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Not Just Another Wall

Chris Pendergast's life journey exposes the many barriers our society faces

Richard Iannuzzi's picture
May 02, 2017

A lot of pundits have been commenting about walls. Where to build one; how to pay for it; and, whether or not it will be the most beautiful wall ever! I’ll also be thinking about walls, but very different ones. I’ll be traveling from Yankee Stadium to Washington, D.C. with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) patients, led by Long Islander, Dr. Christopher Pendergast. Chris has lived with this debilitating disease for 24 years. Twenty years ago he created Ride for Life, where I serve as a board member, making trips in his wheelchair to D.C. and later across Long Island to raise money for research and to bring awareness to this dreadful disease. To mark the Ride’s 20th anniversary, Chris plans on replicating the Yankee Stadium to D.C. journey. He’ll do so on the road in his electric wheelchair for a good portion of the 240 miles. Chris is now a paraplegic, on a ventilator, and he uses a computer controlled by his eyes to write and speak. Chris isn’t thinking about building walls, he wants to take them down. Barriers that prevent disabled individuals from enjoying the maximum freedom possible.

Chris understands that there are many different types of walls, and they all serve as barriers. By definition, barriers are obstacles that prevent movement or access. Many diseases create barriers that limit patients from fully enjoying the freedoms they so desperately crave. Likewise, a wall on our border with Mexico will take freedom away from those deported after years in our country where they paid taxes and followed the rules. Individuals who sought economic freedom or freedom from violence  the only way they could—by entering our country using whatever means available. That same wall will prevent others fleeing from violence from ever reaching freedom. Once the current budget “extension” expires, congress will return to debating the budget—a budget that includes a funding proposal to pay for that wall despite the campaign promise, “Mexico will pay for the wall!”

In those same budget negotiations, Congress will debate a proposed 18% cut in funding for biomedical research at the National Institute for Health. There is no doubt that this would have a devastating impact on needed research. For Chris and other ALS patients (PALS) the result would be more barriers, more walls. Today, exciting discoveries are unfolding in the fight to find a cure or even prevent ALS! These funding cuts, if enacted, will prevent PALS from not only increasing their mobility—but potentially even increasing their longevity.

Those with special needs, whether physical and mental, have always had to fight against walls preventing them from living their lives to the fullest. During my 34-year teaching career, the union I led, Central Islip TA, joined parents in their struggle to get necessary handicap accessible facilities and equipment or needed mental health services. These were similar to the battles fought by many unions to gain bilingual services and to protect antipoverty programs. These programs benefited many of their members and the families of members. Again, for union leaders, it was about taking down walls that prevent individuals—whether unionized or not—from enjoying life to the fullest. With the same resolve, many union members today stand with striking members from Teamster Local 812 in their fight to prevent Clare Rose distributors from gutting their benefits and cutting salaries by up to 30%.

The struggle for equity and freedom has many heroes. Throughout his life Robert F. Kennedy was one.  He worked hard to take down barriers to human rights. Most notably, he broke bread with Cesar Chavez to end the grape boycott organized by the United Farm Workers. RFK Human Rights, an organization where I also serve as a board member, continues the fight, both here and abroad, against leaders and laws that create barriers to prevent advocates from achieving greater freedoms for those they represent. That work, with union support, includes educating the next generation of human rights advocates.

One of Robert F. Kennedy’s most quoted speeches, delivered over 50 years ago, speaks to barriers. In apartheid South Africa, he spoke up against the ugly and inhumane barriers that prevented millions from exercising even their most basic human rights, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

When Chris Pendergast motors his electric wheelchair into Washington, D.C., I have no doubt that he will be taking down walls. He will be sending out a tiny ripple of hope for PALS and patients dealing with many different types of physical and mental challenges that limit their access, and he will be striking out against the injustices that will result from cuts in research funding. Along with advocates for human rights from “a million different centers of energy and daring,” Chris will be helping to take down the walls that limit freedom, and as a result—the walls that limit everyone’s freedom.

Richard C. Iannuzzi taught in Central Islip school district from 1970-2004 and served as president of the Central Islip Teachers Association for eight years, and president of the 300,000 member New York State United Teachers for nine years from 2005 -2014.

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