When I was a senior, I got to spend time with one of my heroes and the founder of my school, Dr. Henry Viscardi Jr. Shortly before my class graduated, Dr. Viscardi had us all to his office as he did for each senior class. He was wearing his green sweater that he wore to all the school events with his iconic red bowtie. I remember his shirt was blue on this particular day and there was a smile on his face as he took us around the room and showed us most of his awards and other memories he had collected throughout the years. The most interesting memories to me were pictures he had taken with seven U.S Presidents whom he’d counseled: everyone from FDR to Jimmy Carter. I don’t remember exactly what he said that day, I think I was in awe and trying to catch every word because we didn’t have this opportunity too often. We were told that it might be one of the last times he would be able to do this as he was getting very old and his health wasn’t what it used to be. I remember he told some of the stories he always did but went more in depth with each one. He gave us great advice on what we should do after we graduated but mostly, he just listened to us as we individually told him our hopes and dreams for after graduation. After he was done telling us stories, his eyes got heavier and his speech got a little quieter, but his smile never left his face. He was still exceedingly kind, even though I could tell he was in pain. He never looked away from us.
At almost every assembly that I can remember from elementary through high school, he told one particular story, and he told it again on that day that we were in his office. In his early childhood he lived in a hospital in New York City. The reason he was in this place that he didn’t want to be was that he was born without fully formed legs. There was nothing below his knees. He had been visited by many different doctors and craftspeople, but it wasn’t until he was 27 that he’d finally found a man to make him artificial limbs. This man’s name was Dr. Yanover. It took Dr. Yanover months to come up with a way that Dr. Viscardi could get around independently. On the day the artificial limbs finally fit, Dr. Viscardi cried with joy. When he asked Dr. Yanover how he could repay him for this unbelievable thing he had done for him, Dr. Yanover replied: “The only payment that’s required is for you to try and make a difference for another disabled person.” When he was finished my eyes started to well up with tears but I was able to hold back from crying. I realized the impact that this moment had on my life even though it was many years before I was born. The time I spent with Dr. Viscardi that day made me look up to him that much more. I was even more amazed at his accomplishments now that I was old enough to recognize what it took for him to reach his goals.
Dr. Viscardi’s spirit and smile permeated down through the staff to a majority of the students. On my first day at Henry Viscardi in 1991, I met my teacher, Mrs. Fisher. After getting to know me for only a couple of hours, she said “I think using the computer would be good for you, Drew.“ The next week I tried using the computer and liked it. The problem was that we only had one computer in our classroom, and 5 people who could use it. So the person who typed the fastest used it to write. A couple of days later Mrs. Fisher suggested that I use a typewriter. I complained as 8 years olds do that I like typing but it was very difficult. She said to me very nicely, “Dr. Viscardi says you guys must use technology, it will make your lives so much better.” I knew from the other kids’ faces in the classroom that this conversation had ended. That was one of my earliest times hearing about Dr. Viscardi, but my interest in who he was sparked and snowballed from there so much so that I learned whatever I could about him.
When I was in junior high I had to go for a technology evaluation with a teacher named Mary Ann. I had already used the computer for many years at this point and while it was not exactly easy for me to do, I was used to operating it and I could do it independently, which made me love it. On this day, however, I was annoyed because Mary Ann said that she had many assistive devices and programs for me to try and it would hopefully make using the computer easier for me. I was resistant to change at this point in my life and did not want to hear that I would have to learn a whole new way of using a computer. Being that she was the teacher, I knew I had to sit and listen politely or my parents would ground me. (They did not restrict me from going out with friends since I did so rather infrequently; instead, grounding meant that I couldn’t play video games or watch TV. Since I played video games and watched TV almost every day, I thought this was cruel and unusual punishment.) Of course Mary Ann did help me, and I had one-on-one lessons with her weekly for about three months. After a while I grew to enjoy the new thing we were going to try each day. She introduced me to a smaller keyboard and speech recognition software and the on-screen keyboard, all of which I still use today, partly because they are now incorporated into every version of Microsoft Windows. It was Mary Ann who really explained to me Dr. Viscardi’s philosophies on three very important issues. First, severely disabled people like myself have to be the smartest person in the room if we can, because that is the only way we will be taken seriously in a room full of able-bodied people, particularly if they are competing with me for a job. Second, she stressed that one of Dr. Viscardi’s main goals was for all of us to get a job. He believed that work can give our lives even more purpose. Third, if people would give disabled people like me tools such as any kind of technology, we would really be able to show them what we could do. In one of Dr. Viscardi’s five books, titled “Give Us the Tools,” he explains this concept.
