Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Speaking of Frieda

By Doris Zames Fleischer


As I write these remarks about my sister, Frieda Zames, that I delivered at her well-attended, "rockin' " funeral, to quote the officiating rabbi, a funeral that ended with a spontaneous singing of "We Shall Overcome," I am gazing at the front page of Able, the New York monthly newspaper of, by, and for people with disabilities. That page is devoted to Frieda's sweet smiling face with the banner headline "FRIEDA'S GONE." What makes that page so appropriate is the fact that the photo of Frieda is her "mug shot" taken on one of the many occasions when she was arrested for demonstrating, or sitting in, or holding up traffic, or doing whatever was necessary to call attention to that so frequently overlooked civil rights issue–disability rights. That was Frieda–sweetness combined with toughness, resiliency, and tenacity. A problem solver as a mathematics professor and disability rights activist, Frieda figured out that if she was not able to get the affection and tenderness she craved at the institutions in which she spent her early years, she would experience those longed-for feelings by giving them. As an early lucky recipient, I, her kid sister, was showered with her love, as were so many others, including those who traveled the path with her toward political, economic, and social justice for everyone.

Eulogy as Spoken by Doris Zames Fleischer
The Riverside Chapel
New York City
June 19, 2005

Thank you all for coming. Frieda would be surprised to see all of you here today. She would say, "All this for me? I didn't do anything." And she would mean it. I wonder how I can do this without Frieda. I need to do what I always did, work with her, or at the very least, check with her to see if I am on the right track.

I want to speak about Frieda's early life, the part of her life many of you may not know about. First you should know that she spent many years in institutions–a hospital and a convalescent home (now called a rehabilitation center)-- from the age of two-and-a-half until eight-and-a-half, then for a considerable time again before she was thirteen. Why was she institutionalized for so many years? My parents worked from six o'clock in the morning until midnight, seven days a week for thirteen years in the very small candy store they managed during the Depression years-- the store from which they eked out a meager living. That store allowed them to be "boarders"–that means rent a bedroom–in another family's cramped apartment. I can imagine how impossible the social workers in charge Frieda's case must have considered such a home environment. To no avail, my parents tried to organize the candy store "keepers" to change that work situation. In fact, they were always trying to organize something. I say this to honor the political mindset from which Frieda emerges.

My memories–I am now three. One of my parents visits Frieda while the other remains in the candy store. I am too young to be allowed in the hospital, but I am thrilled to travel by train and bus for two-and-a-half hours each way with my mom or dad to wave to Frieda, to my Princess Rapunzel high up in the tower. Later I will write about this experience in my "Personal Note" for the book we will co-author in 2001, The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation.

Now I am about four years old. I get a sister, not unusual. But mine is an older one. She is about eight-and-a-half. I come up to her waist, so I look up to her. As time goes on, regardless of our comparative height, I always look up to her, for she is, and always remains, my big sister.

She goes to a special class for kids with disabilities. What she experiences at that time is today too often still called special education. They meet in the school basement and do nothing, so every day Frieda brings her own book to school so she can do what she loves best–read. Later she returns to the hospital and convalescent home for yet another operation, and she comes home again when I am about eight and she is about twelve-and-a-half. Much later I find out what happened: first, a series of operations in her young childhood that she chooses to forget, and I mean forget–an act of will, for such memories would not serve her; second, institutional life that she remembers, for she uses that memory to embolden her in her fight against the callous institutionalization of people because of their disabilities; third, tonsils that prevent her from breathing properly, so she is unable to learn before she is eight. She has no memories before that age. Then she makes up for lost time. She almost lives in the library. Since she is painfully shy, the assumption is that she is hiding. And there is probably some truth to that. So she is given an IQ test to see if that is all she is doing. No sir, she is reading everything she can get her hands on: all of Nancy Drew, then all of Louisa May Alcott, and then all those long, long Victorian novels.

When an unusually organized convalescent home teacher gives Frieda work for the week, showing her what she should do each day, Monday to Friday, Frieda believes that she has gotten herself in trouble when the teacher discovers that Frieda does all of the week's work on Monday so that Tuesday through Friday she can do the reading she loves. Of course, the teacher, whom Frieda would later praise highly, gives her five times as much work. After that, the teacher says to our parents, "It is Frieda who shows that I can really teach."

Now Frieda is home a second time. She is now home for good, and soon she is integrated into regular classrooms at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn. Life really begins for her. Teachers are struck by how smart she is in everything. But math always impresses people, especially in girls, so it is her mathematical ability that impresses them most. One positive aspect of institutional life is things she doesn't learn. She doesn't know that girls don't do math, so she does it. She is no longer painfully shy, for she is empowered. The big hulking handsome guys, even the football players, plead with her to help them with math. And everyone really likes her–that smile that lights up a room. She wins the Latin and Math medals at Lafayette–that, by someone whose education was so spotty that she thought she was a dunce when she began high school because she had no idea what a "percentage" was. She also wins a New York State Scholarship.

