Extra-Curricular Matters – Lessons in Life

By Geri Mariano

I am not a parent, so the ubiquitous phrase “Back to School” does not elicit the glee it might otherwise from adults counting down the days until their children leave the house each morning. However, I am excited that the school year is fast approaching. And the reason for that is simple: school had, and still has, a tremendous impact on my life.

Unabashedly, I was one of those students who actually looked forward to returning to the routine of school each September. While I enjoyed the summer months, my physical limitations (I was born with abnormalities of all things skeletal) meant that I could never be as active as most kids. Therefore, school was a place I could belong–and even thrive academically –with peers for six to seven hours each day. So, during the spring of 1972, my mom and I made the rounds of Northern Westchester school districts as I was due to start Kindergarten come September. Our mission was to meet school administrators and find which districts would welcome a student with special needs; there was no federal mandate to publically educate children with disabilities at that time.

In all my presentations, I give much credit to the Byram Hills School District for accepting me before it was legally required to do so. Was everything hunky-dory from my first day to graduation thirteen years later? No. Were restrictions placed for my own “safety” (and likely school liability)? Yes. Were parents more nervous than my fellow Kindergartners? Yes! Was I made to feel an oddity from classmates? Happily, mostly No … and this is why I embarked, several years ago now, on sharing my stories.

When at Smith College, unable to walk quickly about campus, I zoomed around on what I affectionately called my “buggy”. My daily routes (to classes and my work-study job) took me past a campus pre-school where, unsurprisingly, the children who saw me would stare, point or giggle. A wise teacher flagged me down one day and asked if I might meet with the children. I readily accepted. Introducing myself, I asked them if I looked “funny.” When they admitted that I did, I agreed with them. I don’t remember all we talked about, but, when leaving, I suggested that now that they knew me, maybe I wouldn’t look so weird to them. Suddenly, I had many new friends, and each day after, there were waves and shouts of “Hi Geri!”

Geri in elementary school.

Pieces of a puzzle I hadn’t realized existed began falling into place. ?I thought of my Byram Hills classmates and how they had always known me. Years later, when reconnecting with many through social media, they all confirmed my hypothesis: they’d always accepted me because they always knew me as just Geri, one of them. I was never a stranger, so I was never seen as “different.” And had they known of any bullying incidents, each offered they would have quickly taken care of the situation. What an amazing gift!

Still, I am reminded how important it is to teach our children, and how adults in particular have their part to play–especially after one discouraging encounter at a local department store.

A group of three or four pre-teen girls began following me around while I was shopping alone. I can accept a look here, a stare there, even a pointed finger or snicker. But what I cannot abide are triple takes or being trailed by youth of an age that should be better mannered. I remember turning, raising my shortened arms, asking “do you have a problem?” The girls quickly moved away, but, minutes later, stealthily began following me again. I then turned to track them to the adult charged with their behavior. Loathe as I am to complain to a stranger, I interrupted this woman on her cell phone and simply stated that the girls had been very rude. Shrugging, the woman responded, “What do you expect?” I expect adults and parents to do better.

My mom often admitted I was dealt a bad hand and that life isn’t fair. However, she’d continue, that did not mean the world owed me anything; nothing would be handed to me on a silver platter. Has life been a struggle? Yes. Have I had good times over the years? Absolutely. Would I like life to be easier? Of course. But I’d also like to see better understanding in the world for a whole host of difficulties.

I choose to do my part to facilitate that understanding, at least of differences, in our community and elsewhere. Will you join me? ?Thanks, Just Geri

Longtime Armonk resident Geri Mariano was born with diatrophic dysplasia, a lifelong condition that affects bone and cartilage resulting in many physical and social challenges.

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Equal Access Disabilities Rights Should be Upheld

By Geri Mariano

August 26, 2014
In recent weeks there has been much commentary on this site and other local outlets about handicap parking and the abuse of motorists parking in reserved spaces without the requisite tag or plate proof. There are few spaces for those drivers or passengers who have mobility issues, whether walking with walkers, canes or prostheses. or those who use wheelchairs to get around.  Handicapped parking is just one aspect, though, of the overall issue of access to businesses in town, here and in other communities.

