boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

Henry Viscardi Jr., at age 91, leading advocate for disabled

NEW YORK - Henry Viscardi Jr. was born with short, twisted legs that wrapped around his abdomen, and he spent his first eight years in a hospital.

Doctors operated repeatedly, finally straightening the stumps enough that Mr. Viscardi could be fitted with padded boots that resembled boxing gloves. When he entered school, his playmates towered over him. Because his arms nearly touched the ground, they called him ``Ape Man.''

Even full-grown, he stood 3 feet 8 inches tall.

But Mr. Viscardi did not wallow in misery.

The longtime Long Island, N.Y., resident went on to become one of the world's leading advocates for the rights of the disabled, advising every US president from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter. He learned to sail boats on the Long Island Sound and to dance, and won honorary degrees in law, education, science, and literature from universities as far away as England, Japan, and Korea.

Mr. Viscardi, who founded a well-known center for disabled adults and children in New York, died Tuesday. He was 91.

``He was a true pioneer,'' said Edmund L. Cortez, president and chief executive of the National Center for Disability Services, the center Mr. Viscardi created. ``The message he sent out . . . has gone around the world.'' Mr. Viscardi's oft-stated conviction was ``there really are no disabled people, only people with varying degrees of ability.''

The nonprofit center has gained a worldwide reputation as a job training site for disabled adults and as a tuition-free school for disabled children in pre-K through the 12th grade. In October, the center won a New Freedom Initiative Award from President Bush as an exemplary and innovative public/private partnership to promote employment.

When the center was founded in 1952, it was the first business in the United States staffed largely by disabled people. Years later, Mr. Viscardi helped to inspire landmark legislation, including the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 that protected the rights of disabled children and adults, disability experts say.

From the start, his life was a textbook case of triumph over adversity. Born in New York City in 1912, he spent his early years confined to the Hospital for Deformities and Joint Diseases in Manhattan.

When he was discharged, he was placed in regular public schools, where classmates jeered him mercilessly.

In various newspaper stories about him, Mr. Viscardi often recalled his mother's response when he asked her why he was born deformed.

``In her simple peasant voice she told me that when it was time for another crippled boy to be born in the world, the Lord and His counselor held a meeting to decide where he should be sent. The Lord then said He thought the Viscardis would be a good family for a little crippled boy.''

Mr. Viscardi went on to study at Fordham University in the Bronx and St. John's Law School in Queens, although he didn't graduate from either, partly because of financial problems. Eventually he went to work as a tax expert. As he propelled himself through city crowds using crutches, he tried his best to ignore ridicule and stares of pity.

At age 27, though, his life took a dramatic turn. An orthopedic surgeon in New York, Dr. Robert Yanover, told him his stumps, worn down by constant use, would last only another six months. He said if nothing was done Mr. Viscardi would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Yanover decided to try to obtain artificial limbs. He sought one limb maker after another, but after examining Mr. Viscardi's stumps, all offered the same verdict: impossible.

Yanover finally found an old German immigrant, George Dorsch, who delivered a set of artificial limbs in three weeks. One day, Dorsch strapped them onto Mr. Viscardi's stumps and helped him stand. Mr. Viscardi then took his first steps, heading toward a full-length mirror at the end of the room. As he saw a reflection of himself, he started to cry. "Unashamed and uncontrollably,'' he once said.

He was now a typical man's height, five feet 8 inches.

When Mr. Viscardi later asked Yanover how he could pay him, the doctor "told me my bill would be repaid if I made the difference for another individual,'' Mr. Viscardi recalled. It became his life mission.

World War II soon broke out, prompting Mr. Viscardi to volunteer for the Red Cross. He had to undergo basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and would take the mandatory long hikes without grumbling. His story got around and instead of being posted overseas, he was sent to work with veterans who were amputees at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.His job was to encourage them.

At the hospital, he met first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who heard of his work and invited him to the White House for tea. They became great friends, and Mr. Viscardi often visited the Roosevelts in upstate New York.

After the war, he took a job as personnel director at a textile firm. But in 1952, at Eleanor Roosevelt's urging, he quit, borrowed $8,000 and, in a vacant Long Island garage, started Abilities, Inc. The manufacturing venture was staffed largely by injured World War II veterans and was meant to show the physically handicapped could be productive workers in industry. That was a revolutionary concept, since disabled people were largely excluded from the work force at the time.

The project was soon winning contracts for anything from airplane wires to etched glass from defense industry giants such as Grumman, General Electric and IBM, along with the Department of Defense. By the early 1960s, Mr. Viscardi expanded the center to include vocational training and job placement for disabled adults. About the same time, he created a school for disabled children on the property.

Mr. Viscardi leaves his wife, Lucile, and four daughters, nine grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives