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The lesson of Jacob Halberstam


In his mind, Jacob Halberstam, a bright 6-year-old who attends Hampstead Elementary School in Carroll County, doesn't have a disability. Though he was born with stumps for arms and one leg half the length of the other, young Jacob plays soccer, hockey, draws, reads, rides horses and keeps up with his classmates and siblings. There seems to be little he cannot do.

The youngster, in fact, can't understand why anyone would single him out for an award. When the Foundation for Exceptional Children bestowed on Jacob a "Yes I Can" award in the category of independent living, his mother, Bonnie Halberstam, explained to her son that he was being recognized for all the things he could do that come easier to children without physical handicaps, such as going to the bathroom alone.

Responded a genuinely puzzled Jacob: "I didn't know they gave awards for going to the bathroom."

Even though young Jacob may not be acquainted with the growing disability rights movement, he certainly comprehends its underlying premise: The able-bodied often talk of the disabled as "overcoming tremendous obstacles" and categorize their conditions as "tragic." Meanwhile, the disabled find those expressions of pity or admiration condescending. People with disabilities don't want to be seen as victims. They just want to be able to do what the rest of us too often take for granted.

An equally objectionable attitude is the backlash from some quarters against the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. Building ramps to public buildings, installing toilets for handicapped users and setting aside spaces in theaters, ballparks and concert halls for wheelchairs are actions this nation should have taken years ago.

In a political climate that can be hostile to groups such as minorities and women who assert their rights, it is all too easy to attack programs that enable the disabled to lead independent lives. Public officials shame themselves when they talk about the onerous cost burden the ADA imposes on them.

We can all learn from the example of this 6-year-old boy. He is a risk-taker, has done much in his young life and is likely to accomplish much more as he grows.

The lesson of Jacob Halberstam is that society should not impede any individual from realizing his or her full potential, regardless of the challenges they face.

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