The Octogenarian: Hi, I’m Ken
Octogenarian is the name given to someone who has lived into their ninth decade. In fact, at age 84, I believe that I am the oldest full-time undergraduate student on campus.
If I’m wrong please let me know, because this is a lonesome position.
If you do see me running around campus on my little red scooter, don’t hesitate to approach. I will see you but not well — mostly because I am legally blind and profoundly deaf, but if you communicate so will I.
I start my tale in early 1962. I lived with my family in a middle-class residential neighborhood in southwest Houston off of Stella Link Road.
Across the street lived a family and, when the mother became pregnant, her husband, who was working in Germany, secured her a new wonder drug to aid with morning sickness called Thalidomide.
Because of the drug, their son was born with no normal limbs.
The boy was named John and he was born with a strong mind, will and was blessed with a magnificent woman for a mother. I watched John play with the neighborhood children and when the other kids started running, John started rolling around.
We moved away and I lost touch, but 20 years later a young woman on this campus named Judy Bluestein created a television piece called “Barrier Free.”
She took a TV crew and followed John as he tried to circumvent the University of Houston campus.
UH back then was loaded with barriers to wheelchair-bound students. There were no electronic, button-controlled doors and many were extra hard to open for the chair bound.
There were many doors that a chair couldn’t fit through and John didn’t have to worry about non-handicapped students using handicapped bathroom stalls because such stalls were almost non-existent.
He had to be carried into and out of most buildings and sometimes had to use freight elevators. Most sidewalks ended with curbs and there were no ramps to allow wheelchair access.
Building signage and bathroom sinks and mirrors were out of sight and reach. John had a live-in attendant and could not circumvent the campus without his assistance.
Individually, many educators tried to help. One instructor even moved his class from the second floor of a building to the first to accommodate John.
Look at our campus now. It is hard to find a sidewalk that does not end in a ramp and lots of strategic ramps in between. Numerous ramps for buildings, electronic doors for building access and plenty of elevator service.
I know firsthand that the handicap stalls in the restrooms are available. I am attending this University and I do have a couple of minor handicaps.
I hate that word: handicap. It belongs in horse racing, not the human experience.
I am on this campus full-time needing a chair for mobility.
On our campus today there are only two noticeable hazards to those with mobility problems. One is bike riders locking their bikes to the inside railings of ramps that are not marked by signs to not do this. The other day, I rammed my knee up against a bike.
But the biggest problem is the cracks in most of our sidewalks. Some of these hazards would have slowed down General George Patton’s famous tank corps in World War II. In fact, since the beginning of this semester, I have taken to driving in the street to avoid crevices in the sidewalks.
Most importantly, the Center for Students with Disabilities is staffed by a team of caring, knowledgeable, compassionate people who try to eliminate these blockades and hazards. I consider their little building on campus a “House Of Heroes!”
And remember Judy, who produced that video about John? Well, nine years after she did that story, I was already slowing down in my 60s and she ran me to ground.
We were married and our son — now in his early 20s — and I are attending classes together.
Opinion columnist Ken Levin is a political science senior and may be reached at [email protected]