Profiles of Inspiration for All of Us

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

[Note: In this article, Frank shares profiles of some very amazing people who view disabilities as inspiration rather than obstacles: Desdie and Frank, Nanette Fabray, Mabel Hubbard Bell, Henry and Emmanuel, and Dennis. -Editor]

Desdie and Frank

They were both independent and working for an insurance company. Desdie was a PBX operator, and Frank was a rising claims manager. Both came from large farm families. Frank was the oldest of ten children born in what is now Withrow Springs State Park in Arkansas. Desdie was among the younger daughters of a father who had ten children. Her birth mother had died two children after Desdie was born in Oklahoma.

Frank Sr. and Desdie (click to zoom in)

His stepbrother, Fred, had dropped Frank as an infant on a farm implement. At the time the wound had been treated, but his knee healed in a frozen 90-degree bend position. Frank and Desdie had been seeing one another for some time when Desdie took Frank to meet her father, Jack Thomas. Jack seemed to like Frank, but later talked to Desdie. He questioned whether they were developing a serious relationship and warned her about marrying a disabled person. Desdie responded by saying he was one of the most interesting men she had ever met. She thanked her father for his advice and went on to marry Frank in 1923. Frank’s mother died in 1925, and Desdie and Frank brought the three youngest girls and two youngest boys to Dallas to live with them. His father was unhappy since he used the children to pick cotton, but Frank had promised his mother on her deathbed to care for the younger children.

Frank Jr. was born in 1926, and Thomas Earl was born in 1929. By 1932 they had discovered that Thomas was deaf. Frank Sr. took this news very hard. Desdie did what she was always good at doing and began to try to understand what deafness meant. They hired a live-in tutor to teach little Thomas.

Frank Sr. was doing well with the insurance company and was recommended for membership on the company’s board of directors. However, he was blackballed for membership because one member believed it would be bad publicity to have handicapped board member. Ironically this was at the time that FDR was president.

Frank told the board to shove it, resigned from the company, and went off to form another insurance company. The company did well even in the Depression until the treasurer embezzled funds and drove it into receivership. Frank then organized a finance company and during World War II had his own claim insurance company. He ended his career as a legal consultant to young lawyers for Best Western. He discussed strategies with the lawyers concerning the cases they were working on.

Desdie learned sign language and communicated well with Thomas. Frank was concerned about and interested in Thomas but was not a good communicator with either of his sons. He worried that Thomas would be discriminated against because of his deafness.

I once, as a teenager, when I was angry at my father, asked my mother why I had to have a deaf brother and crippled father. In her wisdom, she replied, “In order for you, son, to understand the real meaning and values in life, you have a deaf brother and a crippled father. They enable you to understand the real values in life, not the outer shells of life.” I think her answer was true and that I have tried to look beyond the first impressions one gets of things and people. Yes, Frank Sr. and Desdie were my parents.

Nanette Fabray

Nanette Fabray was born in 1920 and appeared in her first professional acting effort when she was three years old. She has continued to be a star in film, television and stage as “an American actress, comedienne, singer, dancer, and activist. She began her career performing in vaudeville as a child and then became a highly praised musical theatre actress during the 1940s and 1950s. She won a Tony Award in 1949 for her performance in Love Life. She became a household name during the mid 1950s as comedy partner to Sid Caesar on Caesar’s Hour for which she won three Emmy Awards. From 1979-1984 she starred as Grandma Katherine Romano on One Day at a Time” (Wikipedia).

Nanette Fabray

While she was a great talent, one of her directors noticed that even though she sang well on key she often missed cues. A hearing test revealed that she had a conductive hearing loss. She had a fenestration operation, and it improved her hearing. She went on to become an early television star and has remained active in stage, film and television, She married and had one son.

She was nominated by President Johnson to be the chair of the President’s Committee for the Deaf. She carried out her duties with a high degree of professionalism and was a good spokesperson for the deaf community. Just prior to leaving office, President Johnson filled all committee vacancies. Nanette had fulfilled only one year of a three-year appointment. President Nixon tried to replace the Johnson appointments with his own committee members. Eventually the courts ruled that one president couldn’t dismiss another’s appointees. If you are appointed for three years, you serve three years. In response, the Nixon administration abolished many committees, but Congress did not approve of the abolishment of the handicapped and deaf committees. The final result of these actions was the Advisory Committee Act of 1972, which stated that members served for the number of years they were appointed. The law required that all committee members’ names must be published and that all advisory committee meetings must be open to the public. Nanette was not happy with these actions taken by the Nixon administration and took it up with the President.

She did not like the joining of the two committees even though she was appointed co-chair. The White House kept asking her if she would accept the co-chair. She simply said I have a letter from the President saying what my term of office is.

The ground breaking of the Model Secondary School for the Deaf on the Gallaudet campus included Pat Nixon, Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Nanette. When Nanette spoke, she praised the government for all the new educational and rehabilitation programs that had been put in place for the deaf community. In fact, she thought it was like a super ship, perhaps like the Titanic. Then she paused and said, unfortunately, this new wonderful ship of hope for deaf people hit a Weinberger and was slowly sinking. The crowd appreciated this, and in the reception line at the president’s house, they almost pushed the Secretary and Mrs. Nixon out of the way getting to Nanette to tell her how wonderful she was.

