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MS Award Winner Just 'Getting on With Life'

June 09, 1991|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hugh McDonough, a pleasant-natured man of 52 who owns a fresh Ph.D., limped into his living room carrying a portable telephone. "Greatest invention yet," he said. "Better than sliced bread."

The phone makes life with multiple sclerosis, which he has had for 12 years, less of a hassle for McDonough, as do the rails he holds onto in his hallway, his specially equipped van, his wheelchair (when he tires of walking) and the Velcro on his shirts (he can't fasten buttons).

"I don't dwell on the fact I have MS," McDonough said after reaching his couch. "It's with you all the time, but if you think about it you can become so depressed that you quit."

There was no hint of depression as he flashed his new USC class ring with "Ph.D." on it.

The doctorate in public administration, awarded in May, came after a five-year struggle that culminated in a thesis, painstakingly typed with three fingers on his home computer, on "Attitudes Toward People With Disabilities in America."

But the degree is only one of several reasons why McDonough will receive the 1991 MS Achievement Award from the National Multiple Sclerosis Society on June 20 in New York. The award is presented each year to someone who exemplifies what a person with MS can do.

In addition to battling the crippling disease, which forced him to learn to walk again, McDonough cared for his wife, Joan, who had cancer, raised two teen-agers, worked at his job of helping former patients for the state Department of Health Services, and studied for a bachelor's degree at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

"This is not being exceptional, it's getting on with life," McDonough insisted. "I lost a wife to cancer (she died in 1982) and I was a single parent raising two kids--that happens to a lot of people."

He then went on to earn a master's degree in 1985 from USC, where his grade-point average was 3.72. The next year he took a disability retirement from his state job. "They replaced me with a man who had a desk job I could have done," he said. "That made me mad, but as it turned out it was the best thing they could have done for me."

Having fallen in love with the academic world, McDonough took his savings, got some loans and entered the Ph.D. program at USC. And he became an activist on disability issues.

Once, upon arriving in his wheelchair at the federal building in West Los Angeles, where visitors must pass through a metal detector, McDonough said that the security guard told him, "Hey, you stand over there."

"It was a manifestation of his attitude; he didn't know what he was saying," said McDonough, who lives in Carson and has a Long Beach mailing address. "You get used to these things. It was kind of funny, so I made a joke about it. But attitude is the basis for discrimination. I used to get upset and tell people, 'What's the matter, you dummy, can't you see I'm in a wheelchair?' "

McDonough said he is not militant. If he were, he might have raised a ruckus the time he was kicked out of a Nevada casino for "speeding" in his scooter-style wheelchair.

"When the security guard told me to slow down, I laughed and he threw me out," McDonough said. "It was on a Sunday afternoon and no one was there. I was coming back to the sports bar from the restroom. My scooter goes about 4 1/2 miles an hour, like a fast walk."

He is most concerned with disabled persons in the workplace. With his friend and research partner Harlan Hahn, a political science professor, McDonough is working to establish a disability administration program at USC to teach people who are not disabled how to employ people who are.

"He's a good communicator and a good speaker," said Julie Smith of the Multiple Sclerosis Society's Southern California chapter, who nominated McDonough for the award. "He has a lot to offer disabled people."

He motivates them, often with his philosophy, developed while growing up in rural Missouri: "It's not what you've lost, but it's what you still have--so use it."

McDonough, who always wanted to be a college teacher, worked part-time from 1988 to 1990 as a public administration instructor at Cal Poly Pomona. He has applied for a full-time position there.

He can talk nonstop about attitudes toward the disabled, as well as many other topics, but tends to downplay his own accomplishments. Of the MS award, he said, "I didn't go looking for it. I'm getting it because I didn't quit."

He told of a neighbor with MS: "He just gave up. He sat in his wheelchair and watched TV. He was in his mid-30s and now he's in a nursing home. That's no way to live. You have to keep going."

And so McDonough, who draws Social Security disability income, keeps going, no matter how much MS--a neurological disease in which the protective coating over nerve fibers in the spinal cord and brain is damaged--tries to slow him.

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