Strength & Determination

MDA National Personal Achievement Award recipient credits success to ‘doing whatever is humanly possible'

by Kathy Wechsler on November 1, 2004 - 11:26am

“I’m an advocate every day of my life,” said Michael J. Wasser of Brooklyn, N.Y., a tax and real estate attorney with the New York City Law Department Office of the Corporation Counsel in the Tax and Bankruptcy Litigation Division.

“With every property I close on, every meeting I attend, every court I appear in, my achievements and abilities as an attorney illustrate that persons with disabilities can be and should be fully included as productive members of society.”

Michael Wasser conducts a meeting in his New York City Law Department office with Senior Counsel Lisa Bova-Hiatt.

There’s no question as to why Wasser, 30, was chosen to receive MDA’s 2005 National Personal Achievement Award. Muscular dystrophy threw him a powerful curveball, and Wasser stepped up to the plate and responded by hitting home runs in both his career and disability advocacy, which is fitting for the lifelong Yankees fan.

When he was 3, doctors thought he had Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and the diagnosis was changed to Becker about 10 years later.

Knowledge is power

Knowing his disease would eventually affect everything but his ability to think and communicate, Wasser understood from an early age that getting an education would be the key to his future.

“Education is a tremendous source of empowerment,” said Wasser, who was always a conscientious student. He was placed in honors programs throughout his education and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

His education has “served as the foundation of all of my accomplishments,” Wasser said.

Getting through law school without the ability to lift a textbook is one example of Wasser’s determination to further his education.

While attending Brooklyn Law School, Wasser interned at a law school clinic and worked on two disability rights cases. He also interned for a federal magistrate judge and at the city’s Law Department. Upon graduation in 1999, he began working full time at the Law Department, which represents the city in a variety of matters. Wasser said it’s an interesting and rewarding job.

In his position with the city, Wasser wears many hats: He’s involved with real estate tax cases and title closings on city property and provides real estate information and advice to city agencies. He also acts as a liaison between his division and the Law Department’s Information Technology Division.

His dedication doesn’t stop at the Law Department, where he’s worked for five years. Wasser also serves on the New York City Bar Association’s Condemnation and Tax Certiorari Committee and is a member of the New York State Bar Association’s Real Property Law Section. Wasser co-authored a chapter on title objections in purchase options for a detailed state bar treatise titled “Condemnation Law.”

An advocate for life

“Disability rights advocacy has always been and will always be immeasurably important to me,” Wasser said. “One need not specialize in the field of disability rights law to be a strong disability rights advocate.”

Aside from setting a positive example of what people with disabilities can accomplish if given the chance, Wasser, who’s functionally a quadriplegic and uses a power chair for mobility, continues to advocate equal rights in terms of access and community inclusion for people with disabilities.

Wasser doesn’t tolerate any kind of discrimination against people with disabilities. He’s been involved in several civil rights lawsuits over the years, including one against a restaurant and another against a state rehab agency that wasn’t giving him the services to which he was entitled.

Knowing the ins and outs of legal research, Wasser is well armed to fight for his own rights as well as for those of other people with disabilities.

He’s currently working with a major New York City hospital to improve wheelchair access and continues to write letters and make telephone calls to places of public accommodation regarding issues of access. Wasser is always looking for advocacy opportunities.

His crusades began in elementary school with a petition to make the school auditorium’s stage and gymnasium accessible to students who used wheelchairs. He was also one of the first students with disabilities fully mainstreamed into regular classes instead of being assigned to special education classes.

“When I was in grade school, advocacy was something that I viewed as something that I just had to do,” he said. “I’d be placed in the situation where I felt that something was wrong through my experiences, and I decided to try to make a change.”

Working with some of his high school teachers, Wasser was able to call attention to issues facing students with disabilities such as building accessibility and the right to participate in all school activities.

Advocacy was an important part of his college years as well. Wasser met with staff members to discuss issues of accessibility, including fire and emergency evacuation and wheelchair access to laboratories.

Receiving the honor

“I feel that what I’m doing is just what any other person would want to do,” he said. “That would have been to go to school, get educated, have a decent job and make a life for oneself.”

Seeing the MDA National Personal Achievement Award as recognition for the extra obstacles a person with a disability has to surpass in making that life, Wasser said he’s proud to represent the many people with disabilities who accomplish their goals despite physical, architectural, financial and societal barriers such as prejudices.

“Either give up or do whatever is humanly possible to overcome things,” he said. “That’s the decision that everybody has to face. I chose to do whatever I could do to overcome those disabilities.”

Wasser’s selection for the national award was announced on the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon.

Visiting an old friend

“I always forced myself to take just a few more precious steps,” said Wasser, who began having symptoms of muscular dystrophy as a toddler. “I would always ask my parents to lift me out of my wheelchair and help me to my feet. Every step and every inch was important to me.”

With every labored step he took, MDA was there to watch him succeed, he said. At 14, when he fell and broke his ankle in several places and began to use a power wheelchair full time, MDA helped ease the transition.

For 26 years, MDA has been a friend to Wasser. He continues to attend and volunteer at various MDA fundraisers.

“I look forward to participating in these functions in the future and welcome the opportunity to help in any other way.”

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