Nanette has continued to support pro-social causes and has received many recognitions and awards. Vice President Cheney, with respect to his Energy Committee, challenged the 1972 Advisory Committee Act. He claimed he did not have to make names of members or actions taken public. A Republican appointed federal judge agreed with him.

(Note: I have worked with many committee members, and Nanette Fabray was one of the most effective. She read the materials and always had relevant comments and advice for the committee and government. -FW)

Mabel Hubbard Bell

Mabel lost her hearing when she was five years old. She learned to speech read, and Alexander Graham Bell became her teacher when she was a teenager. They fell in love even though Alexander was some ten years her senior. When he created his telephone company, he gave Mabel all but I believe ten shares of the company. Alexander Bell’s mother lost her hearing as she grew older so he lived with deafness both in his mother and wife.

Mabel Hubbard Bell

Both Mabel and Alexander were very interested in the development of early aviation. Mabel was interested enough that she provided financial support. Ironically she supported almost everyone but Charles Lindbergh in attempting to fly across the Atlantic. Both Alexander and Mabel supported aerodynamic experiments in their Canadian homeland. Mabel advised Alexander on his aviation experiments and was especially involved in the selection of young assistants who worked on their experiments.

The telephone partly came about as a result of Bell’s interest in devices to improve hearing for hard of hearing people. The typewriter was developed to enable cerebral palsied people to write, and the IQ was developed to help us serve the mentally challenged. Curb cuts benefit not only wheelchair bound people, but also mothers with babies in carriages. Our drive to include everyone often benefits society in strange and unexpected ways. Incidentally, Alexander Graham Bell in later life found the telephone an annoyance and removed them from his research area.

Mabel Hubbard Bell, a deaf woman, was far ahead of her time and has left her mark on aviation by her wisdom and insight in supporting aerodynamic research. Her insights and knowledge moved science forward.

Henry and Emmanuel

Henry Viscardi was born with very crippled feet. He spent the first years of his life in hospitals in New York City. Eventually his crippled and distorted feet had to be amputated. He grew up and went to college and worked on Wall Street. Eleanor Roosevelt met Henry and was so impressed with this young man that she convinced the President that Henry would be a good role model for veterans, returning from war, who had amputations. Henry at first said he had no experience or knowledge about how to rehabilitate amputees. However, you don’t turn down a request from President Roosevelt so Henry found himself working with veterans at Walter Reed hospital.

Henry did well working with veterans. At the end of World War II, he returned to New York wondering what he would do. An article of his wartime service appeared in one of the local newspapers. He was wondering what he would do for the rest of his life when, as a result of the newspaper article, he got a telephone call from a man who had no hands. The man was depressed and said suicide was the only thing left open to him. Henry told the man he had a job for him and to report on Monday morning. Thus Abilities Inc. was born. Henry had no idea what he would have the man do. The man eventually became a shop foreman. Henry believed a sheltered workshop should be a high tech based operation. Henry married and had, I believe, four children. He expanded the workshop to what is now the Henry Viscardi School for severely disabled children.

Henry’s work has been duplicated around the world. Several presidents have honored him, and he has given hope to countless disabled citizens. Henry Viscardi has lived an impossible dream and enriched countless disabled people in all parts of the world. The Henry Viscardi School on Long Island gives hope to many. Henry served on a number of national presidential committees for the disabled, always dreaming that disabled people could find major ways to contribute to society. In effect, he turned tax users into taxpayers. His lasting contribution is that he enabled so many to have great dignity in their lives.

A modern day man, Emmanuel from Ghana has had a similar experience. He was born with a crippled and useless leg. When his father saw his condition, he abandoned Emmanuel and his mother. His mother was a strong woman and insisted that he be schooled. He did well in school and grew even with his disabled leg. He had tremendous drive and usually accomplished what he set his mind to do. In general, in Ghana, disabled people were left to beg and were not provided an educational opportunity. Emanuel set out to demonstrate the abilities of a disabled person. He believed that if he could ride a bicycle across Ghana, he could demonstrate the ability of a disabled educated person to participate in society.

Photo of Emmanuel from

Emmanuel and his bicycle did just that, and a television special was made of his efforts. An orthopedic surgeon in Los Angles saw the special and brought Emmanuel to the USA, amputated his bad leg, and fitted him with a prosthetic leg. He quickly learned to walk and has returned to Ghana on his two good feet. He now champions education for the disabled throughout Ghana. He meets with government officials and tribal chiefs with the message that disabled people can and must contribute to society.

Henry and Emmanuel are two men from different parts of the world and different times, creating a new and better world for all. They see in each life they touch the potential of a full and powerful life as a contributing member of society rather than a burden.

Dream of what you can accomplish and not what might hold you back. Every day gives us each a new challenge.


Dennis was born with cerebral palsy. In fact it was so bad that the doctors recommended total institutionalization for him. They predicted he would never walk or ever talk and that he would never be able to attend school much less learn. Dennis tells his own story:

I eventually learned to walk. My speech isn’t too good, but I learned to talk. I learned to read. I graduated from high school. I took driver’s education and learned to drive. I went to college and graduated in physics with high honors. I received a masters degree in aerospace engineering. I work for NASA. I drive a little red sports car. I just got married to a wonderful woman. Not bad for a guy that the doctors said would not walk. Thank goodness for my parents belief that I could accomplish things. I have never thought there was anything I could not do. My computer helps me interact with the world. I look forward to being a good father in the future.

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