In March, a month after yet another surgery, this one on her spine, Geri Mariano ’89 was flat on her back while recovering in the one-bedroom apartment where she lives on her own. Still, as she has all her life, she ignored the obstacles and—with a tablet computer and a telephone at her side—carried on her work. After all, she had a speaking engagement at Smith to prepare for, and, as secretary for the class of ’89, she had emails to complete.
Soon, Mariano would be getting around as she has all her life, using prosthetic legs or more recently a wheelchair; eventually she’ll be able to “scooch on my tushie,” as she says.
Mariano was born with diastrophic dysplasia, a skeletal disorder that severely affects bone and cartilage development. Her prosthetic legs, when she can wear them, raise her to 4 feet 6 inches. She lives independently, with the help of part-time aides, but it was a particularly tough winter. A few days before her most recent surgery, her beloved adoptive dad died suddenly and it fell to her to write his obituary.
Despite the challenges—or perhaps because she has dealt with a lifetime of them—Mariano was upbeat, optimistic and funny as she talked about turning her disability into a mission to impart, via speaking engagements, her passionate message that underneath our physical differences, we’re all the same.
By diagnosis I have dysplasia; nowadays they don’t call it dwarfism because it’s not politically correct. I’m unable to stand on my own legs because of the way they were formed. My fingers are stub-like; there are no knuckles. I can hold a pen and write. I’m proud, though it may seem silly, of my penmanship. I’ll be at a store writing a credit card receipt, and invariably clerks will say, “You have nice handwriting!” I’ll say, “Thank you,” but inside I’ll be saying, “Yes, damn it! Don’t be so surprised!”
I always felt like I would be seen as a burden. That’s why my parents raised me to be independent; my mom raised me to not drop things and be careless because you can’t expect people to pick up after you all the time.
In school I was always “just Geri.” It wasn’t until the dreaded seventh- and eighth-grade years—the puberty years when people were starting to date—that I really felt freakish. And I thought, Wow! I am different.
At Smith I got a world-class education and the ability to literally find my voice and be taken seriously as an advocate for myself and others. I made friends easily. One of the things I’m proudest of is that Smith is still using the ramp at Wilson House for Commencement that I had asked for. A couple years ago a classmate told me that if Smith hadn’t built it, my fellow seniors had prepared a petition saying that unless a ramp was built for Geri, “None of us will walk up the steps.”
After Smith I wanted desperately to go to Washington and work on Capitol Hill or the Smithsonian, but I could not get a job long distance. So I went home and tried to find a job; there was a lot of subtle discrimination that I could not prove. I would go to temp agencies and take typing tests and they would say, “Oh, you type really fast” or “You got 100 on the grammar test”—but I never got sent out on an interview. I think that would still happen today, sadly.
I started giving talks about acceptance while at Smith. A day-care center was on the way to my work/study job, and the kids would run to the edge of the lawn and stare and laugh. The director asked, “Would you be willing to talk to the students?” I remember telling the kids, “Hi, I’m Geri and I bet I look a little strange or different to you, but when you get to know somebody maybe they won’t seem so strange.” After that when I zoomed by, they’d come running to the path and say, “Hi, Geri!”
What I expect and want is to be independent and self-sufficient, financially. I want to be known for making a difference, not just because people feel sorry for me. I’m not the disabled girl with the freaky body or the wheelchair. I’m Geri.
SAQ, Summer 2015