|Sheila Radziewicz has a rare genetic condition. (Lisa Poole for the Boston Globe)|
Peabody black belt is kicking down many barriers facing the disabled
The best motivation for Sheila Radziewicz has always been people telling her she can’t do something.
“I’ll do it just to annoy them,’’ she said. “I do everything and always have.’’
Radziewicz, 34, of Peabody, has a rare genetic condition called thrombocytopenia absent radius, or TAR, syndrome.
She was born with hands but no arms, no kneecaps, dislocated hips, a hole in her heart, and low blood platelets. When she was just days old, her parents were told she would not live, and she was given the last rites.
Despite a challenging childhood, Radziewicz went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in government from Suffolk University and a master’s degree in criminal justice from Northern Arizona University. She lives on her own, drives a car, and works full time as a legal advocate and as a volunteer coordinator at Healing Abuse Working for Change, in Salem.
She also is the first woman with no arms to earn a black belt from the World Taekwondo Federation. And now, she is adding motivational speaker to her list of accomplishments.
Radziewicz was recently honored by Easter Seals of Massachusetts with the Team Hoyt Rising Star Award for her efforts to break down barriers facing children and adults with disabilities. The award is named for Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father and son who are well known for their participation in the Boston Marathon each year and who are Easter Seal supporters.
“There is a stigma that people with disabilities are helpless,’’ said Kirk Joslin, president of Easter Seals Massachusetts. “Anything we can do to overcome that is helpful. And Sheila is doing that in a big way. She is breaking down barriers, discussing disabilities, and making it a natural thing, not a mysterious thing.’’
Radziewicz, a Malden native, credits support from her parents, Mary and John Radziewicz of Rowley, and her two older sisters for her positive attitude. And she praises Shriners Hospital in Springfield, where she received care throughout her childhood.
“I’ve had support from every angle,’’ she said. “I’ve really lucked out.’’
But it wasn’t easy. She endured multiple hospitalizations and 10 major surgeries before age 10. She has had to wear clunky leg braces. And then there was the bullying.
“It was bad,’’ said Radziewicz, who was always mainstreamed into regular classes in elementary school in Malden, junior high at Immaculate Conception in Everett, and high school at Bishop Fenwick in Peabody.
“Kids would pull their hands up their shirts and point at me and a make faces and laugh,’’ she said. “They’d stare at me and make comments that were crude about everything under the sun.’’
She developed a coping mechanism.
“They wanted you to cry and be upset,’’ she said. “Kids would laugh and I’d laugh back at them. When you weren’t responding as they expected, they stopped.’’
She also did a lot of what the other kids did: roller skating, playing soccer, and horseback riding.
Radziewicz said people still stare at her, but she’s learned to ignore it. Except, sometimes, when it’s young children.
“I’ll smile or wave because [their staring] is not malicious,’’ she said. “It’s them trying to understand.’’
Tae kwon do has also expanded her horizons, as she has drawn the attention of a television station in South Korea, which has produced a documentary about her life.
It was then that she realized she could be an inspiration to people and began motivational speaking on disability awareness, bullying, self-advocacy, and self-esteem.
“It’s giving me an opportunity to educate in a really effective way,’’ she said.
Sandra LaRosa, manager of Bruce McCorry’s Martial Arts Academy in Peabody, where Radziewicz is in her fifth year of training, sees Radziewicz as an inspiration.
“I don’t even notice she has a disability anymore,’’ LaRosa said. “She’s so independent. None of us treat her any differently, and that is why she has excelled.’’
She also helps teach the kids’ classes.
Candace Waldron, executive director at Healing Abuse Working for Change, or where Radziewicz has worked for seven years, has praise for her colleague.
“She is a go-getter and highly motivated and very organized,’’ Waldron said.
Radziewicz became interested in the issue of domestic violence during a college internship in Washington.
“I always wanted to help people, and it fit me,’’ she said.
Waldron said Radziewicz has built a reputation for the organization at probate court, where she has done legal advocacy for victims of domestic violence.
“She is not shy and makes a point to get out there and get what she needs for our clients,’’ Waldron said.
Radziewicz said she loves her job at HAWC but is also hoping to develop her business as a motivational speaker and, possibly, write a book about her life.
And while she has had serious romantic relationships in the past but is currently single, she also hopes to find a special person to share her life with.
“I hope to meet someone,’’ she said. “I would love to get married and have kids. I’m doing so many different things now, I feel like this might be the time in my life I’ll meet that person.’’
Wendy Killeen can be reached at email@example.com