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Injured gymnast, sorority leader rebounds for graduation

STANFORD -- If there's one thing Stanford University student Adriana Duffy can't stand, it's those "heartwarming overcomer stories like you see in Reader's Digest."

They always mean well, the graduating senior said.

"But the underlying message is that the disabled person's life is so horrible that they're amazing for putting up with it," she said. "That's really insulting."

A former Stanford gymnast and member of the Puerto Rican national team, Duffy made international headlines in October 1989 - when she broke her neck during vaulting practice for the World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

After surgery and five weeks in the hospital, she returned to the United States for rehabilitation in Southern California. Her Stanford coach, Breck Greenwood, and several of her teammates visited her at the hospital.

"When my wife and I were on our way to see her, we were preparing ourselves for the worst," Greenwood said.

"Then we walked in; she was smiling, happy, talking to her parents, and it was obvious that this wasn't going to stop her from doing anything she wanted to do with her life. We went away much happier than when we came."

In just four months, Duffy was back taking classes at Stanford, using a motorized wheelchair.

"One of the most important things I've learned is that disability is more than anything else a social construction," she said.

"There's a common misconception that it's the physical aspect of disability that keeps people from participating fully in life. But the truth is that the major reason for that is negative societal attitudes, which are manifested in job discrimination, inaccessibility and low expectations of people with disabilities."

To her coach and teammates' delight, Duffy has maintained contact with the Stanford men's and women's gymnastics teams since her return. She wears her letter jacket frequently and attends all the local team meets and banquets.

She is perhaps best known on campus, though, for her high- profile role as president of the Stanford Intersorority Council, which represents and coordinates collective activities for the campus sorority system.

She credits her own small sorority, Gamma Phi Beta, with playing a major role in her recovery and readjustment to campus life.

"I know there are some people who have had bad experiences with the greek system, but it has been a really positive thing for me," Duffy said.

"After my injury, I guess I was down occasionally, but that got less frequent as time went along. The visits from my teammates and sorority friends really helped."

In addition to her work with sororities, Duffy has become an active spokesperson for the rights of disabled students on campus.

She and another student recently persuaded Stanford housing officials to modify two more campus residences - the Enchanted Broccoli Forest House and Slavianskii Dom - to accommodate students using wheelchairs.

There's still a long way to go, in her opinion.

"The housing system is a nightmare for disabled students," she said. "There are only a few places on campus where it would be possible for me to live.

"The first floor of Kimball Hall (Stanford's newest dorm) is very nice, but it wouldn't work for me - there's very little privacy in the bathrooms, and no elevator. They had all this money for beautiful lounges, but no money for an elevator! And there are no elevators planned for the new Manzanita dorms either.

"I don't want to sound unreasonable, but as far as I'm concerned, there's no excuse for new buildings to go up on this campus without vertical access."

Duffy will attend this year's commencement ceremony, then stay on for one more quarter to finish up two classes for her bachelor's degree in philosophy and religious studies. After graduation, she plans to go to graduate school, and possibly teach.

"I'm not a particularly religious person," she said. "I just like the big questions - What is the meaning of life? What would God be like if God existed?

"If I hadn't been injured, I don't think I would have come to different conclusions. But having the injury gave me a lot more time and perspective to give them deeper thought."



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