A LIFETIME OF EDUCATING ABOUT POLIO

DARRYL CAMPAGNA Staff writer
Section: LIFE & LEISURE,  Page: D3

Date: Tuesday, December 9, 1997

Forty-three-year-old Denise Figueroa expects to find disbelief when she tells people she has recovered from polio. For most Americans, Figueroa has learned, polio is as far removed from contemporary memory as the Black Death of Medieval Europe. ``Oh, it's absolutely forgotten,'' said Figueroa, whose leg braces and crutches are a reminder of the dreaded disease. ``When I tell people I have polio'' -- Figueroa still speaks of her disease in the present tense -- ``usually the first reaction is, `You can't have polio -- you're too young.' Doctors look at you like you're from Mars. They've never seen someone with polio.''


Figueroa is executive director of the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley in Troy, and lives in Boght Corners, a section of Colonie. A nationally known advocate for the disabled, she has used a wheelchair since age 18.


She contracted polio in August 1955 at 10 months old. That was the year Jonas Salk's polio vaccine was introduced, and it was also one of the final years that polio was common in the United States. The new vaccine was in scarce supply, however, and no one in Figueroa's family had been immunized.


Figueroa's family traveled from their Brooklyn home to visit friends along the Connecticut shore that August. Two days later, Figueroa was running a fever and her legs were painful to the touch.


She was hospitalized for eight months, and had to learn to walk with braces and crutches. Figueroa grew to be fiercely independent, disliking the pitying stares of adults and the teasing of other children. She entered Brooklyn College in 1972 still trying to ignore the fact she was disabled -- an attitude that quickly changed.


``It wasn't until college that I finally had some freedom and I started choosing to be with people with disabilities,'' she recalled. ``I started realizing how differently we had been treated, and that there was some power in our organizing.''


She joined the campus organization for disabled students, ``So Fed Up,'' which stood for ``The Student Organization For Every Disability United for Progress.'' There, she met her husband, Pat. He used a wheelchair because he had been born with spina bifida, a disorder in which the spinal column doesn't close properly during fetal development.


Mixing with other disabled students who were often defiantly un-self-conscious, Figueroa also started using a wheelchair. The chair was a practical choice because it conserved more of the tremendous energy required to walk on braces and crutches. She also participated in a protest against President Nixon's veto of the Rehabilitation Act of 1972, which would have been one of the first major pieces of federal legislation to assist the disabled. That episode involved a brief takeover of Nixon's Manhattan campaign headquarters, and her parents, she recalled with a laugh, were appalled at the transformation of their once-meek daughter into campus activist.


Two years ago, Figueroa traveled to Brazil as part of an exchange program about independent living centers for the disabled. While there, she saw the ravages of polio in a country where few people had been vaccinated. Although the disease is now eliminated in the Western Hemisphere, countries such as Brazil suffered furious outbreaks of the disease in recent memory, and it's common to see young adults in their 20s and 30s who have been disabled by polio, Figueroa said.


``People in this country have no idea how widespread it truly is,'' she said.


Although Figueroa has spent a lifetime trying to educate the people she encounters about polio, and about the needs of all disabled people, she considers her experience with polio an important part of her life.


``It's hard to say who I would have been if it didn't happen to me, and I don't think it's a negative thing,'' she said.