Image: David Paterson sworn in as 55th Governor of New York
Peter Foley  /  EPA file
New York Gov. David Paterson lost sight in his left eye and much of the sight in his right because of an infection as an infant. He can see shapes, and usually recognizes people as they approach, but he can read for just a few minutes at a time and must hold text close to his face.
updated 5/28/2008 7:07:07 PM ET 2008-05-28T23:07:07

As a young man, David Paterson never looked for dropped change because he didn't want people to see a blind man crawling on the floor for nickels and dimes. He didn't use a white cane, either: it would make him a target in his New York City neighborhood.

Then, in a dizzying rush of events just two months ago, David Paterson he became governor of New York. His blindness became national news.

"The concentration that I have had to engage to make this adjustment sometimes feels overwhelming," Paterson told The Associated Press Wednesday.

In his first extensive comments about his disability, Paterson, who took the job March 17, uses words like "frightening" and "overwhelming" to describe the challenges of being the nation's only blind governor.

But he also speaks with pride about how his unlikely ascension has taught him to embrace his disability and may help others be more comfortable with theirs. He rose from the lieutenant governor's office when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal.

Infection caused blindness
Paterson lost sight in his left eye and much of the sight in his right because of an infection as an infant. He can see shapes, and usually recognizes people as they approach, but he can read for just a few minutes at a time and must hold text close to his face.

Another New York governor, fellow Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt, once who hid his polio by using secret doors and hallways in the Capitol. But Paterson is up front about his legal blindness.

When he was a state senator, it was almost imperceptible. He couldn't rely on teleprompters for speeches, so he memorized them.

"He and I would often debate each other on the floor of the Senate and his ability for recall, and for not using Braille or notes, was always astonishing to me," said Sen. Thomas Libous, an upstate Republican from Broome County. "You didn't even know he was disabled."

Memorizing speeches became harder when he became lieutenant governor, and had to deliver two or three addresses a week. As governor, he does two or three every day.

He can't read voluminous reports, can't immediately recognize the dozens of top aides he inherited, can't even watch a teleconference.

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Two weeks ago, his new job forced him to decide whether to confront his disability as never before.

Confronting his disability
At a news conference, with cameras clicking away, he hunched over with his nose practically touching a bill as he searched for the line where he would sign his name. The photo took up much of a page in the next day's edition of The New York Times.

"A number of people were actually upset that I was exposed that way by the picture," Paterson said. "But I felt very good about the picture because when I was younger, if I dropped change, I would never pick it up. I wouldn't even attempt to, because I had a problem with people watching me crawling on the floor, looking for change."

"Only in the last few years of my life am I comfortable having people see me display that I have a disability," said the 54-year-old lawyer from Harlem.

Days after the bill signing, he was taken to the hospital with severe head pain. A doctor performed emergency surgery on his left eye to relieve the pain and avoid the spread of acute glaucoma. Two days later, Paterson underwent preventive surgery on his right eye. He had the rare time to rest for a few days. And panic struck.

He worried that he'd forget the names, the briefings, the facts and figures he'd committed to memory.

"That was a little frightening, but I think I've gotten past that point," he said.

He said people with all disabilities — those who have to turn to hear people talk, or sit in a wheelchair when others are standing — face daunting "ancillary disabilities."

"It's how it makes you feel as a human being, and that's the reason that a lot of people try to hide that," Paterson said.

Using wit, humor to ease conflicts
He's known for using a quick wit to ease political conflicts and make light of his disability — such as when social workers tried to convince him as a youth to use a white cane and a guide dog.

"It was hard for me to get the social services people to understand that," he remembered. "They said, `They wouldn't attack a person with a white cane.' I said, `You don't know the folks.'"

In his 10th week on the job, Paterson has taken on politically daunting hurdles as well. He has ordered a 3.5 percent cut in spending because of looming deficits and a recession, and has said "no" to some of Albany's powerful labor unions that sought to sweeten pensions. He's also drawn together a fractured New York state government that was constantly gridlocked under the combative Spitzer.

"I had been, on occasion, accused of trying to hide my own disability," Paterson said. "But now, to be able to be myself and have it known ... I think there are a lot of people who have a lot of different problems who feel more empowered.

"If that's the case," he said, "I'm feeling pretty good about that aspect of the job."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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