Staying Power : Cerebral Palsy Fails to Keep Student From Helping the Handicapped

Times Staff Writer

At first, it is painful to be in a room with Jim Hammitt, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Each syllable he utters is slurred and shapeless. His awkward steps seem powered by random bolts of energy.

Indeed, a natural reaction to his struggles might be to squirm and then slip away.

He asks rhetorically: "If you had never heard a thing about me and I came up to you in a bar and started talking, what would you do?"

A frank answer is given.

"I thought so," he says. "And that's normal. There are a lot of weird people out there, a lot of dope addicts."

But the man is no drug addict. A 44-year-old psychology major at California State University, Northridge, Hammitt has racked up a slew of accomplishments, including co-founding Mainstream, a national monthly magazine for the disabled.

"Don't brush me off," he said to the hypothetical individual who refuses to take him seriously because of his handicap. "I won't let you."

Hammitt's life has been a battle to enter society's mainstream, and his face, creased and weary, reflects the struggle.

Mistakenly Diagnosed

At 2, doctors mistakenly diagnosed him as mentally retarded. He couldn't walk until he turned 8.

"I did what they call a bunny hop," he said. "I'd be on all fours and get my hands out and pull my legs behind me."

When Hammitt was graduated from high school, his counselor told him he would never be able to find a job. "He just said it was a good thing my father owned a business."

The forecast wasn't accurate.

Starting Mainstream with friend Frank McGovern in 1976 is not his only accomplishment. For five years, he edited and wrote for the publication, earning about $12,000 a year.

The San Diego-based, 38-page magazine, with a national circulation of more than 10,000 is published by Exploding Myths Inc. Most of its articles, such as "Dating Services Court the Disabled" and "Being Creative Requires a Little Creativity," focus on how the handicapped can pursue fairly normal lives.

The magazine sells for $3 and attracts national advertisers, including IBM, which recently ran an advertisement promoting the company's handicapped-training programs. In the ad, a personal computer and a wheelchair are placed side by side and called "compatible hardware."

Financed at first by the now-defunct federal Comprehensive Employment Training Act, Mainstream almost breaks even and no longer relies on government funding, said publisher Cyndi Jones. During 1986, the magazine experienced a 34% growth in advertising revenue.

Commenting on Hammitt's involvement with the magazine, Jones said: "He had excellent concepts and a good grasp of the problems faced by the disabled. Mainstream was his brainchild." But it took years for him to master the spelling and grammar skills required to implement his ideas independently, Jones added.

"His special education was like baby-sitting," she said. "It was so poor that he had to go back and learn everything through self-study. They didn't expect anyone with cerebral palsy to be an active member of society so he wasn't pushed to learn the basics. The system he went through was archaic."

In 1984, Hammitt was given the President's Award by the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine. In 1980, former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. awarded Hammitt the Governor's Trophy for promoting the hiring of disabled people.

Started Lobbying Group

In 1973, before he conceived Mainstream, Hammitt started a grass-roots organization in San Diego to lobby for legislation to help the handicapped. The group's efforts, Hammitt said, contributed to the passage of 50 bills in the state Legislature, including an act that made all schoolrooms accessible to disabled students.

At CSUN, he was elected to the board of the University Student Union and serves as president of the Disabled Students Organization. He expects to graduate in 1989 and find a job as a director of a program for the handicapped.

"Basically," said Harry Murphy, director of CSUN's Office of Disabled Student Services, "he's considered the most dynamic student leader on campus. He's involved with things for the disabled, and he's also the leader of several student organizations that have nothing to do with the disabled.

"I can't wait for this guy to finish school," Murphy added, "because, if there's an opening, he's the guy we want to fill it."

The activist profile Hammitt now assumes belies years of resignation during early adulthood, when he would pass the time watching soap operas on his parents' couch in San Diego. Hammitt blames his high school counselor. "I walked out of his office in a daze," he said. "I was dumbfounded. I had been told by my father and mother that I could do anything I wanted to do. And, all of a sudden, somebody was telling me no. I went home and became a potato for five years."

Such capricious evaluations were common during the 1950s, when there was limited understanding of cerebral palsy, a disorder of the central nervous system generally caused by brain damage before or during birth. Nationally, about 600,000 people suffer from the condition, said Rosemary Addarich of the United Cerebral Palsy Assn., based in New York.

Intelligence tests, requiring advanced speech and manual skills, often erroneously suggested that people like Hammitt were mentally retarded, said Ron Cohen, director of the Los Angeles branch of the organization.

IQ Tests Improve

Since then, Hammitt said, IQ tests have become increasingly sophisticated and are capable of more accurately gauging the intelligence of people with physical and oral handicaps. According to a 1973 study, about 60% of people with cerebral palsy are retarded.

"I'd probably say that even the more recent 60% figure is skewed," Cohen said. "It's too high. I've had cases when people have been in state hospitals and are now in college."

Hammitt credits "the positive spirit" given to him by his parents for helping him triumph over the depressing stigma he felt during his early 20s.

Many children Hammitt's age who had cerebral palsy led limited lives. "But my mom and dad were different. One, they told me I was a child with a handicap, not a handicapped child. Two, they said society wasn't going to give me anything." They encouraged him to go out and play basketball and football in the streets like his younger brother.

"I knew no one was going to hand me a job. So I eventually decided I would make my own breaks and found a position as a volunteer with United Cerebral Palsy," he said.

The accomplishment of which Hammitt is most proud, he said without a moment's hesitation, is his 1981 marriage to his wife, Julie, a legal secretary.

"In one day, I became a husband, a father and a grandfather," he said. At the time, Julie, now 48, was a recent divorcee with two daughters in their 20s and a 6-month-old grandchild.

'Didn't Seem Shocked'

Although her daughters had difficulty understanding Hammitt when he spoke, Julie said, "They didn't seemed shocked at all. We obviously had been in love, and they knew things got pretty romantic. Their main concern was that I be happy, and they saw that I was happier with Jim than ever before.

"It's been an education for them," she said.

The couple met each other on a public bus in San Diego and sat next to each other as commuters for five years before beginning a romantic relationship.

Their friendship had a rocky start, Julie recalled.

"I was afraid to talk to him because I was afraid I wouldn't understand him. We didn't say anything for three months. But the curiosity overwhelmed me so I sent a letter to his office at Mainstream. For the next five years, we just talked, and he became my best friend. But, because I was married, we never saw each other apart from the bus."

Hammitt's handicap wasn't a consideration when deciding whether to press forward with a courtship, Julie said. "We had become so close in a friendship way that I no longer thought about the way he talked or looked."

Hammitt speaks openly about the sexual aspects of his marriage.

"Sometimes, when you look in the mirror, all you see are the imperfections. . . . But I can't think of any disability where the physical act of sex can't be performed. The partners may have to be a little innovative, but it can take place."

Battling the stereotypes that surround the handicapped is Hammitt's mission. "I have a theory that one of the reasons many disabled people feel they're shut out of society is that they let people shut them out," he said. "They won't get out and challenge the public to understand them."

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