While Dr. Viscardi stressed that we needed to expand our minds, he also thought it was important for us to strengthen our bodies as much as possible. HVS has an indoor pool for the students to do water exercises. The Olympic-size pool was installed for students, but also because Dr. V swam eight laps every morning. When I was younger I used to go in the pool every week and people assisting me would talk about how much Dr. Viscardi loved the water. When I was passing the pool sometimes I would see him swimming and it would bring a smile to my face. Having water therapy is very beneficial for me although sometimes it’s difficult. When I’m having a hard session in the water, I always think of what Dr. V accomplished each day.
Dr. Viscardi was also Catholic, which is another similarity I share with him. I’m sure his spiritual life influenced the lessons he handed down to us. In the lobby of my elementary school there was a bronze statue of Jesus on crutches being helped by a little girl who may or may not be disabled herself. I rolled by this work of art almost every day as a young child, not registering what it was. One day when I was older, about 15 or so, I was rolling out of the lobby with my mother when she brought me over to the statue and actually had me look closer at what it was. I’ve got to think that God was using my mother and the artwork as an instrument whose impact I would realize later. When I became a young adult I realized that this statue was my representation of how much I think God loves disabled people.
I think about one thing that Dr. Viscardi did that meant the most to me. He would end every speech he gave in front of us with the sign for ”I love you” in sign language…. He couldn’t say it because HVS was a secular institution but if he could I believe he would say that he loves us the way Jesus does.
In high school, Mr. Duerr, who was also disabled, was my guidance counselor. He was so kind, me and my other friends would go to his office regularly—separately and together—and he would listen to our problems for one hour at a time and never show that he was getting tired. Sometimes we were there for legitimate reasons and other times just to vent our teenage angst about the world. I appreciated that Mr. Duerr only told my parents things about my school work or official records but never the things I shared about my feelings or emotional state. Every time I saw him, he was wearing almost the same outfit. One particular outfit I remember was a blue shirt with suspenders and beige khaki pants. His clothes always had something bulky underneath them but I didn’t think anything of this because going to HVS every day, I was used to people with unusual body types or wearing certain clothing for their medical needs. One afternoon I went to his office and the sun was shining in his window. We were filling out some sort of form—it may have been my college letters of recommendation. I was facing the door and as I was preparing to go, I mentioned that I had found this great place. I had joined my church youth group. He said ”That’s great, Drew! I’m active in my church as well.” ”Oh really,” I responded. ”Which one?” He replied it was in Williston Park and that was it. I left not thinking much of this event. I didn’t realize that it would come back to me almost 12 years later when Mr. Duerr passed away. I was reading his obituary and I discovered to my surprise that he was a Roman Catholic brother. The reason that his clothes were bulky was that he always wore his monk’s robes under his street clothes. At this point I was almost an expert on my religion and this had a great impact on me because I felt that even though I didn’t know where I would go later, God was again putting examples into my life. I knew I could look back to these moments when I needed Mr. Duerr’s patience or understanding either in a stressful situation or when counseling somebody else about a stressful situation. To me this shows how humble he was. I think the greatest lesson Mr. Duerr taught me how to love selflessly as a disabled man.
I am eternally grateful to all of the people who worked at Viscardi for their help and guidance. On the night I graduated, Dr. Viscardi came to speak to me when I was in the cafeteria before the ceremony. I was racing from person to person but I slowed down for him. He complimented me. “Congratulations on being valedictorian, it’s a real accomplishment.” I replied, “Thank you so much” and continued on to tell him just how much he inspired me. Unfortunately, it was a short conversation but I thought I would have more time with him in the years after graduation. Sadly, I did not get the chance to see him again. He was too sick to attend more events at HVS. So that time in the cafeteria was the last time I ever spoke to him. I wish I could have spent more time with him that night.
When my former schoolmates and I talk to other people with disabilities, we always tell them about Dr. Viscardi and the impact he’s had on our lives. For myself, I always try to treat other disabled people with the same love that Dr. Viscardi showed me.
15 November, 2022