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7 Bridges Speaker Touts Tolerance, Independence

Geri Mariano, who was born with dwarfism, talks with sixth graders about being independent, acceptance and enjoying life.

When Geri Mariano was born in 1967, she said that things were different for people with disabilities, where being institutionalized was somehow deemed more acceptable than having them in the broader community.

"They weren't out in public," said Mariano, who lives in Armonk and spoke Tuesday to groups of sixth graders at Seven Bridges Middle School in Chappaqua. Her appearance was for National Inclusive Schools Weeks, which places an emphasis on folks with different backgrounds.

Born with Diastrophic Dysplasia (dwarfism), Mariano lacked fully developed limbs and was abandoned by her biological parents after her birth at White Plains Hospital, before being taken in by Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, where she spent a "year in limbo."

Fortunately for Mariano, she was given a chance by doctors and social workers to get a life that was not one of being a recluse. She noted that a newspaper advertisement seeking prosective adopters led her, as an infant to being taken in by family with several children, which they did in 1969.

It was with her new family, the Marianos, that she began a life of independence, pride in being able to do things and in creative problem solving to help her do so. She noted, for example, that her family got her off being fed directly, which she was used to at Blythedale, and left her alone with her food until she became hungry and ate.

Mariano's childhood was still one of a societal transition in how disabled people were treated. In the early 1970s, she was turned down for kindergarten enrollment by several school districts, before her family moved to the Byram Hills school district, which accepted her.

Mariano described her early school years as one of acceptance from her peers, noting that even though she could not physically play jump rope due to the need to wear prosthetic legs to compensate for impairment in her legs, she was still able to hold the rope. She also noted to the class that if you can do something, even if you can't fully do it, what matters is that you are having fun.

"Nobody excluded me, I was included," she said 

Mariano has not gone through life without harmful prejudice - or at least casual ignorance - towards her. She recalled, as a middle school student, that a girl would bully her about her disability, but would stop when a third student was in their presence. She also described how, when she goes to places with others, people will talk to another person in her company to find out what she may want, rather than asking her directly.

In describing her background, both good times and bad, Mariano made it a point to not that people with disabilities are still people and can still have the same interests as others. She noted hers, including going to a Billy Joel concert, having a tattoo and traveling around the world to places such as Italy and Antigua. She alos described how she learned to improvise to accomplish things. For example, with the use of two canes, she got up from her seat, walked to a white board and showed her handwriting, which was achieved through a unique movement of her hand that she uses.

Finishing on a positive and upbeat note, Mariano ended her talk with an ad hoc dance party for the kids, where they got to gather in a group while she danced along.

To learn more about Mariano, you can read her website, www.justcallmegeri.com or her Facebook page, which is Just Call Me Geri.

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