When your last name begins with “W,” near the end of the alphabet, you come to expect to be always at the end of a line and in the back of a room. That included most of the classrooms of my youth, where seating was organized alphabetically. That’s how I came to know Jeff, sitting in the back row of music class, at South Mountain Junior High School in Allentown.
Actually, Jeff’s surname was more favorably placed in the alphabet. Jeff was in the last row, in the back of the room, because he used a wheelchair.
Jeff might be the first person with a disability I came to know as a peer. Before South Mountain, I attended Dodd Elementary School. In those days, the Allentown School District segregated elementary pupils with disabilities. Pupils from all over the city were sent to Dodd, then the district’s newest elementary school. A special wing had been constructed where children with disabilities spent the entire day, receiving “special attention.” That section of the school was called the “Solarium.” Glass walls partitioned the students with disabilities from the rest of us. We watched them through the glass and were told to regard them with respect. In the Solarium, room temperatures were kept especially warm, so for a time I believed people with disabilities needed to live in a warmer environment than other people. Apparently ASD believed that also.
Jeff was born with short legs and no arms. Leg braces and special shoes allowed him to walk, with difficulty, but confronted by the great expanse of the sprawling layout of South Mountain, Jeff chose to use a wheelchair to navigate the far-flung hallways traveling from class to class. He needed assistance propelling his wheelchair, so school administrators enlisted student volunteers to help. That’s how I came to be Jeff’s transit assistant twice each week, helping him move from the Music Room on the first-floor south-end of the school to the classroom upstairs, on the other side of the building, where we received social studies instruction.
Jeff called me “Wittman” and projected a wry wit. I came to like him. We had permission to leave music class five minutes early so Jeff and I could get ahead of the crowds that swarmed the halls after the passing bell rang. I rode the building’s locked elevator using the key that he, alone among students, possessed. All way cool. Jeff was blessed with a commanding singing voice. At the Spring Concert, in front of an audience of hundreds, Jeff presented an emotional rendition of the Broadway song “The Impossible Dream” that made my mother cry.
No question Jeff taught me something about the kind of character it takes to confront, day after day, the challenges presented by living with a profound disability. And now he carries his message to the world.
Today, Jeff Steinberg is known across the globe as a singer, motivational speaker, entertainer, recording artist, and consultant. He calls himself a “masterpiece in progress,” believes a quitter never wins and a winner never quits and that he is proof that “God uses the least likely person to accomplish the most extraordinary things.” He shares his message with audiences in churches, on television, at businesses, schools, conventions and fundraisers. He co-hosted his own television series and was a part of Pat Boone’s National Easter Seal Telethon. His work has taken him to Canada, Germany, Costa Rica, Barbados, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and South Wales – more than five million miles, by Jeff’s estimate. He has received many awards and accolades, including from Good Shepherd’s Hall of Fame for Persons with Disabilities. You can find his videos on YouTube, and his website is www.tinygiant.com.
Several years ago, Jeff attended the 40th reunion of the Allen High School Class of 1971 at the Fearless Fire Co. It was the first time I had seen him in four decades. I greeted Jeff and re-introduced myself and wasn’t terribly surprised when he didn’t remember me.
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