FIRST PERSON - Honoring a woman with a great love of life

Editor’s note: This is excerpted from a eulogy given at disability rights advocate Lee Perish’s memorial service March 1. Read more about Perish in this month’s History Note on page 2.

 Lee brought a sharp wit, always a smile and a steady flow of laughter around our office at Can Do Canines. Because she couldn’t hear, she couldn’t modulate her voice and sometimes spoke or laughed loudly. This caused her infectious belly laugh to be heard near and far.

Lee was a friendly, social person. In fact, I sometime thought she held a job largely because she liked interacting with others and this was a good way to do so. When it came time to pass out paychecks, Lee loved to roll around and personally hand the envelope to everyone she could, always with a joke or a smile. We will all miss her at Can Do Canines. Lee befriended me in about 1986 or so, a short time after she lost her hearing. She took pity on my feeble attempts to communicate using sign language at the Hearing Societies’ Wednesday evening practice session called Silent Night. We quickly became friends and we spent every Wednesday practicing sign with the group.

If our new relationship stood a chance of succeeding, it was only because it was not dependant on us communicating only with our hands. When each session was finished, we could then use our voices AND sign AND write—whatever worked—to communicate. Early on I spent hours on the phone using my trusty antique Teletype machine, burning up the airwaves with my new friend using her TTY device. Lee taught me about Twin Cities deaf culture and tradition, and clued me in on ways I could reach out to the deafcommunity while getting ready to start the Hearing Dog Program of Minnesota. She thought it was a good idea and wanted to help.

Because Lee was born with osteogenis imperfect she was expected to have a short life span, probably a maximum of 40 years. In 1992, at age 40, it did not appear that she was going anywhere, so we had a surprise birthday party for her to celebrate her outliving that improperly predicted life span. I learned about her life. And the more I learned, the more I was amazed that she could exude such a positive attitude and show such a love for life.

Life had been hard on her. Having O.I. meant so many broken bones throughout her childhood, so many months in the hospital. Growing up in a small town and being so different was hard. And then to lose your hearing in your early thirties. I think I would have given up.

But not Lee. She not only did not give up, she thrived in the face of it all. Lee was a physically small person with the big heart and even bigger personality. She made friends wherever she went.

Lee looked harmless enough, a little woman using a wheel chair, but she was a force to be reckoned with.

Lee was stubborn. You would not want to be on the wrong side of an important issue with her. If Lee saw an injustice, she would do her best to fix it. When it came time to take a personal stand and fight the system in a big way, she was not afraid to do just that.

In 1991 I nominated Lee for the Twin City Volunteer Hall of Fame, and she was selected for this special honor by Minneapolis St Paul Magazine. It was an honor well deserved, and recognized her volunteering at St. Joseph’s Home for Children, the Association of Late Deafened Adults, and the Hearing Dog Program, the Advisory Committee, FIND, and DE-A-F.

In the magazine article about her, Lee was asked about her goal in life. She said, with a laugh, that her goal was “to be the world’s number one pest. Not just for me. But as an advocate for all people with disabilities.”

Job well done, Lee. Rest well.

(Editor’s note: Lee Perish’s memorial service, which was ASL-interpreted, took place March 1 at Bread of Life Deaf Lutheran Church, Minneapolis. She was preceded in death by her father, Ed Perish. She is survived by her mother, Ione; six brothers and sisters, and many nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.)  Alan Peters is the Executive Director of Can Do Canines.

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