Twenty-four years ago on July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the landmark legislation The Americans with Disabilities Act into law.  The ADA, as it is commonly referred to, is a comprehensive civil rights law that is supposed to guarantee people with disabilities the same opportunities as every other citizen to participate in mainstream American life – whether by employment or recreation, including purchasing goods and services, and to participate in state and local government programs and services.

The ADA is a federal law and grievances can only be brought through the Department of Justice.  However, New York State has its own legislation regarding rights for people with disabilities.  For example, the 2010 NYS Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Codes has Chapter 11 dedicated to Accessibility.  Section 1101.2 Design calls for “Buildings and facilities shall be designed and constructed to be accessible in accordance with this code and ICC/ANSI A117.1”

These regulations and guidelines are separate and distinct from the ADA building access guidelines and are under the jurisdiction of the NY Department of State. However, each municipality, unless it gives up its responsibility to its County, has the primary responsibility to see that the codes are in compliance.  And that responsibility starts with the Building Department and Inspectors.

While available reserved parking spaces are necessary, they are useless if residents cannot get into the store or restaurant of their choice once they have secured a parking space.

It has been said in years past that mobility and access issues don’t affect a large enough segment of the population in North Castle, a small municipality, but that does not negate the fact that the rights to equal access remain and should be upheld.

Every NYS municipality should be up-to-date on the regulations and codes regarding access; they must also make sure that there is compliance of these codes. In an older community with older buildings, there are exceptions to meeting the access requirements, but new construction and renovations of a certain magnitude do require compliance. With an ever-aging population and new communities opening, such as The Bristal Assisted Living that caters to older residents, access to shops and restaurants becomes more relevant. And sadly, sometimes an able-bodied resident may suddenly find him/herself with a debilitating injury or illness, and access becomes necessary.

Businesses should recognize that being accessible is beneficial as it can expand their customer base. Shopping areas such as Sir John’s Plaza and Armonk Town Center could benefit from better parking and less hindrances along the walkways. Restaurants that technically are accessible should not have tables that block entrances. Customers needing the accessible openings should not be made to feel intrusive if diners already seated have to get up and move.

While not a “popular” issue or one that does not affect “enough” people, access to businesses and services nonetheless is a right for all people and should be respected and striven for.

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After 20 Years, Still No Makeovers Possible

Sometimes coincidences are too glaring to take lightly or to dismiss an opportunity not taken once before in almost a nod to Rip Van Winkle …an opportunity to share a lasting message about self-worth and image.

This 2014 winter in the north east had been cold and snowy and it reminded me greatly of a similar winter in 1994 where it uncannily snowed every Wednesday.  If it was Wednesday there was invariably a 2 hour school delay or a full snow day.  Likely I would have ordered a few lunch specials from the local Chinese restaurant which never turned down a request for delivery.  Then I was housesitting for a church family and was mostly “stuck” in the house, cozy as it was, because I simply couldn’t go out in the snow and ice, and I wasn’t working.

Fast forward to 2014 and we had almost the same winter and snow patterns although the day of week differed as to when schools were delayed or closed.  All these years later I have the added benefit of technology and social media to keep me entertained; I scrolled daily through Facebook updates and could not help but be confronted with endless posts about The Today Show anchors, specifically the female ones, being brave about going make up free on air.  I found my hackles being raised the same way one feels the hair tingle on one’s arm in an alarming way that reminded me of 20 years ago.  I dug out my “never-did-anything-with-these-writings folder and found the following letter I wrote to Oprah Winfrey on February 21, 1994 with intent to send this essay written the summer before at a writing workshop:

“HOW TO LOOK LIKE A COSMO GIRL.”

– click –

“SIX SISTERS OUT TO MAKE A CHANGE LATER TODAY ON DONAHUE.”

IT’S A BEAUTY MAKEOVER

– click –

“WANT TO LOOK LIKE A MILLION WITH NEW CLOTHES? WATCH OUR SPECIAL

REPORT.”

– click –

“TIRED OF THE SAME OLD YOU? WANT A CHANGE? SEE WHAT THREE WOMEN

DID. WATCH OPRAH THIS AFTERNOON.”

CLICK OFF!

