By HOLLY SHOK
10:13 PM EDT, May 21, 2013
She started her story with the night she was paralyzed — a then 18-year-old lying on the side of a European road, rain splashing on her face, a searing pain as she tried to stretch.
“I can’t stand to touch my body,” she said. “It feels like a stranger. I place my hands high on my chest where I can feel me.”
On her flight home from Spain, her gurney was situated over the airplane seats and she was concealed behind curtains.
“Midway through the flight, a strange woman sticks her head between the curtains and asks me the question that I will hear for the rest of my life: ‘We’ve all been wondering, what’s wrong with you?’” she said.
Addressing the League of Women Voters of Washington County on Tuesday, retired World Bank administrator Anne B. Thomas spoke about her experience with paralysis, which resulted from a car accident while she was hitchhiking through Europe in 1976. It was a time when children with disabilities were prohibited by law from attending public schools and many states were imposing involuntary sterilization on those with disabilities, she said.
Thomas, a former civil rights attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington D.C. and the University of New Mexico, said she initially rejected society’s “imposed limitations” on her by refusing help for fear of being a burden, but in doing so, she burdened herself.
“I became more of an advocate for myself when I stopped fighting myself,” she said.
With humor, Thomas spoke before the league, taking the edge off her sobering tales of societal discrimination, such as being told that building a handicap-accessible bathroom in a McDonald’s was “architecturally unfeasible” — an error that was later corrected.
League members laughed, gasped and sadly sighed.
League President Richard Willson said Thomas, a Washington D.C. resident, was invited to speak at the league’s annual meeting at Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown because of her inspiring story.
“The fact that she’s been able to rise to high rank in her profession, we thought would be a story worth having retold in Hagerstown,” Willson said.
In 2008, Thomas said doctors diagnosed her with a blood disease unrelated to her paralysis.
Her body does not produce enough blood cells to sustain life.
There is no cure, only management.
A previous doctor, whom Thomas called “doctor doom,” said she had one or two years to live.
Another doctor, however, said he could tell just by looking at her that Thomas had a 75 percent chance of living five years and a 25 percent chance of living 10 years.
“All my experiences taught me that limits only have value if I buy into them, Thomas said. “So now, I’m in my fifth year and I am holding my own. Though I live at the edge of the abyss, I don’t look down.”