Deborah C. McKeithan rattles off a list of her physical limitations: legally blind, partial paralysis, epileptic, no feeling on her right side, little on her left, some fatigue, cerebral multiple sclerosis.
"In fact," she chuckles, "the only thing that works really well is my mouth."Colleagues add to the list "her heart, her head and her highly developed stubborn streak and determination."
The founder of Learning How, a nationwide support and information organization for people with disabilities, will be in Salt Lake City on March 30 to deliver the keynote address at the 1989 Women and Disability Issues Conference at the Salt Lake Hilton Hotel.
She'll share her secret for overcoming a disability and moving on. "Life for me began when I finally looked in the mirror and saw a woman, rather than a handicapped person."
Attitude is everything, according to McKeithan. How well someone accepts a disability depends on factors like whether it was present at birth or developed later and what kind of reaction they get from people around them. Ultimately, though, it depends on the individual's sense of self.
"I choose to be an example of equality," she said. "It's a matter of self-development and reaching further and finding the buttons in one's self that allow you to turn negatives or challenges into victories."
McKeithan was hydrocephalic at birth, but it wasn't diagnosed. Epilepsy resulted when she was hit by a car at age 12. Over the years, other problems like a constant headache were labeled "psychosomatic." When she was 18, doctors decided she had multiple sclerosis, then changed their minds and performed three surgeries looking for a nonexistent brain tumor. Instead, they found massive blood clots, removed part of her skull and planted shunts to drain the fluid.
She was told to live a normal life. The trouble was over. So she attended nursing school. Between graduation and the state board exams, she went to the hospital complaining of a headache and numbness in her hands and feet. That night, in the psychiatric ward where she'd been sent for her "psychosomatic" illness she suffered a massive stroke that left her blind, without speech and paralyzed on the left side. At that time, doctors discovered she had a rare form of multiple sclerosis that attacks the brain. They told her she'd live about a year. Instead of waiting to die, she found a doctor who believed in aggressive treatment and went on chemotherapy.
The past eight years have been full of victories, large and small. She practiced in front of a mirror until she could speak again, she worked until she no longer needs a wheelchair, but can get along with a cane. Limited sight has returned in one eye.
Besides founding Learning How, she's served on a number of national and North Carolina committees and boards, lobbied extensively for legislation to benefit the disabled and won a number of awards. Corporations seek her advice on disability issues like handicap accessibility and she travels extensively on speaking tours.
"The only person who can really limit me is myself," she said. "Sometimes I'm very unrealistic. But how you handle a disability depends on who you were before.
"If I thought that being disabled would motivate people and make them nice, there are a lot of people I'd run over personally. For their own sake, of course. It just doesn't work that way. For some, a disability is the challenge they needed. But not for everyone.
"You're as handicapped as you perceive yourself, and while it's not uncommon to be scared, when we self-empower, we can accomplish anything.
"I'm a disabled person working very hard not to let my attitude be my handicap."