 One reading today perhaps would ask “Who’s Donahue?” but Miss Winfrey would still be known and I believe Cosmo, as in Cosmopolitan, is still a go-to in print magazine for all things women’s issues – focused mostly on fashion and beauty.  Yet isn’t it a shame that the same topic aggravates me?  That this is still an issue and subject of morning talk show segments and countless magazine articles, both on line and off?

With the age of social media and new tech advances, beauty can be very easily distorted with body sculpting tricks or facial enhancements.  20 years may have passed since my original essay but the topic remains basically the same …how does Society define beauty and is its mainstream definition false?

More from the never-seen-the-light-of-printed-anything now dog-eared, stained essay:

 I try very hard not to let myself fall into the quicksand pit of self-doubt and increasing self-consciousness over not being able to measure up to the impossible standards society and commercialism set.  I would love so very much to be “made over”.

But my mistakes aren’t solely those of the wrong color eye shadow, poor fashion sense or an unflattering hair cut (although I have also erred in those areas). My “mistakes” are more complicated and they can’t be fixed.

Using the medical lingo of my doctors, I was born with physical deformities of the upper and lower extremities, that is, of the arms and legs. The official medical diagnosis is “Diastrophic Dwarfism”. My abnormally developed legs, feet, arms and hands are attached to an otherwise normal looking torso. But, I lack proportion. Reaching out in a curve, my arms and hands together measure approximately 11.  My fingers are short, stub-like and are unable to curl into a fist. My legs and feet together are shorter than two feet and are not rigid enough to support my 75 pound body for walking or standing.  I do walk however, with the aid of straight, unbending prosthetics that fit over my own legs, like casts. With my “legs” on, I stand approximately 4’6″. With the “legs” off I sit on the floor, no taller than 3 feet, and look similar to an oversized baby who scoots to move about.

Being masochistic, I watch these talk shows that show beauty fashion, exercise, etc., make-overs. The producers always find an average, everyday housewife, or a typical career woman who isn’t quite “hip”. In less than an hour, the chosen woman has a new hair-do, new clothes, and new make-up. The audience then “oohs” and “ahs” and claps over the transformation, the “after” after the “before”. If it were only so easy.

(Oh and for truthfulness’ sake, I am no longer 75 pounds)

I generally don’t watch morning shows anymore but every now and again, and against my better judgment, I watch KLG and Hoda’s Ambush Plaza Makeovers on Thursdays.  And just the term makeover is disconcerting …make over …as if something is inherently wrong with what already is … and that which cannot be changed … no liposuction, no facelift, no anything save perhaps the longed for but still unavailable 1970s TV fantasy of bionic legs and arms.

Now, while I know that blog posts are not supposed to be advertisements for any brand I do appreciate the message of one body care line’s campaign for “real beauty” as well as a German department store’s use of mannequins modeled after real people with varying kinds of body conditions/disabilities. I also applaud a college classmate Cynthia Wade’s recent short documentary entitled “Selfie” debuted at Sundance Film Festival to challenge teen girls and their mothers self image beliefs.  (Of all ironies, I cannot take selfies myself because my short arms can’t reach out far enough to hold and snap a picture with a hand-held phone or iPad camera.)

Too late now for regrets but I wish I had been brave enough to send the excerpted letter to Miss Winfrey on February 21st, 1994 when I typed it:

Sometimes, it may be hard to believe, but I forget that I’m different…but at other times, usually in social situations I’m all too painfully aware at how different I look.  I wish I could be beautiful and turn the head of a man.  I wish that people would expect that I would have a boyfriend or a husband someday, not that it’s out of the realm of possibility. 

2014 Best Supporting Actress Oscar Winner Lupita Nyong’o was chosen as People’s Most Beautiful Woman for this year …a nod that beauty can come in all nationalities.  Also, in reading her bio, Nyong’o wrote, produced and directed a documentary about the treatment of albinos in her family’s homeland of Kenya – another group that is targeted for ridicule for a DNA malfunction beyond personal control.  Miss Nyong’o’s mother’s message to her that she was beautiful was a gift and should be a message all young girls receive worldwide.

Twenty years later and I do believe, society’s attitudes towards differences – whether appearances, race, and disabilities are changing if slowly though.  And I don’t believe notes like the one in my hospital birth records stating “No pictures to be taken of this baby” would happen anymore …I hope not anyway.  My biological parents apparently could not handle a non-looking “normal” baby though I had the usual requisite 10 fingers and 10 toes.

