Kathleen McAlvany


As Interviewed by Diya Patel, March 22, 2019

Kathleen McAlvany: In Her Own Words

I was born two months premature and I weighed 3 pounds and, as a result of the prematurity I have a condition called cerebral palsy. I am what’s known as a spastic diplegic. Which means that my legs are worse than my arms, but my arms are involved too. Because of my disability I found it hard to find employment. Cerebral Palsy affected my coordination. Doing anything that required dexterity was difficult. People would say well, we admire your willingness to want to work, but we can’t hire because you don’t have any experience, and my reply would always be...How does one get experience if I can’t get hired so that I can get the experience?

Then, in 1972 they made a national law that said that you had to hire people with disabilities. So, I was able to get a job working at Chicago Title and Trust. It’s very hard though to be in a working environment, because people really want you to be normal. They don’t understand if your hands don’t work and I was once called into my boss’ office and said to me he was an quandary as to what to do with me because of my motor dysfunction. For all I could say to that was, Mr. Johnson if this isn’t working out I would assume that you would let me go, and that would be the end of my job. I once wanted to be a librarian, and I went to the public library and I spoke to the head librarian, and I told her what I wanted to do. That I wanted to go to school to be a librarian. This is what she said...I had absolutely no right to want to be that. When you tell somebody that they walk funny or they can't use their hands the way that somebody else can; just because somebody can’t use various members of their body, doesn’t mean that their brain doesn’t work just fine. When you underestimate somebody’s potential, to me that social injustice.

I couldn’t learn to play the piano like I wanted to, but we all have limitations. If somebody is different and they don’t take the time to ask questions or allow time to get to know somebody people tend to be mean. I’ve had kids that used to call me Chester. There was a program called Chester Walked with a Limp, so kids used to call me Chester. I don’t think of myself as different from somebody else. I think getting a job was the hardest part. Not being able to do the things that I would have liked to have done but there are a lot worse things that you could have wrong with you. I think anytime you’re different, people treat you different, and if you walk funny, or you look different, or dress differently, it sets you apart and that’s why people didn’t want to hire me for a job. I had a teacher when I was in seventh grade, and I was on crutches and I had to have surgery for my heel cords, and when I would get to the door just as the bell would ring she would shove the door in my face. So I had to walk half a block to get past the room. It was very tough.

I feel as capable as anybody else. Whatever your circumstances are, are you circumstances, and your circumstances shouldn’t hold you back. We can decide every morning what kind of day we’re gonna to have, what kind of attitude I'm gonna have, and when I do that my day goes better. I think it’s much easier now for people with disabilities than it used to be. It’s much more acceptable. It’s time for people to realize there are more things alike about us than there are different. Sometimes we focus on differences when we should be looking at things that are alike. Today, you wouldn’t be able to say some of the things that were said to me.