Outside editorial: Disabled, not limited

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2008

It's a measure of David Paterson's self-effacing manner that, when he was sworn in Monday as governor of New York, he made a joke about being legally blind.

Paterson told a story of nearly smashing a water glass with his gavel while serving as lieutenant governor. He was stopped by the state's Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, who said he didn't want Paterson turning the proceedings into a Jewish wedding.

In the matter of a few short days, Paterson's good humor and steady demeanor has helped move the spotlight from squalid spectacle - Eliot Spitzer - to a more uplifting story. Not only is Paterson New York's first African American governor, he's only the second blind person to head a state. (The first was Bob C. Riley, who served as governor for Arkansas in 1975 for 11 days.)

Advocates for the blind hope that Paterson's ascension will help dispel myths about people who are visually impaired and serve as a source of inspiration for everyone who lives with this disability.

Nationwide, about 10 million people have some form of severe visual impairment. Of those, about 1.3 million, like Paterson, are legally blind and about 500,000 are totally blind.

Paterson lost much of his sight because of a childhood infection, but it didn't hold him back. The son of a Harlem labor leader, Paterson graduated from Columbia University and Hofstra University law school, worked as a district attorney and became a state senator in 1985. Spitzer picked him as his running mate in 2006.

Because of new technologies and changing attitudes, the blind are pursuing careers that were once denied to them. Although he will ultimately be judged on how well he leads the nation's third most populous state, Paterson is already demonstrating that blindness is not, and should not, be a determiner for success.

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