Women and girls especially around the world are subject to discrimination based on simply their second X chromosome (China’s society’s high value on sons for example) but add any kind of difference and much hardship can follow.

Can Social Media help change the persisting “definitions” of mainstream beauty of a size 4 body, light skin or long flowing hair?

Can words and experiences like mine also help?  I hope so.

Judgements

Profiling continues to be a hot topic in the news and social media.  I live in the NYC metropolitan area, but even if I didn’t, challenges to “Stop and Frisk” have made national headlines.  And though the immediate furor has subsided some, the Trayvon Martin tragedy is never far from people’s minds.  I honestly wasn’t sure I would dip into this topic but a recent revelation has prompted me to go full in.  Ironically using the water image is dangerous as I cannot swim due to my physique.  My limbs are too short to sustain treading and my bottom is definitely heavy enough to pull me under.  Regardless of the obvious dangers — I am “scooting” (as I’m unable to stand on my own legs) into these stormy waters.

Now I need to switch gears briefly to explain why I decided to wade further in.  Duck Dynasty is the reason, or rather one of the leads of Duck Dynasty is.  I’m not sure I would even have noticed this news item if Duck Dynasty had not been all over Entertainment news media the past week.  Somehow the fascination has bypassed me the first three seasons it has been on the A&E TV channel.  With its fourth season premiere last week the “stars” of this now reality favorites have been all over the talk show circuit promoting the new episodes.  Truth be told, I’ve actually used the remote control each time a segment would start with family members of this multi-million dollar sporting dynasty.  Yet, a snippet a few days ago caught my attention and I can’t even tell you when I heard it or where I saw it.  Apparently during one of these recent TV promotion interviews, Jase Robertson, of this Duck Dynasty, says he was escorted out of a NYC hotel after being mistaken for a homeless man.  For those who, like me, were oblivious to all things Duck Dynasty, here is a link about its program and its family members:  http://www.aetv.com/duck-dynasty/about/

Similarly, an erroneous judgment was recently made public when Oprah Winfrey was also on an extended media tour promoting her new movie.  When shopping in an upscale Swiss boutique, Ms. Winfrey was met by a clerk who told her she wouldn’t want to see an expensive handbag. Ms. Winfery believes the clerk was ostensibly thinking her customer would not be able to afford such a luxurious item. There has since been some back pedaling and apologies regarding this latest “misunderstanding,” but still the origins of this incident seemed to have been based in part on a judgment made by the clerk.

These two situations come to light after President Obama made public comments after the verdict in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Central Florida.  George Zimmerman was found not-guilty of the second degree murder charge of teen Trayvon Martin.  President Obama spoke of knowing what it is like to have people react nervously when entering an elevator or being followed in a department store.

Now this is where the “scooting” into these waters can quickly turn dangerous should a wave come and knock me over.  I will not presume to know what it is like to inhabit a body of a different color but I do know what it is like to inhabit a body of a different looking, and, for most, a misshapen, form.  The reaction may be born of a different underlying fear, but I also know what it is like to enter an elevator and have riders look the other way.  I also have uncomfortable memories of pregnant women look at me with a passing wave of worry in their eyes.  Fortunately, this occurrence does not happen as often these days and I have to guess it is because of advanced pre-natal testing.  For a separate blog topic one day I’ll address how technology advances in pre-natal testing is a worry for me in other ways.

In 2007 I entered an upscale hotel in Rome, Italy and while I was not escorted out I have the distinct memory of being looked down upon (literally as I am only 4’6”) by the Front Desk clerks.  Their expressions were visibly those of “who is this ‘creature’ walking into our beautiful establishment?”  My trip to Italy was a 3 city tour for a 3 part celebration:  My Master’s Degree Achievement –Turning 40 – Honeymoon for One (as I can’t wait forever).  Rome was my second stop of this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  I had already been to Florence and stayed in a 4 star hotel and I had not felt that same sensation there.  My appearance in the 4 star hotel in Rome was not expected or welcomed as I clearly did not measure up to their usual fashionable clientele.  What I do remember is I purposefully wore my late grandmother’s stunning sapphire and diamond ring in an attempt to lend myself an air of sophistication, one that is not normally associated with my outward appearance.  I am not a wealthy person with money to throw around, but again staying in higher end establishments was a purposeful decision (though the Italian Adventure definitely broke my personal bank).  This was a  personal social experiment that I wanted to undertake as well as to see “bucket list” worthy historic and cultural sites.  I never did overcome that initial distaste from the Rome hotel staff; I cut my stay short and left a day early for Torino.  Like the staff did in Florence, I was warmly welcomed to the Winter Olympics Host City of 2006 and not made to feel as though I didn’t belong.

