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Disabled Volunteers Help Others With Disabilities

April 20, 1986

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ Joe McDermott was a Philadelphia fire lieutenant until he fell three floors from a ladder blown off a burning building.

Now, from a wheelchair, he’s a volunteer helping other disabled people cope with handicaps.

Gail Giles used to supervise teachers working with mentally retarded children until she suffered a disabling brain injury in an auto crash. Today, despite speech and walking problems, she makes people understand that life with a disability is still worth continuing.

″When I leave a patient I want to see them smiling, and that makes me happy,″ says Ms. Giles, 36. ″I am learning how to be a worker again, and ultimately I want to get into rehabilitation because I’m a teacher by nature.″

McDermott, 39, a firefighter for 15 years before his 1981 accident, says he enjoys talking to people and wheeling around the corridors of the Moss Rehabilitation Hospital.

″A kind word helps both me and them,″ McDermott says about his visits with the bedridden, especially those of the Drucker Brain Injury Center at Moss.

″I talk about the therapy. I tell them it takes time - I still go, as an outpatient, five days a week to help my speech and walking - because there is no overnight cure. You’d be surprised how much better people feel when you can relate to them,″ McDermott says.

Ms. Giles agrees.

″I didn’t know much about disabled people until I was hurt,″ she says. ″It takes time to adjust to being disabled. People look at you with pity. But at Moss there are role models, the volunteers, patients and employees, to learn from.″

McDermott and Ms. Giles are among 45 disabled former patients, from teen- agers to seniors, who serve as role models - cashiering in the Moss gift shop, escorting patients to therapy appointments, and doing clerical work.

Former patients can be found there every day - not just this week, which is National Volunteer Week.

One patient Ms. Giles has helped is Roberta Green, 44, who came down with the flu several months ago and developed a viral infection that affected her nervous system and left her paralyzed. Now, with therapy, Mrs. Green is regaining use of her muscles.

″Moss deserves a lot of credit for bringing in disabled to help other people,″ Mrs. Green says. ″I know now what it feels like not to be able to get out of a chair. Until you’ve been in that position you don’t have real empathy, and that is a plus for these handicapped volunteers because they’ve been there, and it ain’t fun.″

One ex-patient finally worked himself out of a wheelchair ″and now he helps fix wheelchairs,″ says Howard Sitron, the hospital’s director of volunteers. ″It all has a very tangible, therapeutic value.″

″Doing this is better than staying cooped up in my apartment,″ Ms. Giles says. ″Volunteering opened up my eyes. It is giving me an opportunity for a better future. I now don’t feel like a disabled person. I feel like a fine person with a disability.″

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