Growing up legally blind, I never imagined that anyone like me would become a top political leader. But now David A. Paterson has been sworn in as this country’s first blind governor.
Paterson has been legally blind since he was an infant. He earned a degree in history from Columbia University and graduated from Hofstra Law School. He has served in the Queens district attorney’s office and in the N.Y. state Senate. In 2002, he became minority leader of that body.
An African-American, Paterson has endured racial discrimination, and he has overcome it. He is the third African-American governor since Reconstruction.
At the same time, he has encountered disability-based prejudice. “Internally, I probably felt myself more discriminated against as a disabled person,” he told the New York Times.
Like many of us with disabilities, Paterson defies the low expectations that this society has of what we can accomplish. (I have had people wonder how I can do everything from cross streets to write articles.)
Some people have said to me, “Paterson sounds like a great guy! But will he be able to do the job?”
Like anyone committed to his or her work, he’ll find a way to get the tasks done. As is the case with we who are disabled, Paterson has adapted. He has highly refined listening skills, he reads by holding materials up close to his face and when needed, he has people act as sighted guides for him.
Every day that he’s in office, Paterson will have the “opportunity to show the world that a blind man can do just as well as a sighted man,” said George Covington, a legally blind writer who was a special assistant for disability policy in the first Bush administration.
I’m hopeful that Paterson will do what he can to combat discrimination against people with disabilities. Seventy-one percent of blind people and 90 percent of deaf people are unemployed, Paterson told NPR. One of them might “cure cancer” if given the chance, he added. “To whatever extent my presence impresses upon employers, or impresses upon young people who are like me … then I would feel very privileged, very proud,” he said.
When I was young, people like me had few career options. People like myself rarely held leadership positions.
Even today, the disabled are largely off our country’s radar screen.
Paterson, in this historic first, will serve as a much needed (and visible) role model for people with disabilities.
This is a moment to celebrate and we should all be proud of David Paterson.
Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. Her chapbook “Helen Takes the Stage: The Helen Keller Poems” is just out from Pudding House Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.