else is good enough once you tasted what your life could be like. You just won't settle for less than. No rationalizing will work. And the more you have, the more you need even more. What was good 8, 12 years ago isn't good enough now. This feeling that I needed more, that whatever this was, wasn't working set me on a journey 8 years ago. This urgency I can't explain. But whatever it is, I get it again. Because I still need more, more challenges, more change.  And I'm ready for that step again.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Why do I blog?: Disability, law and passion

My parents believe that I'm being too open about many aspects of my life. The fear is, I guess, when you put those things out there, forever they will remain and who knows what may end up haunting me or what I may end up regretting 20, 30 years from now. I blog about them freely and frequently.  I try not to do things that will embarrass me in the future. Many of my law school friends would go through their profiles on Facebook, censoring their lives, changing their names so they would never be found when they were applying to the Bar or interviewing for jobs. Never happened to me. It's not that I don't put anything wild and crazy on the internet. It's that I don't do a lot of the things I see my peers doing in the first place. Internet is no different from real life. At all times I try to be respectable. Dressing nice, talking politely - just like my mom raised me. And just like in the real world I never did anything wild or outrageous, I would never allow myself to be careless in the virtual one. Because it's no less real than the other one. I've never had any compulsions to act out. You may say I'm pretty square that way. The best way to take control over your life is  having almost nothing to hide. One area that I leave to myself is my private life. I never understood people sharing very intimate personal details,  things that are very biological in nature and often gross. I do it as a rule, not that it's either scandalous or exciting. You will never see a nude picture of me floating  on someone's cell or internet because I never took one and I never will. My thoughts, feelings and experiences are a different issue. I don't think that exposing myself emotionally makes me vulnerable. I think it makes me human.

But I think it's only fair that people know more about me if they are to trust me. Being an attorney is a relationship built on trust after all.  If anybody is to consider hiring me in any capacity they deserve to see where I'm coming from and what I'm about. If they open up to me, I'll open up to them. And I think honesty pays off in real life.  People trust what they can understand. To anybody who cares, this is who I am and these are the things I care about. And this is why you should care as well. I'd rather be as real as I can be than to invent a suit and ties persona for myself. Hopefully, someone will appreciate me for who I am. Lies and omissions tend to catch up with you anyway. 

Perhaps, dare I say it- I can give somebody hope. Maybe I can change your mind, show you how painfully normal I am, influence how you see disability. Maybe you can see how important upbringing is and how what we do as children often directly connects to how we are as adults. Luckily, we can all blame our parents for whatever flaw we find in ourselves ;) Maybe you can stop and think about what I put up with every day, what it's like to get up and be in my shoes and wheelchair for 33 years and counting. Maybe you can see my good intentions. This is me, come find me in my world. And I can only be myself.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cerebral Palsy and me

"It's been holding you back for so long. Let it help you once by landing you a job"- said my mom after I told her that I'm trying to talk to some non profits and entities that deal with disability causes. An ideal fit for me would be a place where I can use not only my law licences, but my lifetime experience in a wheelchair. I want to help people and I want to be useful. But I have never blamed my life for not being able to walk. You can say, you can't really miss something you have never truly experienced, but that would have been too simplistic. I live in a world where people jump, run and dance.  Walk up the stairs and jaywalk in the middle of the street. It's not that I don't see that and it's not that I don't feel left behind when my friends get to do all the things I was never able to. You feel different just being around it sometimes and it's when you see yourself reflected in others eyes when it finally hits you. But I have never wondered who would I be if I wasn't born with Cerebral Palsy. Possibly, an entirely different person, because so many things that happen to us shape who we are and we can't just pick and choose the things that we like. I guess, I'd be a Virgo not a Cancer as I was expected to arrive in the Fall and not in the middle of Summer. My mom tends to think that I owe my drive and intelligence to my disability. Because I couldn't walk, I stayed at home and read a lot. Reading and writing were my main  hobbies when I was little and I attempted to write a sequel to every book I got my hands on.  She also points out that a lot of kids from my neighborhood would get in all kinds of trouble. Some ended up hurt or in prison. Staying put kept me away from bad company.

