Lessons in Independence: A former student looks back

February 26, 2017

I was 18 months old when I contracted the dreaded polio virus in 1957. The Salk vaccine had been introduced two years prior, but was I sick when the vaccine was available in my hometown of Scotland, SD, and wasn’t inoculated.

Some of my recovery time was spent in an iron lung, and I learned to walk again with crutches and braces on both legs. When I started school in the early 1960’s, I ran into accessibility problems and fought with kids who picked on me for being different. I was a third-grader when my parents made the decision to enroll me in the residential and school program at Crippled Children’s Hospital & School—now LifeScape--in Sioux Falls.  I wasn’t happy at the time, but later came to realize it was the best thing that ever happened to me.I

t made a big difference to be able to part of a true peer group. I could look around and see people that were in similar circumstances, and know I wasn’t alone. It was great being just another kid--to not worry about being physically able to do things like the “normal” kids.

Sometimes families can be over-protective of a child with a disability, but at Crippled Children’s, I learned to be fiercely independent—both from the staff, and with my peers. We helped and pushed each other in a way that could not have happened in my hometown school.

learned how to get up by myself when I fell, and also how to fall properly--to throw my crutches just far enough that I wouldn’t land on them and get hurt, but not so far that I couldn’t easily retrieve them.I took Home Economics to learn to cook, but they tricked us! They also made us learn things like sewing—like how to sew on a button, or to patch a pair jeans or a shirt. This has proven to be useful and money-saving, as crutches tend to cause wear-points on clothing.

I will admit that I was a bit of a challenge to the staff. To their credit, they understood that my acting out was really the frustration of being different--of being disabled. Like the students in the current Pathways to Life Program at LifeScape, they taught independence and helped me explore vocational skills. My Industrial Arts teacher, Mr. McCoy, introduced me to welding and electronics.  That became my passion, and led to a 28-year career as an Electronic Engineering Technology instructor at South Dakota State University.  I’m semi-retired now, but still teach part-time and maintain my side business in computer consulting for businesses and individuals. I’m also enjoying serving on the Board of Directors at LifeScape, where I feel I can offer a unique perspective as a former student and a person with a disability. 

What I gained at Crippled Children’s/LifeScape was hope--hope that I could get around the obstacles in my path; hope that I could make it in the world; hope that I could persevere and become a productive part of society. I learned I could become more--not just in spite of my disability, but in a way because of it. I frankly shudder to think what my life would have been had I not had the opportunity to attend CCHS/LifeScape. I am thankful for my time there every single day.

-Mark Sternhagen, LifeScape Board of Directors, Brookings