By Daniel J. Vance
Jean Peerenboom, a Green Bay Press-Gazette editor publishing this column, has personally witnessed a lifetime of prejudice aimed at her younger sister with multiple disabilities.
"Nancy was born about three months premature," said Peerenboom from her Green Bay newspaper office. "Because of it she is deaf and has mild cerebral palsy affecting her coordination, motor skills and eyesight. She communicates by reading lips. She can walk, but when younger she wore leg braces."
Peerenboom remembers summers working on speech. Nancy learned her p's alongside her sister by repeating words like "pumpkin pie" and "paper plate."
She grew up facing prejudice. "There was one neighbor who wouldn't allow her children to play with Nancy," said Peerenboom. "And we had one (extended) family member who her entire life insisted on calling her deaf and dumb. It was hard for me to listen to that. Other times people excluded her. Because of her coordination she wasn't good at athletics and felt left out."
All this prejudice made Jean angry. "Nancy was hurt by it and that made me feel hurt," said Peerenboom. "Being the oldest, I've always wanted to protect my younger sister. So how do you change attitudes and ignorance? You have to keep telling people that Nancy and others like her are like everyone else."
And Nancy really is like everyone else. Now 47 and married with three beautiful children, she works for the U.S. Postal Service and "is probably the most intelligent person in the family," said Peerenboom. "My mother says Nancy's IQ is almost genius level. Cerebral palsy doesn't affect intelligence."
Peerenboom said her sister shaped her career path. Over her adult life, she has worked tirelessly for causes that fight discrimination, especially in education. She has been involved in the League of Women Voters, Literacy Council, Catholic social programs, and teaching people with dyslexia. "(My experience with Nancy) is probably why I chose journalism, so I could use my writing skills to make a difference."
So how does she view her younger sister?
"I have always viewed her as being like everyone else," said Peerenboom. "Her disability was something I took in stride growing up. My parents had the same expectations for her as for me. I was never taught to treat her differently and I accepted her disability. She was simply my sister and I thought nothing else about it."