Having Cerebral Palsy gave me an unusual childhood. I got to travel abroad to Budapest when my classmates went to school every day. Because of that I've learned Hungarian. and developed an ear for languages As a result I picked up English pretty easily from watching Sky One-the British TV channel on cable every day. No question, I would not be speaking it as fluently today. Just compare it to my failed attempts to study German the traditional way, at school for seven years. I'm in America today, because I speak English well enough to be an attorney. My disability affected everyone in our  household to the extent that it'd be really hard to predict who and where it would be if I was born healthy. My mom quit her job and stayed at home, which meant she not only took care of me but watched my brother as well as he was going through his teen years. Her influence pushed us both to get good grades and then go to college. To pay for the years in the Peto institute my parents had to look for extra money. My father and later my mother ended up leaving for months at the time to find jobs in the mythical West.  The additional income allowed us to get things no one in our neighborhood had seen before in the mid/ late 1980's- like a VCR or a stereo system with a CD player. Most importantly,my parents got my brother an Atari, that sparked his passion for computers that later became his career. Something we would never be able to afford otherwise.  My mom seems to think that there's a reason for why I  am the way I am. As much as I'd like to believe I'm not sure if it's a grand design or a comedy of errors. Some twisted paths lead me here. Yet,it'd be silly of me not to notice that my premature arrival shaped the fates of not only me but parents and my brother. In her 40's my mom reentered the work force with our help- at 14 I was teaching her how to use a computer- and may I add with great success. Would it be possible if she had never left? We were all in this together. And I have never wished for a different life. I'm not even sure if I would like the other version of myself. Some of the things I enjoy about myself the most, how sensitive I am, how social, my humor, were all shaped by a chain of events that brought me to Gainesville. Some people with CP find strength in faith or a sense of mission.  I want to help people, but I don't feel I'm a martyr. I just like who I am.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Alcohol, boundaries and wheelchairs

I never understood why people would drink more than they can handle. And I see it a lot in Gainesville. Is it really that much fun to lose dinner along with your dignity on a lawn on your way back to the car? Are the people I see at the local bars and clubs on a mission not to remember anything in the morning? Let me be clear: I'm not against drinking. From time to time I go out with friends as well. But the key to having fun is knowing your limits. I know I need to get home safely, I want to make new fond memories, not erase them- and above all, at all times I have to be respectable. The problem is, a lot of times others don't extend the same courtesy to me. I grew up in Poland. Without perpetuating any negative stereotypes I need to point out that alcohol is very present in our culture, or at least was as I remember it. But I never really drunk until I moved to Gainesville. Here, it became a thing to do when you're out and about with friends. A social lubricant if only it's a glass you hold in your hand for an hour until the ice melts. Still, having grown up in Poland I have not seen as many people acting entirely out of control as I do  in America. And it becomes a problem if they lose all boundaries and with their motor skills incredibly impaired try to approach me.

I've touched on it before in my text about safety. But it's not so much that I'm scared what they will do. I'm not in fear of getting punched or beaten. Incredibly drunk people throw all social conventions out the window. They invade my personal space enough. And there's no good way out of this, because as much as I know they mean me no harm, they're really beyond understanding that I don't appreciate it. It's bad enough that a friend who candidly admitted he's been drinking beer for 10 hours last Saturday starts to hug me and apologize for the odd things he thought he has done to me, as I tried to loosen his grip while trying to calm his crying. At least that was somebody I somewhat knew. Earlier in the week I decided to join my friends for a night of karaoking. It was quite a mistake. An older, large  man who clearly had one too many about an hour before I got there while twirling in his own world when he spotted me by the bar. He then decided I needed to dance and attempted to pool me to the floor. Or turn my chair around. Or pet me on the head. The bartender clearly didn't have the situation under control, when I turned to her asking for help. She did say "He doesn't want to be bothered" calmly and then continued to serve him. And he didn't listen. Tried multiple times, as if he didn't hear us or care or try to convince me that I should.

  I didn't want to be bothered. I didn't want to be moved. I didn't want to dance. In a situation like that I'm really powerless. If he was a little less drunk I could've reasoned with him, I could've used my wit. With somebody that drunk and heavy, I'm really out of options. My "air-light" carbon fiber titanium wheelchair flips easily  with a bit of force from the outside Some of my friends got really upset saying that if only they were there they wouldn't let this go on. If only. But they weren't. When you're in a wheelchair you can't really walk away or otherwise get further from a person that grabs you.  And no one around is interested in getting a big guy off your back. I was very upset, so I left the bar early. As I rolled home I noticed from across the street that the man was attempting to get into his car and drive it. If my phone was working I would have called the police. The oddity of this situation is that I'm sure he didn't mean to be annoying. He didn't mean to invade my personal space. I bet he'd be pretty embarrassed had he known how disrespectful he was.  I'm sure he just wanted to have fun and he tried to have others enjoy themselves as well. He probably thought: Everybody should dance. But the end result was just the same. I was stuck with a drunk person who didn't realize their own strength, who didn't act in any predictable manner, with no help from outside and no tools to defend myself.