By Daniel J. Vance


  Kathleen Lackey is a brilliant, 21-year-old Floridian who recently presented her professors at Lake Forest College a 112-page thesis written in Spanish on the famous Argentinean, Evita Peron. She also defended it entirely in the Spanish language.

  I first learned of Kathleen while reading her profile in The Key Reporter, a publication of Phi Beta Kappa, recognized as the nation's oldest and most prestigious undergraduate honors organization. 

  Besides her Phi Beta Kappa smarts, she happens to have a genetic, motor neuron disease. "Spinal muscular atrophy weakens the nerves around my spinal column," she explained to me recently, "and that causes the back muscles to atrophy, causing scoliosis. If left untreated, scoliosis can lead to respiratory problems." To prevent further spine curvature doctors performed a spinal fusion in 1995, but as expected the operation left her unable to walk. Now she uses both manual and power wheelchairs. The disease should not affect her lifespan.

  Though the motor neuron disease has disabled only a portion of her body, sometimes it seems hard for people to realize that the rest of her body, and her mind and heart as well, are all working just fine.

  Despite scoring a top grade on her high school Spanish Advanced Placement test, carrying a 3.97 college GPA, being named Phi Beta Kappa, and double-majoring in Spanish and Latin American Studies, she said strangers often talk to her "as if I don't have any working brain cells. People tend to make faulty assumptions about persons in wheelchairs." 

  But their assumptions don't slow her down. She especially enjoys the Mexican Pavilion at nearby Epcot Center, where many native Spanish speakers work. "The people working there are completely shocked that I speak Spanish," she said, noting that her high level of fluency is rare for a non-native speaker.

  So what is the key to her personal success? "It's a strong work ethic, determination, positive attitude, and focusing on what I can do rather than what I can't," she said. Her mother has been a big help too, driving her to college and running errands.

  Currently, Kathleen is in the process of opening her own free-lance, Spanish translation service, with small businesses her primary customers. In the future she'll likely expand into translating Portuguese. 

  For more information about Spinal Muscular Atrophy, try the Muscular Dystrophy Association website at www.mdausa.org.

  [Contact Mr. Vance at www.danieljvance.com. Copyright 2003 by Daniel J. Vance.]