"I had two choices: I was either going to terminate my life while I still had the ability, or I was going to live life the way I wanted to live it."
Richard Radtke is professor of biological oceanography at the
University of Hawaii's School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology.
An authority in fish biology and an American Association for the Advancement
of Science Diplomacy Fellow, he is the first handicapped scientist to
accomplish research in Antarctica, for which he was awarded a U. S. Presidential
Commendation. He is the recipient of The Robert Clopton Award, the university's
highest honor for community service, and this year was invited to the
White House, where he received national recognition as an outstanding
mentor for youth.
Radtke and his wife, Judith, have two children, David, a teenager, and Ocean, who is eight. Contact Professor Radtke by e-mail: email@example.com
It's been 30 years since I played football at Wabash, but I still remember
how I used to "psyche up" for the game. I'd sit in the locker
room by myself, mentally preparing for the ensuing battle. Staring down
at my shoelaces, I'd launch a succession of hidden emotions. Thoughts
exploded of circumstances, perceived or contrived, that were not fair
in my world. Tears would well up in my eyes, and all of the sudden I was
the judge, ready to hand out justice.
Growing up on a small farm in Indiana, I always desired to see what lay beyond the back forty. I devoured encyclopedia images of the great white south and dreamed of being an adventurer in Antarctica. All that seemed possible as I matured. I was blessed with intelligence and a curious mind and the capabilities of applying what I had been bestowed with, and I graduated from Wabash in 1974. At the age of 26, I finished my Ph.D. in marine science and I was feeling pretty full of myself. I had been accepted for a prestigious post-doc in Canada, and I was going off to adventure.
Two years later, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the bottom
pretty much dropped out of my world. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, I was
proud of my physical strength, pleased to carry sofa beds up stairs and
help people move into their apartments. I couldn't imagine my life without
that strength and ability.
I chose the latter. It's been tough.
Yet it's had moments when I've to tackle the quarterback and hurl the
injustices for a loss to keep my life moving forward.
I started with my dreams of working in the Antarctic. Those dreams were
ripped from my heart when I was told I had MS. To live life as I wanted,
though, I needed to get my dreams back. I wrote a scientific proposal
to the National Science Foundation and, after external review, NSF notified
me that my proposal had been accepted on merit. I was ecstatic!
The next step was more difficult. When one applies to the National Science
Foundation, disability is not a part of the decision process. Yet due
to its remote location, researchers in Antarctica are required to pass
a lengthy physical similar to the military physical. I did not pass.
However strange this may sound, I had my health in my favor. After being
diagnosed with MS I'd worked diligently to maintain and improve my health.
A vegetarian diet and a regime of physical therapy had left me with no
medical problems (except my lack of mobility). Under no circumstances
did I pose a medical problem.
My request for an exemption was denied on the grounds that I posed a
fire risk. I was crestfallen. To have gotten so close without seeing Antarctica
was more than I could accept. Instead of throwing in the towel, I became
more persistent. I sent letters explaining my plight out to anyone I thought
could help-even the President.
The trip to Antarctica was arduous, at best; still, I accomplished my
research on Antarctic fish. I was able to touch fish that, as a boy in
Indiana, I'd dreamed of studying, and I became a part of the South Pole
drama I'd read about. I learned I could still live my life the way I wanted.
I wanted more. Arctic adventures posed different problems. My present
research involves migratory fish in the high Arctic. To accomplish the
research I had to travel through the U.S. airbase at Thule, Greenland.
But the Air Force deemed it too dangerous for me to travel to the Arctic.
I tried every avenue-writing, calling, e-mail-but to no avail. Even friends
who were retired generals could not help. I was defeated.
To my astonishment and quarterback sacking delight I received an e- mail
from a bed and breakfast type place in the area of Greenland where I wished
to work. It told of how groups had occasionally chartered a small twin-engined
Otter plane from Canada and landed on a little gravel patch in a small
Eskimo village. It bypassed the airbase! I was soon on my way; Indiana
Radtke off to adventure.
The next year I filed the first lawsuit of my life-against the U.S. Air
Force. We settled and I was allowed on the base. I'm writing this article
in a small Eskimo village, watching glaciers and snow in August.
Being a field biologist in a wheelchair is not easy, especially with
the number of times you hear "you can't do that", or "of
course, we're worried about liability and that you would pose a danger
to yourself and others." But working through those obstacles has
allowed me to study giant catfish in the Mekong River, coelacanths in
Indonesia, sturgeon in China, salmonids in Alaska, Canada, and Norway,
mahi mahi in Spain and the Philippines; and, funded by the National Geographic
Society, to scuba dive with giant clams in the tropical Pacific.
Just so that I don't leave the wrong impression, I'm not one of these
people who is terminally euphoric. I don't have a constant production
of endorphins that leave me in a state of eternal bliss. At the end of
the week I'm totally exhausted and ready to quit. I'm tired of the constant
haranguing of administrators and constant roadblocks thrown in my way
because I have a disability-the thinly veiled assumptions that I should
be in a nursing home quietly resting while the rest of the world goes
by. I don't always wear a smile on my face.
There are many mornings when I don't want my attendant to pull me from
my bed to feed me my breakfast, but it's still a choice. I really believe
that I have choices. That's the one thing I do believe in.
When I'm tired (MS leaves you exhausted), I keep working, because if
I stopped every time I was tired, I wouldn't get anything done. Still,
at the end of a week, all things considered, I like my life. I'm doing
what I want to do, where I want to do it, with the people that I want
to do it with. I work outdoors and in inaccessible places, and I have
I have been in a wheelchair since 1984, a quadriplegic for almost 14
years. Now, at age 48, all my movement of going to different places, movement
in taking care of myself, and even my bodily functions has to be addressed
by someone else. Without the strength and mobility I took such pride in,
I once thought I'd be unable to contribute to society and would only be
a taker or receiver. I have come to realize that my contributions can
come in other than physical forms. I have taken on my new charge with
So now, besides being a practicing scientist and teacher, I support youth
with disabilities in their exploration of careers in math, science, engineering,
and technology. Through funding from the National Science Foundation,
my colleagues and I organize science camps and clubs. I have a dolphin
interaction program, which makes it possible for youth with disabilities
to interact in an environment and with animals in ways they never thought
I have found that it is essential for me to never lose sight of the community-at-large.
Public service and the search for new challenges have made it possible
for me to continue my life.
It's been three decades since I last sacked a quarterback at Wabash, but the inner strength and clarity of will and purpose I felt as a player are still mine, even moreso. Perhaps they are the uncommon gifts of my physical disability.