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A Need to Contribute : Autobiography Is Newest Venture of Youth Unbowed by Handicap

December 24, 1987|RIP RENSE | Rense is a Sherman Oaks free-lance writer.

It's hard enough to write an autobiography, let alone write one in a foreign language. Add to that a crippling case of cerebral palsy, and the project approaches heroic proportions.

Although those circumstances describe 19-year-old Matthew Kim, he doesn't think of himself as a hero.

"Many American handicapped kids just don't know what they have, how lucky they are. They just give away their chances. Even normal people do the same thing," he said. "I want to show them how I have lived, so they can see that it is possible for handicapped people to cope and adapt."

Kim, a Korean immigrant who lives in an apartment in Chatsworth with his mother, piano teacher Cecilia Kim, and two sisters, has had enough experiences to fill a book. At 12 in Korea, he was the subject of a best-selling biography, "Without Sail," written by his mother, and of a movie based on his struggle.

Four years earlier, he learned to type by holding a stick in his mouth, and to paint by similarly handling a brush. His paintings later won national awards. At 14, he came to the United States with a vocabulary of "hello" and "thank you," yet quickly became fluent in English.

He graduated from James Monroe High School in Chatsworth last June with a 3.7 grade-point average, and is now a math major at California State University, Northridge. He is considering doubling his major to include physics, and intends to work toward a master's degree or a doctorate, hoping eventually to join the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or "some major science company."

"Then," he said with a smile, "I'm going to pay taxes. I want to give something back to this country."

Confined to Wheelchair

Kim was born with spastic and athetoid cerebral palsy, which causes his muscles to cramp and jerk involuntarily--and often painfully. He has little control over his arms and legs, and will be confined to his wheelchair for life.

He overcomes the contortions sufficiently to speak clearly (his English bears no Korean accent), and he types on his computer with a head pointer. He is dictating much of the autobiography to a friend, an English major at CSUN, and plans to finish most of the job over the Christmas holidays.

"The reason I decided to do this is that even in America most people do not understand how handicapped people--especially teen-agers--feel. They understand that they are handicapped, but they don't understand that there are people behind the handicap--or at least how to relate to the person behind the handicap."

Sitting with his mother in his bedroom, liberally decorated with his paintings, computer art, awards, scholastic honors, and an extensive collection of key chains, Kim reflected.

"In my case, people think of me first as a handicapped person, second as an Oriental. I have to explain to people--to somehow get across to them that I am a person. In the classroom, they think of me as--well, I don't know what they think. Many times teachers, when they first see me, say, 'What the heck are you doing in this class?' You should see the expressions on their faces!

"Thank God, I have a wonderful sense of humor."

Cecilia Kim, widowed just before Matthew's 11th birthday, challenged a Korean society that she said offered little room for the disabled or widowed. She purposely involved her son in "normal" life as much as possible, carrying him with her when she went shopping, to parks, movies. It was, in fact, after returning home from a movie, a subtitled American Western, that she first realized her son's intelligence.

"He was 5 then, and I carried him to this movie," she said. "He didn't understand English, and he couldn't read the Korean subtitles. When I got back home, I told him the story, but he already understood! If I tried to explain something, he said it before I could finish. So I knew at the time, oh , he is very bright boy!"

In the toughest decision of her life, she sent Matthew to a special rehabilitation hospital in Seoul the following year. He hated it at first, not understanding why he had been sent away. Then came the day when he first felt slightly freed from his affliction. It was his mother who suggested that the boy try typing by holding a stick in his teeth, and doctors thought it a novel idea. Months and months passed. She visited twice a week. Then, one day . . .

"Just before Christmas," she said, "he sent me a letter! This was the first time during the two years that I wrote letters to him that I got an answer! It was only three or four lines; an invitation to his Christmas party. I cried. Oh, he did this! So I framed the letter and showed it to everybody . My son can type!"

An Accomplished Painter

Kim quickly became the subject of newspaper articles, and shortly thereafter took up watercolor painting. With help from a tutor, he became accomplished. Then came another heartbreak, the death of his father.

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