Some people looking at Jerry Wolffe see a 65-year-old, wheelchair-user with cerebral palsy. I see a professional newspaper reporter, editorial writer, and columnist, civil rights activist, and family man.
In a telephone interview from his Oakland (Mich.) Press newspaper office, Wolffe said, “When I was two years old, the doctor told my dad it would be best to put me in an institution. My dad picked me up and told the doctor he was full of (it). He was going to raise his child normal, he said. My dad said there was no such thing as ‘I can’t,’ and he was going to help me.”
Brain damage at birth caused Wolffe’s cerebral palsy, which affected his ability to control muscle movement. As a child, he wore leg braces up to his hips. Though he had near genius-level IQ, the school district forced him to attend a special needs school. In ninth grade at a public school in 1960, he began refusing to attend “handicapped” classes and “may have been the first mainstreamed kid in the country,” he said.
While in college, he worked six weeks at the Associated Press Detroit office without pay to prove he could be a teletype setter. Two years later, he caught on with United Press International and eventually became a reporter and assistant financial editor over a 26-year career.
Wolffe said, “My wire service training made me fast, accurate, and thorough. I’m also a good human interest writer because I’ve seen so much in life.” Over that lifespan, Wolffe has had 31 surgeries. He lost his ability to walk at age 50 and now uses a wheelchair.
“I told one editor my ability to walk had nothing to do with my ability to write,” he said, “I always had to prove I was a little better than the next guy to keep my job.”
In 1990, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice chose Wolffe and others to learn about the Americans with Disabilities Act and educate the public. Over time, he began writing the newspaper column “Voices of Disability” to advocate for people with disabilities who often face isolation, discrimination, and lack of opportunity.
He said, “What matters to me is changing society. If people with disabilities had full opportunities, we could lift our entire society up a notch spiritually and economically.”