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Bad Attitude Worst Handicap of All

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Star-Tribune, May 1, 2004.

Evanston--Among the most crippling disabilities a person can have is a bad attitude, a visually impaired comedian told an audience gathered here Friday to celebrate ability.

"Dealing with the disability of attitude is a challenge we all face every day of our lives," said Alex Valdez of Santa Anna, Calif. "Paralysis from fear of failure can keep us from moving at all."

Valdez and a number of others spoke about what they do and plan to do at a luncheon attended by Gov. Dave Freudenthal and other dignitaries. It was a celebration of abilities, aimed at breaking down stereotypes and community barriers to the handicapped.

The luncheon, sponsored by many local businesses, was hosted by the Evanston Business Leadership Network (EBLN)-an employer-led coalition that leads to the hiring of people with disabilities, support, training and labour solutions. The event was also sponsored by Access Ability Career-Development Services, which helps young people with disabilities develop career paths. Both organizations work toward inclusion of the disabled in the community.

EBLN Director, Debbie Smith, stated that the disabled population is the one minority that anyone can join at any given time.

One in five Americans has some form of disability, increasing to one in four with age included, she said. Smith believes that the biggest barrier to people with disabilities is public perceptions and negative attitudes.

"I often thought prejudices are there because people don't know each other," Smith said. "Once you get to know each other, it breaks down walls."

Valdez was an ice breaker for the event. He lost the sight of one eye at four years of age due to glaucoma. He lost use of his right eye at seven years from retina detachment.

He said he was an angry child, wondering "Why me?" But with the closeness and support of his family, he was able to get over what he feels is the biggest disability of all--a bad attitude. In this we are all challenged, he said.

Valdez came close to giving up himself. He went to college majoring in music, but dropped out with no firm plans until a friend said he should be a stand-up comedian. The idea intrigued Valdez, but he was still reluctant. With his friend's help and coaxing, Valdez developed a five minute routine and in 1977, with "butterflies the size of vultures," he tapped his way with his white-tipped cane to the stage of the Comedy Store in Los Angeles.

He said his biggest obstacle was not his blindness but paralysis caused by fear of failure.

Valdez said that it was a major challenge to convince people in the Los Angeles entertainment industry that a person with a disability can entertain, other than being a musician. But his first night at the Comedy Store convinced him he was on the right track.

Though he had setbacks--after a standing ovation the first night, the second night he bombed--Valdez kept on trying and has appeared on "48 Hours," "Phil Donahue," "Evening at the Improv," and a PBS special.

Valdez is also a professional speaker and corporate trainer who teaches about disability awareness, attitude and etiquette to such groups as the FBI, NASA and major universities.

While Valdez has a very positive attitude, he said, "I have bad days, too." But he tells himself that it's OK because tomorrow will be OK. "I always remember that tomorrow is a new day."

Business Capable

Another man at the event described the way he hopes to dodge workplace discrimination of the handicapped--by becoming an entrepreneur himself.

Tom Hernon became disabled seven years ago when he was racing motorcycles and broke his back, legs and ribs along with some other internal injuries. He gets around in a wheelchair now and said, "If someone told me I could walk tomorrow but I would have to take back my old life, I wouldn't do it."

Hernon said during the seven months of hospitalization after his accident, things were tough. "I didn't see the possibilities," he said. "You have misconceptions."

He noted there are plenty of sports programs and educational opportunities available to people with disabilities. "It's just getting into the job market that's harder."

Hernon is the first American paraplegic athlete to steer a luge sled down an Olympic luge course, and every Saturday he does an aerial ski jump into the Utah Olympic Park swimming pool in Park City on a mono-ski.

As for getting back into business, Hernon is going to start his own company manufacturing wheelchairs and adaptive sports equipment in Evanston.

"I will try to employ as many people with disabilities as possible," he said.

He is also starting a nonprofit organization to provide wheelchairs to people, especially children, who have grown out of their wheelchairs but are not eligible yet for a new one.

Freudenthal said everyone should be measured by their abilities: "That's what we should measure them by, and understand the contribution they make."

Alyssa Martin, a young lady working on overcoming an eating disorder, sang "Breath of Heaven" as part of the entertainment.

A ninth-grader at Pioneer School in Evanston, Martin gets a lot of encouragement and support for overcoming her disorder through talking and keeping a journal.

"Talking to people helps," she said. "I know they're there for me."

Martin started singing when she was five and has sung in churches, choirs and talent competitions. She hopes to attend Juilliard, train as a singer and entertain at treatment centres and hospitals to encourage others.

At her performance before the governor and crowd on Friday, which was also her sixteenth birthday, Martin said, "I was a little nervous, but then it was really fun."

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