A newspaper once corrected itself with this notice: "Instead of being arrested, as we stated, for kicking his wife down a flight of stairs and hurling a lighted kerosene lamp after her, the Rev. James P. Wellman died unmarried fours years ago."
Today's column is not as striking a clarification as that, but it may clarify a thing or two. Recently I wrote something that annoyed someone who has enough problems without me adding to them. The column concerned a Maryland man who suffered a head injury in childhood and ever since has suffered seizures. I described him as mentally handicapped, and did so because he is retarded. I did not stress that not everyone who suffers seizures is additionally handicapped by retardation or anything else. Cynthia Stead of West Dennis, Mass., wishes I had.
She began suffering seizures in the mid-'60s, when she was 13, after a playground fall on cement. Her average seizure lasts about 20 minutes, followed by hours of deep sleep. When she was young, many such children were removed from regular public schools and sent to schools for the retarded. She was not, because:
"I had concerned parents who would fight for me; because I was white and articulate; because I had just finished grammar school with good grades. Had any of these components been missing, I would have been shunted off. . . . An acquaintance of mine was sent to (a school for the retarded) at age nine. He . . . received no instruction beyond the level of his retarded classmates and has trouble finding work. His intelligence is normal."
She has an impressive r,esum,e, but finds that employers flinch from hiring her. "I worked on the city Bookmobile for six months. I was removed after the driver saw me have a seizure (not at work). He said he was scared to work with me, and would quit if I wasn't removed. Ironically, he was black, and very active in agitating for his rights." She declined a full Social Security disability pension because she wants to work and, besides, the government insisted that her handicap be called psychiatric, not physical. Getting hired is difficult because, she says, to corporations "handicap means wheelchair-- something overt they can point to with pride."
"Perhaps," she says, "a seizure is a terrible thing to watch. I have no way of knowing, since I've always been unconscious at the time." With just those two crisp sentences she provides sufficient evidence that "my physical plant, not my psyche, is damaged." She adds, for good measure, that even when I am writing about other things I am "infuriating."
Money Luckett of Clarksdale, Miss., writes to rap my knuckles for something else in that column about the Maryland man. I asserted that the failure to provide programs for adults like him is an example of the government's unfinished social agenda. Money Luckett, who has been a guadraplegic for 32 years and spends 14 hours a day in an iron lung, thinks I am slighting private groups:
"From November, 1949, until July, 1952, I was hospitalized continuously. My parents would have been unable to pay for that. The March of Dimes came to the rescue. They paid all bills after my insurance ran out, paid them all, no questions asked."
Until five years ago she did not qualify for public assistance because she lives with her parents, who are now in their 70s. Then her father retired and she qualifed as an "invalid child." She was 40.
She reads National Review (she recently spanked Bill Buckley in a letter because an NR editorial on Poland was too namby-pamby for her taste), so it is not surprising that she says sensible things and says them well: "Yes, there are some people who fall through the 'safety net.' That is likely to be the case in this imperfect world, always." She just wishes the government would strengthen private groups. She concludes:
"Those of us who rely on others just to stay alive have an intense interest in the matter."
And so is this:
The telephone has not yet killed the art of letter-writing. Millions of Americans know how to reach out and touch someone--and even sock someone in the nose--with a letter. I get a steady stream of extraordinary letters from ordinary places, like West Dennis, Mass., and Clarksdale, Miss. But, then, I really do not know what it means to call any community ordinary. Compared to what?