Haughty reactions were and are not limited to Italian cities.  I have walked into upscale stores here in the US and in my local area.  There are still times when I get the distinct impression staff would prefer me not to be a customer.  I am not as mobile as just 5 years ago so my world has shrunken some.  I am however still traveling – most recently to Chicago and Iowa – and I am still acutely aware of people’s reactions to me.  Again, I emphasize the reaction is not of fear of personal safety but fear of the unknown and the uncomfortable.  With this always in mind, I either was born with this ability or came to quickly learn it (survival of the fittest?) …to break the ice with those around me and be the one to start talking and/or joking.  Laughter is a great common uniting force; besides, it is quite contagious (much like yawning).  When people are laughing together there is little room for fear or uncomfortable feelings to develop.  I am an unabashed FB devotee and I enjoy reading people’s posts, viral graphics/videos and amusing observations on life in general.  A few days ago I read a post where folks were discussing how riding in an elevator can be most uncomfortable unless one goes in with a fun attitude.  I wish I could recall now where I read it and can go back and quote some of the suggestions people shared on what to say when entering.  Such a wonderful idea really to go in with the intent to break tension instead of adding to it with silence and foreboding.

Social discrimination is prevalent in our society, no question about it.  It is not, however, limited.  Social discrimination touches upon many different kinds of differences …of sexual identity, of religion (especially when outerwear is noticeable), of weight, of color, of food diets, of mental illness, of city inhabitants vs. rural residents, of trailer home owners, and so much more.  “Freak” circus side shows are not from such a long time ago.  I understand (though I have not personally gone out of my way to find out for sure) there are still dwarf tossing and midget bowling events taking place world-wide.

I am nowhere near a rocket scientist or a neuro-surgeon …I am just one who tries to think of ways to make things better.  I may be naïve and I certainly was not always generous with thoughts to others.  When I was younger I would cry out many a night in the dark, “why me?”  Folks who wanted to be well-meaning would offer the oft used encouragement “you are so strong and would not get more than you can handle.”  Another comment from a loved one has stayed with me some 30+ years later, “you are lucky because all your differences are evident.”  I think this family member meant that I wasn’t struggling with unseen issues such as mental illness or other non visible medical problems.  Does it suck that kids point to me in stores and ask their parents “what’s wrong with her?”  Yes, quite simply, it does.  Must I accept that this occurrence will happen again when shopping or eating out?  Yes.  Would I like the world to change instantly and all prejudice and profiling and instant judgements to disappear?  Sadly, I don’t think this will ever happen.  But what is within my power is to not act angrily in response but to show by example and to teach and to reach out instead of hiding behind fear or resentment that ‘life isn’t fair.’  Is it a burden to not be in this all for myself?  I used to think so.  Now, I understand it is a part of who I am.

Just Call Me Geri

Well this is my first foray into blogging on my own website.  I tend to comment a lot on other blogs and many FB topics.  And now I have my own blog to comment on topics of the day or just topics that matter to me.

By way of introduction my name is Geri (thus you understand the title!) and I am almost 46 years old.  From an early age I remember people asking whether I preferred being called “Handicapped” or “Disabled” or “Physically Challenged,” etc.  Well, my answer simply was and still is “Just call me Geri!”

Though I was given up by my biological parents the one thing that remains from them is the name Geralyn – shortened to Geri (except for when my mom would be furious at me!) by my parents who chose me to join their family.

Hope you are interested in learning more about me and what I do by visiting my website.  All my life people have suggested I share my stories which include struggles.  I also share my joys, successes and messages of acceptance with students and other audiences.

Will be back to share more of my thoughts and stories and most likely questions …I always have a lot of questions!  Hope you come back, too.