Mentor Spotlight: Eddie Martinez

The following blog was written by Dr. Lauren Lieberman.

Can a Student Who Is Deafblind Learn to Ride a Unicycle?

When I started to tell my story, I began, as we all would, at the beginning. I was born in East Goshen, PA. I was the second oldest of four. A nice home in a nice community with a nice family. It wasn’t until I had written about my journey to Camp Abilities that one of my friends remarked, “It’s shocking how your path was so clear from the very beginning. Your life was one steppingstone after another to your dream.”

I had never made that connection but it’s true. One of those stepping stones connects my determination to do something that seemed impossible to my student’s determination to do what I thought was impossible. 

When I was ten, my father’s best friend and his three children visited us. The Lieberman household had every type of sports equipment you can imagine, but we did not have unicycles. They had two! My ten-year-old eyes saw a challenge as I grabbed one of their unicycles and began learning to ride. It was not easy. As a matter of fact, it was hard. But I would not be defeated.

I started riding it holding on to my mother’s VW bus. I inched along, holding on to the rim of the roof, searching for the right balance and the courage to let go. Around the bus I went, letting go for brief revolutions of the pedals before falling. By the time they took their unicycles home four days later, I could just barely pedal along while holding on that bus. My obsession with riding the one-wheeled-machine began.

What does a child who wants something do? She begs. I begged my dad for a unicycle. It took a while but one day he brought home a shiny silver unicycle. His gift came with the warning all parents give: “If you don’t learn to ride this, I’m taking it back to the store.”

My young mind thought my dad would take it back TOMORROW if I failed. That was not going to happen. I got out of bed at sunrise, crept down the stairs and out to my new unicycle. I went around and around, fell down, I got up, and I fell down again. Once I mastered going around the bus, I moved to my dad’s sailboat mast which provided a perfect horizontal place to hold on. I spent hours – from sunup to sundown for two days – and finally, I showed my dad I could briefly stay up. It took me many more months to become proficient. I had done it. I was – and still am – proud of that accomplishment. So is my dad.

Desire

While I worked at the Perkins School for the Blind  I was privileged to meet 13-year-old Eddie, who was deafblind due to Rubella. He could see dark, light and some shapes We communicated by tactile sign language, which is when I sign onto his hands and he signs back. 

His sense of humor kept us all laughing. He swam on the swim team, ran on the track team, and played goalball. We were kindred spirits.

Halloween at Perkins is a lively affair. I dressed as a clown and I rode my unicycle all over campus. I put ‘spokie-dokies’ on the wheel so the children could hear and know where I was. The children ran their hands over the unicycle– the seat, the wheel, the spokes- trying to understand what it was.

Before Eddie lost his sight, he’d gone to the circus and had been mesmerized by the clown riding a unicycle. He said to me, in that earnest way children have,

“Lauren, when are you going to teach me how to ride?”

Doubt

I will admit, even though Eddie was a talented athlete, I wasn’t sure he could – or should – try the unicycle. It’s not easy for the sighted. After the difficulty I had learning to ride it, I could not imagine Eddie mounting my unicycle. But Eddie imagined it. Just like I begged my father, Eddie begged me. How could I say no to his determination?

Persistence 

We made a plan. That Fall, he practiced out on the track where he could hold a guide wire with one hand and my hand with the other. That winter, we moved into the gym, where he used a 10-foot ladder grid along one wall as a guide. As he got more confident, he would let go of the ladder and move onto the gym floor. That next Spring, we went outside again. He followed the oversized white lines on the track, and finally, he mastered it. After 6 months, he could ride around the whole track on the same Schwinn unicycle my father had given me so many years before…. by himself.

Lessons

From Eddie, we can all learn the lesson that determination and persistence pay off. But I learned so much more —

  • People with disabilities can do ANYTHING.
  • Instead of spending time doubting their ability, spend time FINDING A WAY.

I still carry these lessons in my work and in my heart.

I taught him to ride a unicycle. He taught me to believe in the abilities of others.  Thank you, Eddie!

 ~ Lauren Lieberman

Next Time: Where Is Eddie Today? 

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