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Monday December 5, 2005

Notre Dame Parishioner Is Strident Advocate for Rights of the Disabled

Beacon Staff


CEDAR KNOLLS - Still think that the severely disabled can't live happy, productive lives, competing in athletics, earning college degrees and snagging well-paying jobs - as well as a couple of marriage proposals?


Then meet 34-year-old Dawn Parkot, a spunky redhead who has suffered from Cerebral Palsy (CP) since birth. The Morristown resident has spent a lifetime quieting the naysayers - among them her own doctors - by building an outstanding resume that would put many able-bodied people to shame. A high-school honors student, she earned a both bachelor's and master's degrees with honors from the University of Notre Dame. Picked in 1991 as Paralympics games alternate, Parkot also later won the title of 1999 Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey.


In her recent impassioned talk at her home parish of Notre Dame of Mount Carmel here, Parkot delivered a strong message to U.S. judges and doctors: "We don't want you to have the power over whether we live or die." She blasted the federal courts for allowing earlier this year the starvation death of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged Florida woman, which set off a national debate on the so-called "right to die."


"This country is trying to take away our civil liberties," Parkot said on behalf of the severely disabled like herself. "When we are allowed to be starved to death, I'm not proud of being an American."


Parkot said that if she can achieve great things despite her multitude of physical problems - which also include legal blindness, arthritis and asthma - then other disabled people can as well. But when the courts and doctors permit the systematic killing of the disabled, then their potential contributions to society are lost forever, she said.


"(Severely disabled people) could be the next Helen Keller, Ray Charles, Stephen Hawking (a noted scientist) or Pope John Paul II," said Parkot, whose doctors told her parents, Kate and Sean, that she would amount to nothing more than a "vegetable," called her dreams of college a "fantasy" and suggested she be institutionalized.


With great humor and sarcasm, Parkot - a strident advocate for the rights of the disabled - noted, "I guess you can see that my doctors were a bit mistaken" - sparking laughter from the audience that filled Notre Dame Church.


Parkot delivered her talk from her wheelchair, parked in front of the altar. During the almost hour-long address, she shook from involuntary movements caused by CP, which impairs her movement and speech. She delivered the prepared talk by a punching a button a small computer set in front of her, which recited her words with a machine-like jerky, staccato cadence, like that of a Speak 'n' Spell.


In her often poignant talk, Parkot questioned press reports that described Schiavo has in a "persistent vegetative state." She said doctors should have re-examined her. She also asserted that Schiavo's brain might have atrophied because no one exercised her mind by speaking to her or because of dehydration.


Yet, Parkot did look with optimism toward a future, in which the severely disabled can reach even greater heights. She pointed to quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve, who experienced a breakthrough shortly before his death: some limb movement. Also, Parkot hopes that schools for the disabled will provide better physical therapy and instruction so the disabled can live happier, more productive lives.


But right now, many academics - such as Peter Singer, a Princeton University medical bioethics professor - are trying to hamper that bright future by espousing "their twisted philosophies about the disabled," she said. Singer has declared, "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all."


"I use the term 'person' to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time," Singer says on Princeton's Web site.

"Killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person Perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die taking active steps to end the baby's life swiftly and humanely." Appalled by Singer's assertions, Parkot shot back, "Boy, I'm glad my mom didn't believe that."


A proud Kate Parkot said of her daughter after the talk, "Dawn says, 'I can do anything, I just do it differently.' That's the message she's trying to send."


Parkot insisted, "My mother knew my doctors were wrong." After receiving the diagnosis of her daughter's CP, Kate researched brain injures and started her on a rigorous exercise regime.


"It didn't make sense that she wouldn't improve," said Kate said of her daughter, after Parkot's talk, sponsored by Morris County Right to Life. "Early on, Dawn showed signs of intelligence. Before she was 2-years-old, Dawn would give me a sign to take her to the potty. She trained me. When she was 2, she could read."


Physical therapy gave Parkot better control of her arms and neck and enabled her to sit up better. But in subsequent years, she would suffer some devastating health setbacks. In 1979, Parkot was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which still causes her constant pain. While she was Morristown High School student, a wheelchair accident left her legally blind and with brain and spinal cord injury. Shortly thereafter, doctors removed a tumor at her hip, she said.


"I was furious at the Lord for giving me more to deal with. I wanted to give up," said Parkot, a lifelong Catholic and a Notre Dame parishioner, who added that in time, "I believed God would show me right road back." With irrepressible humor, she mused, "God never gives us more than we can handle, but I wish God would stop showing me that."


In 1991, Parkot showed what the physically disabled can achieve by earning a slot as an alternate in the Paralympics games in the equestrian events. That year, she started at Notre Dame University, where she worked with engineers there to make her dorm facilities handicapped accessible. In the typical four-year period, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1995 in mathematics. In 2000, she received a master's degree there in computer science and engineering. Far from a "book worm," Parkot said she led a full social life, going to parties, dating and even receiving two marriage proposals. She said "no" to both.


"I'm a very picky gal," quipped Parkot. While a Notre Dame Undergrad, her fellow students established an award in her name for students who succeed despite unthinkable odds.


As a Notre Dame graduate student, Parkot was judged to be the most accomplished and articulate spokesperson for the disabled in the Garden State, winning 1999 Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey. The competition also evaluated candidates on their academic, vocational and personal accomplishments and their communication skills.


After college, Parkot landed a lucrative job with a N.J. software company, but lost her position in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.


In her impassioned talk, Parkot sounded a rallying cry to Catholics and other life-minded people - contact your lawmakers to make your views known in support of the disabled and in opposition to abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research.

Parkot also promoted an even greater understanding of the disabled by asking parents to refrain from judging the disabled by their appearance.


However, it's OK if children look at a disabled person and ask questions such as, "Why can't she walk?"- But then, they need to be open and listen to the answers, she said.

"Don't make your child afraid of the disabled," Parkot told parents, while also cautioning them, "Don't pat us on the head like we are dogs. And don't talk to us like we're babies. Treat us the way you would want to be treated."