Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Henry Viscardi School Class of 2018 Commencement Address

On the evening of Thursday June 21, 2018, 19 talented high school students received their high school diplomas form the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, New York. 

John Kemp, Viscardi CEO and Beth Daly,
board member, present diploma to 2018 Viscardi graduate.
I was honored to be invited as the commencement speaker for this talented class of graduates, who completed a rigorous education curriculum despite their disabilities.
The Viscardi Center, a network of non-profit organizations, provides a lifespan of services that educate, employ and empower people with disabilities. Its programs and services include Kindergarten through High School education, school-to-work transition services, vocational training, career counseling and placement and workforce diversification assistance to children, adolescents, and adults with disabilities and businesses. View an overview video about The Viscardi Center.

The school was founded in 1952 by Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr. who himself wore prosthetic legs, served as disability advisor to eight U.S. Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, and became one of the world’s leading advocates for people with disabilities. View a brief history about Dr. Henry Viscardi, Jr.

The 2018 Viscardi School Commencement Address follows:


Good evening everyone!

John [Kemp], thank you for your kind words and introduction!

I am honored to be here with all of you this evening, especially with the class of 2018 … and share this very important graduation event at the Henry Viscardi School.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge some of the very important people who brought us all here today.

First the parents, relatives and friends who are here to celebrate and support our graduates… without those who love and support us………..our journey would not only be more difficult, but most likely, impossible!

Next…. your teachers, clinicians, medical staff, administrators and the wonderful Viscardi center staff who made this event possible today. Given the school’s 66-year heritage, dating back to 1952, this graduation has become a great tradition.

Finally, I must acknowledge some very talented leaders of this organization, which include your CEO and my colleague and friend, Mr. John Kemp; your Head of School, Mr. Angelo Zegarelli; and members of the Viscardi Center’s Board of Directors.

Let’s give them all a round of applause and thank them for bringing us together tonight….. as well as for coaching our students over the graduation goal line!

Well, now that we have our adrenaline going …. let’s see if we can pump it up some more!

Let me tell you a little bit more about myself.

I was injured while body surfing in 1981 while vacationing in Puerto Rico. I sustained a spinal cord injury, at the C5-C6 level. I was 25 years old.

I basically broke my neck and realized that I was paralyzed from the middle of my chest to my toes. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t use my hands. And, I had no idea what I would do after the injury, or whether I’d live or die.

What I did have, however, was a college degree from Colgate University and a Master’s degree from New York University. My education was pivotal in my quest to get back to work as a person with a disability.

Why? Because my education told potential employers I had developed skills that they could use in their business or organization.

Remember, it’s not just the skills that you bring to a business; it’s the skills you possess that can help a business accomplish their goals.

So, today, I join you sitting in a wheelchair after participating in society for almost 37 years as a paralyzed individual. I had no idea how I would accomplish the things I have done, but I never gave up.

I worked for a tech company called IBM for 39 years, and now I work for J.P. Morgan Chase, which is the largest bank in the United States.

I joined the bank after retiring as a Marketing-Communications executive at IBM.

For the past two years, I have been leading the Office of Disability Inclusion worldwide, and guess what? We hire qualified people with disabilities around the world. So, keep that in mind graduates, as you pursue your higher education!

And, this month represents my 2-year anniversary at the bank. So, Viscardi graduates, we both have something to celebrate!

My point in telling you this is that I have been employed for 41 years and advanced in both of my careers, now at Chase, and at IBM.

So, I’ve been able to work for two great companies, marry my soulmate Maggie, raise two children – Danielle and Jimmy – be blessed with two grand-daughters – Natalie and Julia – and this year, celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary!

Oh, and did I mention I have a disability?

Now, I want to talk directly with our graduates.

Superheroes

So, how many of you are fans of superheroes? Go ahead, raise your hands, clap … whatever works ... let’s hear it … That’s good.

Well, I’ve been a fan all my life … In fact, I have a pretty big comic book collection – Daredevil is one of my personal favorites and, I’ll let you in on a secret – I have Daredevil comic books from #1 through #110!

Once I became disabled, I became a bigger fan of superheroes. You want to know why? Because when people see superheroes in the movies … or read about them in comic books … they don’t realize they’re idolizing people with disabilities.

Yes, think about it … Many comic book heroes have a disability or acquired their superpowers due to a disability. I had to read many comic books to figure that out; but I didn’t read them in school!
Here are a few good examples:

•  Daredevil was blinded by a radioactive substance – but it heightened his other senses. He had the human equivalent of a bat’s sonar, making him tough to beat in a fight for sure!

•  In the Avengers comics, Hawkeye becomes deaf … but his senses are heightened as well – and he becomes a skilled bow-and-arrow marksman and martial artist.

• Let’s not forget Iron Man – wounded in the war, he designed an iron chest plate to sustain his weak heart. Tony Stark uses his intellect to make the world a better place as the invincible Iron Man.

• And Rogue, who is female, is a member of the X-Men. She is a mutant, and was born with superhuman abilities. Rogue has the ability to absorb and sometimes remove the memories, physical strength, and superpowers of anyone she touches. But Rogue considers her powers to be a curse, or a disability.

We’re surrounded in our culture by superheroes who happen to have disabilities. I think that’s fascinating – it just shows that you don’t have to be able-bodied to be a superhero …

And that is true in this very room………considering what you, our new Viscardi graduates, have already accomplished.

Remember, this is just the beginning of your journey; you can accomplish anything you strive for, once you assess what you’re good at.

Work hard, be realistic, be patient, and develop your personal values.

You know the other nice thing about superheroes? They believe in paying it forward. They may have had some tough times and faced their share of adversity, but they came out on the other side, stronger than ever – and willing to make the world a better place.

And if you remember just one thing from my remarks, I want you to remember this:

Always look for ways you can pay it forward and make the world a better place …

Think about some of your experiences here at the Viscardi School, and the teachers who made a difference in your life.

There are some special people here who’ve worked with you -- to get you where you are today – which is your high school graduation!

And just like the superheroes I talked about, you’ve overcome a lot of adversity to get here – there’s no doubt about that.

Today … as you embark on your next journey … it’s your turn to look for ways you can help people … not just tomorrow, not just next week, but throughout your life …

I know from experience that it’s not easy living with a disability … in fact … it still frustrates me.

But you know what? I’ve worked hard to be as competitive and talented as I could, throughout my life.

And, I always look for ways I can pay it forward and help others, including able bodied people and those who have disabilities – every day!

As I close, I want you to know that I certainly don’t consider myself a superhero (although I do wear a poncho over my wheelchair when it rains!)

But as I think back over many years, I could not predict that I would be where I am today – here with all of you, sharing my story, being proud of you….

… I wonder….where do we get the ability to do the things we do, given our disabilities?

I believe our collective story is like Daredevil’s journey …

Sure I’ve got a disability, but I’ve also got heightened abilities as well – and so do you.

I want you to always remember one thing………We all have a little bit of superhero in all of us………think about that.

And now, Viscardi 2018 graduates, you are now official super heroes … !

Thank you……

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For news coverage about this event, click here (photo above). 

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