Now she is due for another operation–some form of spinal surgery. But that will interfere with the State Scholarship; she would lose part of it. When our mother asks a resident doctor what to do, he says, "It would not be good if anyone knew I spoke to you, but I can't watch this. Get Frieda as far from here as possible. Surgery can do her no good, but it can do her harm; it can be dangerous." Now our immigrant, not formally educated, parents, who loved learning passionately, begin to wonder. Were the doctors experimenting on this child whom these parents advocated for and adored? After they refuse to let Frieda be operated on anymore, they learn that someone had died from the kind of spinal surgery that was supposed to be performed on Frieda.

Frieda enters Brooklyn College in 1950 and graduates magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. In her last year of college she learns how to drive a hand-controlled car, so she no longer has to travel on the bus and hear people complain about how long it takes for her to climb those big steps using her crutches and braces. (Of course, later she plays a significant role in achieving the accessibility of buses in New York City.) But getting back to the car–now she is liberated. And she uses that car to enjoy wild and crazy times. Friends pile into the car, and Frieda knows what it's like to hang out and have lots of fun.

But she still has to get a job. And boy is she a lesson in employment discrimination against people with disabilities! Potential employers say, "We won't hire you because you're disabled," and there's no law to stop them. She takes an actuarial exam at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and is told that she failed, a fact that she strongly doubts. She gets an early disability organization--Just One Break–involved, and Met Life does her a favor by offering her a job with lower status and lower pay. She stays there for too many years. When my father has a heart attack and can't work, she supports the family. Finally, when she gets a job teaching math at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), she resigns from Met Life, which to her is liberation from another institution. How did she get the NJIT job? She's working full time at Met Life and going to NYU graduate school at night for a Ph.D. in mathematics. One problem that no one else in the class can solve, she solves, so a fellow student, Marty Katzen, who teaches in the math department at NJIT, says, "Come to my school. I'll put in a good word for you." She becomes an extraordinary math professor–that's what she's always wanted to be–and earns her doctorate in mathematics. How many female Ph.D.s in math at that time? How many math Ph. D.'s with her background? At this point, she meets Michael Imperiale, and for 34 years, they make a life together filled with devotion and good times. She writes a paper on a mathematical paradox and wins an award. She plans to continue to explore other such paradoxes. That's going to be her life's work. But this is the beginning of the civil rights struggle for people with disabilities, so she flings herself into that battle. Meanwhile, at NJIT, she initiates a pre-college program for kids with disabilities while being very instrumental in making the campus accessible to people with disabilities.

Now's the part many of you know, the battles she fought: her pioneer work in Disabled In Action; her role in the activism that culminates in the 1977 signing of the implementing regulations for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the first federal civil rights act for people with disabilities; the struggle for accessible buses, in which here again there is a benefit to institutionalization, for she doesn't know that you can't fight City Hall, so she fights and wins. She travels with Michael, the unstoppable Anne Emerman (the former director of the New York City Office for People with Disabilities), and other disability activists to Japan and Cuba to discuss disability rights issues. Among her other disability rights struggles, she fights for the accessible ferries bill that passes in her honor, after her death.

Here's what many people don't know about my writing the book with Frieda. She seems to feel strangely guilty sitting before a computer with me, for she believes that her proper role is at the barricades. Also, as we call the almost one hundred people we interview, when they hear my name, they have no time for me; when they hear Frieda's name, they say, "Whatever you want." That is their appreciation for all that she has done.

Meanwhile the medical problems continue, but, as with the operations of early childhood, she pushes them aside–the myomectomy, the hysterectomy, the breast cancer (she schedules her chemotherapy appointments around her speaking engagements on disability rights throughout the country), and the acute appendicitis that in her weakened state finally seems to do her in. What she concentrates on is the fight and the fun. The day before she dies she sees her doctors who pronounce her weakened, but OK. That same day she visits my son Joseph, about whom she is so concerned because he is in the hospital recuperating from major surgery. She tells me how relieved she is to see him looking well and to see his wonderful wife, Jessica, in good spirits. Later, she goes out to lunch with Michael and me, where she explains the transportation logistics required for her and Michael to get to the upstate New York wedding of my daughter Abby and her fiancé Paul, both of whom she speaks of adoringly. That night she says to Michael, "I love you"–fittingly her last words–and goes to sleep, never to wake up.

What was Frieda really about? When the effects of post-polio are pronounced enough so that she has to give up, for the most part, walking with crutches and braces, and instead use a motorized scooter, she puts it this way: "Before, when I walked with crutches and braces, I was always afraid that people would knock me down. Now I'm in the scooter, and people have to be afraid that I'll knock them down. That expresses me better."