Recently, Marilyn Saviola came to the StoryBooth in Foley Square to share her story of courage with long time friend and co-worker, Jean Minkel.
During the summer of 1955, one of the last years of the Polio epidemic, Marilyn Saviola was 10 years old and on vacation with her family in Connecticut. She was playing with cousins, fell down, banged her head and the next morning she woke up with a headache and a stiff neck. Upon her return home to the Bronx she was examined by a doctor who told her parents that she needed to go to the hospital because he suspected Marilyn had “P-o-l-i-o”. Even at 10, she understood what that meant.
While her parents were looking for a cure, Marilyn focused on what to do with the rest of her life. One of the most difficult decisions she’d have to make was to live at Goldwater Memorial Hospital instead of living with her family. At Goldwater she could live with other disabled youth, go to school and begin to forge her independence. Once there, Marilyn met another resident, Bruce, and together they dreamed of going to college. “I wanted to get out. I wanted to do something. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life at Goldwater.” While Bruce received funding and was admitted to Long Island University, Marilyn faced resistance from state funders. They declined her application, telling her that she was “too disabled” and “never going to be employed” and that “it was a waste of money.” So Marilyn sent a letter to then-Senator Jacob Javits to plea her case and was eventually granted one year of funding on a trial basis. Saviola turned that trial year of undergrad into a graduate degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from New York University.
Despite her progress, obstacles remained. Although she had become more mobile with the use of a motorized wheel chair, wheel chair access was non-existent on the campus at the time. She did her interview in a van. “We had to threaten to sue,” she remembers. The Americans with Disabilities Act was not yet established and Saviola had to fight for every inch of her independence. The school made a temporary ramp that had to be assembled and disassembled every time she used it and she had to employ the help of classmates to get in and out of class. Accessibility wasn’t ideal, but it was enough to get her through grad school. Marilyn’s impact would reverberate for years to come–after her graduation, a permanent wheelchair ramp was built.
Saviola returned to work at Goldwater as a rehabilitation counselor f0r 11 years. She eventually got her own apartment, and in 1983 became the Executive Director for The Center for the Independence of the Disabled which provides advocacy and services to empower people with disabilities. Marilyn’s work and activism has helped provide services and accesibility throughout New York City. She’s a true hero.