Phyllis got polio when she was seven years old. It was the summer of 1946 and another epidemic was paralyzing the children in Brooklyn, New York where she and her family lived. Phyllis’ parents were Polish immigrants who managed to escape Poland during the Second World War. They joined their large extended family in the Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn.
Most of Phyllis’ childhood after all four limbs of her body were paralyzed, was spent isolated from a larger world of experience. The long hospital stay at such a young age away from home was lonely and the rehabilitation process getting some muscles to work again was painful. After several surgeries on ankle and knee tendons, she was able to walk without the support of braces. Her arms were weak but functional.
Her parents had little money, her father being a tailor, but they did everything they could to encourage Phyllis’ learning. “I was only able to attend regular school during the fourth grade,” Phyllis related. “It was just wonderful even though I didn’t learn anything. It was just so great being around kids.”
Her teacher, Hannah Hardage, “pushed me to learn and didn’t care if I was disabled.” Between her surgeries Phyllis was home schooled and had little opportunity for socializing like other children her age, so she was “forever grateful to Ms. Hardage for getting her students together at her house on weekends to show films of her vacations.” Phyllis reminisced that it was Ms. Hardage who “took us to the first opera I’d ever been to at the very institution that I work at now, Hunter College.”
Hannah Hardage also taught her charges how to ride the subway, including Phyllis. As Phyllis got a little older she started yearning to become more independent from the grown-ups in her life who were doing their best to provide normalcy within the confines of their budget and her physical limitations
One day when she was thirteen, Phyllis decided she wanted to visit one of her girlfriends at the social club for disabled children in Manhattan. It would mean a long subway ride by herself. Her parents were concerned but agreed it was time to let her try the journey by herself. Usually her father drove her to club events. She and her friend talked on the telephone to arrange meeting at the first subway stop in Manhattan where they would then walk the short distance to the club.
After laboriously walking down several flights of subway steps Phyllis got to the platform and fell. “It was an old platform,” she recalled. “It was wooden and a piece of wood got stuck in my kneecap. It was bleeding incredibly. I asked someone to pick me up because I couldn’t get up from the ground by myself. A trail of blood was streaming down my leg, but I met my friend at the next stop.”
They walked to the club and cleaned her up. Years later, her mother told her that she followed her all the way into Manhattan from Brooklyn to see how she could handle herself. With tears in her voice Phyllis continued, “You know, to see your daughter….on the floor….just watching to see how she could help herself….I think that took a lot of strength.”
From then on, her parents knew she could become self-sufficient. Whatever she wanted to do in life they never discouraged. When she decided to go to college and pursue a degree in social work, for several months they saved up enough money to buy her a typewriter. At the time of my interview with Phyllis, she had her doctorate in Social Work, was a professor at Hunter College, was one of the first leaders in the Disability Rights Movement, and pioneered the disability studies program at Hunter.