Confined to a wheelchair with limited speech and sporadic motor controls, Steven Salmon is often mistaken as mentally handicapped. He has struggled his entire life to prove himself otherwise. He has been ignored, abandoned and disregarded by much of society. Each time he has persevered through shear determination, which has set him apart from others whose lives don't fit societal norms.
At 42, Salmon is a college graduate and twice published author who lives with athetoid cerebral palsy. His semi-autobiographies "Buddy Why" and "The Unusual Writer" tell the story of struggle and triumph through the unthinkable, where he must learn to endure against all odds. Through mostly e-mail correspondence, which is his most effective form of communication, Salmon explained some of the things he had to go through and the problems he still faces today.
There are many parallels between Salmon's books and his own life. Byron in "The Unusual Writer" is a young man much like Salmon. Other characters describe Byron as "disgusting ... a worthless burden ... a drooling retard cripple." Sadly, similar words have been used to describe Salmon.
"It's just part of having cerebral palsy. I can't change what some people might think of me, and I don't really care anymore," Salmon said. "I'm just Steve to my friends, and that is all that really matters."
Approximately 25 percent of patients with cerebral palsy have athetoid cerebral palsy. It is caused by damage to the basal ganglia, which is located in the mid-brain and is responsible for muscle movement. Unwanted and involuntary movements or spasms are a common occurrence for Salmon. In addition, speech and swallowing can be difficult.
When meeting Salmon, it is not uncommon for people to think he is incapable of communicating with others. Despite his inability to speak clearly, or rather other people's unwillingness to listen him, Salmon has never given up hope on his dream of becoming an author. Unfortunately, the path to his success has been difficult.
Before obtaining voice recognition and word prediction software that enabled him to use a computer, Salmon slowly dictated his assignments to others. He also used a typewriter by pressing the keys with a pencil that he held in his mouth.
"I would bite the pencils in two with my clenched jaws," Salmon said. "Pencil shavings and drooling gummed up the typewriter making it inoperable."
Patrick Barlow, Madison College CETL coordinator of employee development, said that Salmon wanted to speak, write and communicate so that he could change the circumstances of other people's lives.
"He is a hero and I don't think he knows it," Barlow said.
After high school Salmon was determined unemployable by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. This meant that Salmon was not eligible to receive any special assistance from the agency, delaying his entrance to college.
For two years, Salmon sat at home, feeling worthless. He admitted to even contemplating suicide during that time. Later, he enrolled in Madison Area Technical College. Salmon completed his assignments by dictating to his mother. This is where Salmon came up with the idea for his first book.
A script he had written for a play in class eventually became "Buddy Why." The novel shared the devastating experience of Salmon having his life put in danger due to his father's repeated suicide attempts.
"I was with my father when he attempted the first suicide. I almost died. But the suicide attempt I witnessed gave me an inner strength to overcome insurmountable obstacles," Salmon said. The experience is also mentioned in "The Unusual Writer," where it becomes clear this was not the only life-threatening incident that occurred.
"A boy tried to kill me in Warner Park once, but I escaped," Salmon said. "Afterwards, you feel that you have been raped."
This sort of abuse and hate crime is not unique to Salmon's situation. According to 2008 U.S. Department of Justice statistics, one percent of 9,683 hate crimes victims had a disability.
Barlow, who was one of Salmon's instructors at Madison College, said he saw people create a distance between Salmon and themselves and were not willing to engage with him. However, he doesn't think it was intentional, but rather a result of stereotyping.
While at Madison College, Salmon developed a bond with Barlow and several other faculty members who served as mentors and friends, and helped him transfer to University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he completed his bachelors. Recalling the experience brought Barlow to tears.
"He taught us that he could learn if we would just give him the time, and that he was going to go there (UW-Stevens Point) and he was going to get that bachelor's degree," Barlow said.
Over the past several years, Barlow and other faculty members have hired Salmon to do various tasks for them and paid him out of their own pocket.
"He wanted to be thought of as a productive person who did work," Barlow said. "I wanted to support Steve because I think his message is amazing. ... I think he is extraordinary because he chooses to try to live a life in a disabled body, but tries to live as if he is not a disabled person."
Nevertheless, being disabled is a very real part of Salmon's life. Even with his successes, Salmon still faces huge obstacles. His disabilities require him to have assistance to perform everyday tasks. For the most part, the person who has provided for Salmon and helped him with things like bathing, dressing and eating has been his mother, Mary Salmon. At 72 years-old, it has become increasingly difficult for her to assist her son.
Considering the circumstances, Salmon is afraid of the outcome if something were to happen to his mother.
"I'm very worried that I will end up in an institution if things don't change," Salmon said. "I don't want to see my writing career die."
SHOW YOUR SUPPORT AND MEET THE AUTHOR
A public reading will be held Friday, Nov. 12, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. in Room 142A. In conjunction with the event, there is an ongoing fund raiser for the purchase of a page-turner for Steven Salmon.
The Clarion is the student voice of Madison Area Technical College. We believe in the inherent First Amendment right of freedom of expression and in the benefits of dialogue and debate within the college. The Clarion will teach students, inform the college community and advocate for student rights.
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