Dr. Henry Viscardi, 91, died Tuesday, April 13th. He was not my father, grandfather, or any other type of kin yet, he was my mentor, hero and inspiration. I owe him so much of my life because he did what others had not done even before I was born. He gave dignity and respect to people with disabilities around the world.
Dr. Viscardi was born with legs that were so deformed he had to have several operations. However, he ended up with artificial limbs. The specifics of his life can be found in his book, “But Not On Our Block”. He wrote several books that told the story of his life and the people that passed through his Abilities Center now known as the National Center for Disability Services and the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, New York.
I had the privilege to attend the pre-K through 12th grade school called Henry Viscardi School, formerly known as “The Human Resouces School”.
I started there in 1975 with my preschool teacher, William Lupardo, and stayed there until my 5th grade year with Mrs.
Susan Gordon Ryan and Mrs. Patricia Ianucci. Despite the fact that I endured several operations and over fifty fractures during that time period I can honestly say it was the best years of my life.
In order to know Dr. Viscardi, you have to know the school. To this day, I have yet to see any school come close to HRS. Dr. Viscardi’s vision to give each child with a disability the opportunity to enjoy life with the least possible obstacles and the greatest possibility for acceptance went beyond what many people thought was possible.
While I attended the school I learned to swim in the indoor pool, understand astronomy in the planterium, cook pancakes in the fully accessible kitchen, play various sports including hockey in the gymnasium. Basically, I had the best education possible.
Library was always a wonderful time since we had the chance to get out of our wheelchairs and sit in whistle shaped cushiony floor chairs while Dr. Viscardi’s daughter, Mrs. Schultz, read us “Madeline” and many other childhood favorites.
His other daughter, Mrs. Sharky, now known as Ms. Viscardi taught us about primary colors, sculpting, painting, and drawing. I still have my unknown black and white ceramic creature that I can swear is my childhood pet dog.
There wasn’t a single facet of life that was not applied to us at the school. Music productions, plays, recreational events, a fully equipped dentist’s office, nurse’s office, psychologist and computer center were at our fingertips. I can remember the names of every single adult that worked there.
The school had such an impact on my life that to this day at the age of 34, my friends laugh at the fact that I can remember the school’s song and the volunteer song that were sung at assemblies.
I never knew that this school was so special until I left to live in Miami, Florida. My first week of public school was spent with about 15 mentally and physically disabled grade school kids watching Captain Kangaroo. Obviously there was a mistake. Where was the gym? Where were my french classes? What about the planterium? When did I get to go to the greenhouse? Those activities were no longer available to me. I was classified as someone with little intellect and treated like a pet.
My respect and dignity were left at Albertson, New York.
As if life couldn’t get worse, I started to realize after I was finally placed in the correct classroom that I was the only kid in my class who was in a wheelchair. Some kids stared. At Dr. Viscardi’s school no one stared at anyone. I was a cool girl even a cute girl. I was even known to have a few boyfriends as early as first grade. What happened?
The only explanation I can give is that Dr. Viscardi was a man ahead of his time. He founded an educational institution that gave every child the foundation to learn and cope with his or her disability while experiencing a life filled with love and happiness.
There are so many beautiful memories that to write about all of them would be like writing the lengthiest novel in the world.
Throughout future issues, readers will have the opportunity to know about some of those special moments.
However, I will leave you with this story.
During my last day at his school, my family, friends, and teachers surprised me with a going away party. I was only 11 years old. Every single one of my teachers since pre-K signed my yearbook, aftewards there was an award ceremony where I was given several medals for Good Citizenship, Excellence in Music and Outstanding Academics. Then I was sent to see Dr. Viscardi at his office.
I had never been there by myself. When I got there he was sitting behind his desk and he stood up to greet me. I can’t remember his exact words but I know that he was thanking me for being a part of his school. I should have been the one thanking him. He gave me a set of his books and autographed them. Then the “piece de resistance'” was when he gave me a wrapped gift. It was a beautiful small glass vase with two hummingbirds etched on it.
He told me it was made from the Abilities Center. The same place where all of the kids went around in costumes for Halloween trick or treating. It was made by one of our own. How much more special can it get?
I thanked him. He smiled. I said goodbye but in my heart I never left.
Thank you Dr. Viscardi for your courage to stare down those stares and look up at your dreams. Thank you for showing me that I can do whatever I want. Without you, who knows where the disabled community would be?
Viewing services will be Friday from 3 to 5 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. at Fairchild Sons Funeral Home in Manhasset, New York. The funeral service will be Saturday at 10 a.m. at St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in Great Neck, New York.
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