BY MATTHEW HANSEN/Lincoln Journal Star
William Rush once wrote about the overwhelming desire to get out on the dance floor and shake it for all he was worth.
He was always writing.
He contributed articles and wrote op-ed pieces and letters to the editors of the Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal and the Lincoln Star.
In print, he fought for accessible Lincoln schools, movie theaters, bars, restaurants, hotels, buses and sidewalk curbs.
He sat, strapped in his wheelchair and wearing something resembling a welder’s helmet, and struck one letter at a time with a stick attached to his forehead until he finished an autobiography, “Journey out of Silence,” published in 1986.
The first quadriplegic to graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the guinea pig for voice synthesis technology allowing him to speak, the subject of a Life magazine cover story and the most well-known Lincoln activist for the disabled was first a writer.
But a dancer?
Bill Rush’s cerebral palsy, which could cause him to shake violently, “a muscle spasm throughout my body,” as he put it, gave him pause during a 1984 article about sexuality and people with disabilities.
“I wondered why I was trying,” Rush wrote then. “After all, a dance floor was the last place some people would expect to see me. … I had always tried to be careful not to alarm others around me too much; my Disability bothers other people more than it bothers me.
“But the band was playing rock ‘n’ roll and I wanted to dance. …
“Push me out on the dance floor.”
Rush died Monday at age 49, falling victim to pneumonia and severe neck injuries originally sustained when he was struck by a car 6 years ago, according to his wife, Christine Robinson.
He didn’t live or die a victim of cerebral palsy, she says, despite the inability to walk, move or talk normally since birth.
Instead, he kept typing with the stick attached to his forehead.
“He wanted to use the power of language to show they’re not saints and not subhuman,” Robinson said Tuesday. “Just human.”
The humanity of people with disabilities wasn’t well understood in the late 1970s, she said, when Rush’s mechanized wheelchair first rolled onto the UNL campus.
The Omaha native had graduated from J.P. Lord School, done well on the SAT and then entered a world where no one like him had previously succeeded.
In print, Rush remembered the then-head of affirmative action at UNL telling him he’d be the first and last quadriplegic to attend the university.
He remembered the stares from classmates, frustration at the inability to communicate and the belief that his cerebral palsy would never allow him to find love.
But the university was also where he met Mark Dahmke, a shy computer analyst who approached him in the Selleck Quadrangle and told him he’d like to help design a system so Rush could speak.
Dahmke’s computer wizardry and Rush’s cooperation eventually resulted in a modified voice synthesizer that allowed Rush to type words phonetically and have them emerge from a speaker for others to hear.
Finally, he had a voice, albeit one that fast friends agreed sounded somewhat Swedish.
In 1983, he graduated from the university’s journalism college with honors.
“What he was doing then, it just wasn’t done,” Dahmke said Tuesday. “People like him didn’t go to college or make it through college. He did, of course.”
The story drew Life editor Anne Fadiman to campus a year before Rush’s graduation. She found a 24-year-old man making classmates’ howl with laughter even though they sometimes had to wait minutes for him to type the punch line.
She also found a UNL student who was still convinced no woman could love him.
Then, in 1988, he went to Disneyland.
A conference there about alternate ways to communicate led to a chance meeting with Robinson, a presenter at the conference.
Two years later the Canadian moved to Lincoln, eventually wedding a man who always wanted to be a husband and father.
“We got the first one done,” Robinson said Wednesday, taking a break from her late husband’s viewing at Roper and Sons Funeral Home.
His funeral is set for 10 a.m. today at Lincoln’s First Baptist Church, and his burial is at 3 p.m. in Omaha’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Rush, of course, will be remembered as more than a family man.
He wrote a manual for the nation’s newsrooms, instructing them on how to refer to people with disabilities.
He fought to allow people with disabilities to get married and keep their Medicaid — the resulting Nebraska legislation is one-of-a-kind, his wife says.
He testified before Congress about the Americans with Disabilities Act.
His autobiography served as “sort of a handbook about how to live independently,” Dahmke said.
And always, the William L. Rush newspaper pieces with headlines like, “Bus not meeting everyone’s needs,” “Getting to cabaret not easy,” “Failure to pass Americans with Disabilities Act too costly,” and “‘Selleck Quads’ not so different from most students.”
That last story shows the similarities and differences of three quadriplegic students all living in Selleck the year after Rush’s graduation.
The goal is the same as a T-shirt Rush wore for the Life photo shoot. The words “No I’m Not” are stenciled above a picture of Superman.
He wanted readers to realize that people with disabilities were just regular people, his wife says.
He just wanted to be a regular guy, too. Problem is, he wasn’t.
“He really was the voice for the voiceless.”
Reach Matthew Hansen at 473-7245