Daniel J Vance

Life has been one big battle for biographer Peter Winkler. It began in 1965, when 8-year-old Peter awoke for school.

“I’d gone to bed fine, but the next morning I tried moving my left leg out of bed and the slightest movement caused tremendous pain from hip to toe,” said 55-year-old Winkler in a telephone interview. Doctors near his Arkansas home couldn’t identify the cause and a surgeon would cut some of Winkler’s leg nerves to reduce the excruciating pain. In time, physicians diagnosed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA).

A National Institutes of Health website defines JRA as “a type of arthritis happening in children 16 or younger causing joint swelling, stiffness and sometimes reduced motion.” It can strike any body joint and even internal organs.

Post surgery, Winkler began using crutches. About fifth grade, his teachers said he would be unable to navigate the stairs at junior and senior high and suggested the family move to southern California, which had some accessible schools. So they did.

After high school, he graduated with honors from UCLA in 1978 and entered Loyola Law School with ideas of becoming an attorney. Due to worsening JRA symptoms affecting most of his joints, Winkler was struggling there to maintain acceptable grades. He walked using a cane. Through everything, the law school repeatedly refused to make any accommodations for his disability. (The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t become law until 1990.)

He said, “A very hostile atmosphere developed (with the Loyola administration). I had to take a heavier course load (to catch up) and had a nervous breakdown my last semester third year. I became depressed and had panic attacks and cried for no reason. I didn’t get the grade point average necessary (in 1981) to graduate and without graduating you can’t take the bar exam.”

By 1982, all his joints were severely affected. About then, he developed another form of arthritis, spondylitis, which “made my spine rigid and fused and it’s dangerous,” he said. “If you fall down, you can get a spinal fracture and a spinal cord injury.” Depressed, and with his disabilities becoming more problematic, he started drawing government assistance. To add more difficulties, in 1986, he developed Sjogren’s syndrome, which caused severe eye dryness.

Next week, learn about Winkler becoming a freelance writer and, though physically barely able to write, authoring a 432-page biography of Hollywood actor Dennis Hopper.

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