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His Self-Esteem, Humor Were Never Impaired : Disabled: Retired social worker says, 'By seeing what I could do, people saw what the handicapped could do.'

June 27, 1993|G. JEANETTE AVENT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lester Leibson took his lifelong friend with him when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors awarded him a commendation for 36 years of public service.

It's a friend most people would be glad to get rid of, but Leibson, a man with a quick wit and mischievous twinkle in his eyes, doesn't see it that way.

"My friend has gone with me to school and to work, and was with me when I met my wife, too. This friend is cerebral palsy," he said.

"I've tried to treat my handicap not as a crutch but as a friend," said Leibson, a UCLA graduate who quickly rose through the ranks of county social workers to become a supervisor.

Leibson, 59, said his sense of humor and self-confidence have helped him through most situations.

When he graduated from college in 1956, he said, it took him eight months to get a job, because "in those days, there was no consideration given to the handicapped."

When he did find a job as a county social worker, he had to break through a series of barriers. A doctor told him he had polio when he took the physical exam required for all county employees.

"I was brash in those days. I told him it wasn't. It was cerebral palsy," Leibson said.

After he had been on the job for eight months and driving his car to appointments, the doctor told him he could work but he couldn't drive. His job required him to visit elderly clients at their homes, so the decision was tantamount to being told he could not do the job, he said.

"So I took streetcars and buses," he said, and won an appeal before the county Civil Service Commission six weeks later.

During his 28 years as a supervisor, he said, he had "many an argument and heated discussion with co-workers, but not once did they bring up my handicap."

The role of handicapped people in the workplace has changed since he started more than 30 years ago. Now, people with all kinds of disabilities are employed by the county, he said.

He does not claim credit for the change, but "by seeing what I could do, people saw what the handicapped could do," he said.

Now that he's retired, and his two children are grown, he's embarking on a public speaking mission to educate anyone who will listen about the role of the handicapped in the workplace and in society.

"I want to speak to medical schools, hospital administrators and others to let them know how it is from the other side: the feelings and ambitions that handicapped people have," he said.

*

Leibson said he has spoken to parents of young children who are disabled to encourage them, because "my parents were the key in getting me to where I am today."

A lot of his progress came from his parents' allowing him as much independence as he could handle during his growing-up years in the Fairfax area.

He has started volunteering his time with various social service agencies to "rap with other handicapped people, to try to build their self-esteem," he said.

"I feel it's pay-back time," Leibson said. Numerous agencies, including United Cerebral Palsy Assn., helped him. "Now I feel it's time to help them."

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