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Frances Giden Berko

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I recently re-read one of my favorite childhood books, Karen by Marie Killilea.  The book recounts the struggles of the author’s daughter who was born with cerebral palsy and her challenges to lead a normal life.  The author also mentions Frances Giden Berko who had cerebral palsy as well and this caught my attention because she had graduated from Fordham Law School in the 1940s.  In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which commemorates the accomplishments in the workplace of those with disabilities, I thought it would be interesting to highlight Frances Giden Berko’s life as a pioneer in the disability employment awareness movement.

Interestingly enough, Frances Giden Berko does not have a Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Britannica entry.  I could only find a short obituary notice.  However, between the information in Killilea’s book and a speech given by Attorney General Janet Reno at Fordham School of Law titled “Address Delivered at the Celebration of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Women at the Fordham Law School,” I was able to sketch out a brief biography for Frances.

Frances had ataxic cerebral palsy which meant she had poor balance and manual coordination, and involuntary motion, as well as, difficulties in speaking.  Despite these disabilities, she went to Hunter College and then onto Fordham Law School.  While at Fordham she served as the associate editor for the Fordham Law Review and graduated in 1944 with honors.  When we consider this achievement, it is important to remember that it had only been 74 years since the first woman had graduated from a law school in the United States.  She also graduated a year before Congress passed Joint Resolution 23, which first established a week in October as “National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week.”

According to Killilea, Frances passed her bar exams and Reno relates that she helped found United Cerebral Palsy in 1948.  During the same time period, Congress was also providing funds for the President’s Committee on National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week,” and in 1954 Congress passed Amendments to the Vocational Rehabilitation Act (ch. 655, 68 Stat. 652) which appropriated money for state grants to be used to rehabilitate the physically handicapped persons to “prepare for and engage in remunerative employment.”  Frances went on to draft legislation in New York state to help the disabled while in the 1960s, under President Kennedy, the Committee began to develop employment opportunities for both the physically and mentally disabled.  In 1980, Frances became the ‘New York State Advocate for the Disabled’ as presidents continued to work to expand employment opportunities for the disabled while Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Pub. L. 94-142, 89 Stat. 773) in 1975 and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, (Pub.L. 101-336, 104 Stat. 327).

Children in class at Rise School, Tuscaloosa, Alabama / Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith /  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Children in class at Rise School, Tuscaloosa, Alabama / Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

Reno calls Frances Berko an idealist which is supported by Killilea who quotes Frances as saying: “You speak of your ultimate aim as the training and education of all C.P.’s (cerebral palsy). That’s where you are wrong.  The final goal must be that the trained and educated C.P. may take his rightful place in society and industry.”  This indeed is the goal of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, that all may take their place in society and industry.

Comments (2)

  1. Frances and Martin Berko were friends of my parents (both deceased now) from their early days in NYC. As a youngster, I remember visiting them when they were living in Ithaca, NY in the late 50’s or early 60’s. I also remember seeing them as surprise guests on the tv show “This is Your Life” when they came on to honor a man who was a pioneer in work with people with CP. Not sure of his name but he may have been involved with an Institute in Kansas. Interesting to find a reference to Frances since I had wondered what had happened to her and Martin.

  2. Frances was married to my brother, Martin Berko, a marriage that ended in divorce. My brother had cerebral palsy as well, and he earned his PHD in experimental psychology at Cornell, where he wrote his dissertation on the effects of accelerated auditory feedback on the speech of children with CP. Frances was the executive director of the Special Children’s Center in Ithaca from 1962-74, and Martin was supported at Cornell by research grants/federal funding. After the divorce Martin moved to Kettering, Ohio, and lived with our father, Arthur Berko while he rebuilt his career with a position at Wright State University. He ended his own life in June of 1980.

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