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Despite Forbidding Handicaps, Justice Triumphs in the Case of Leonard Suchanek

updated 06/20/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 01:00AM

It is possible to push too fiercely. This is one of many lessons Leonard Suchanek has learned the hard way. Twice, in his eagerness to get somewhere fast, Suchanek, 46, has been hit by cars. Once, rushing off the subway escalator at the Pentagon three years ago, he tumbled into an open manhole. Flailing as he fell, Suchanek bumped against a pipe and held on for dear life. Incredibly, he was not even injured.

A miracle? Almost. Leonard Suchanek—chairman and chief judge for the General Services Administration's Board of Contract Appeals—is totally blind. And falling down a manhole is far from the worst thing that happened to him on his way to becoming one of the highest-ranking handicapped administrative judges in the federal system.

Suchanek, the ninth of 12 children in a poor Nebraska farm family, was born totally deaf in his right ear and with a 10 percent hearing loss in his left. His deafness proved little more than an inconvenience until, at age 5, he accidentally stabbed himself in the left eye while playing with a pair of scissors. A virulent infection set in, and, this being 1942, the pre-penicillin era, it rapidly spread to his right eye. Soon both eyes were irrevocably useless. "I was scared to death," recalls Suchanek. To help him cope, his parents sent him to the Nebraska School for the Visually Handicapped in Nebraska City, 170 miles from their home near Loup City. At first the school only added to his problems. Homesickness led to agonizing stomach pains. He was so traumatized that he forgot how to smile, how to frown, how to raise his eyebrows; he had to be taught how to move his face. "I was so depressed," says Suchanek, "it took me nearly two years to learn Braille—rather than the several months it should have."

Eventually, thanks to the gentle yet persistent prodding of a teacher named Lucy Haywood, Suchanek jumped from the fourth grade to the seventh in one year. But just as important, perhaps even more so, Suchanek learned an attitude: not merely to cope with his handicaps, but to aggressively challenge their limits. He joined the wrestling team, made handicrafts and peddled them door to door. In his senior year he entered Central Catholic High School in Grand Island, Nebr., near his family's new home, where he quickly ran into yet another handicap: the irrational squeamishness the nonhandicapped students felt in his presence.

"I was never really accepted by my high school classmates," he says, more in sorrow than rancor. "I would go to dances, stand there, and very few people ever approached me to start talking. Of course, there was no way I could walk up to someone and start talking."

Despite this lack of external support—or perhaps because of it—Suchanek looked inward and found the intensity that would drive him on. He graduated with honors, then accepted a small scholarship to Creighton University in Omaha. Money was so scarce that he often gave up eating for days at a time. When he couldn't stand it anymore, he'd buy a single beer in a local bar and fill up on free bar snacks—a primitive form of carbo-loading. "If not for beer and crackers," he says, "I'd never have made it."

That same fire in the gut carried him through Creighton School of Law, where he met and married his wife, Carol, a nurse. And still nothing came easy. To manage his course load, he created his own version of Braille shorthand and refined his remarkable powers of concentration even further.

After graduation and a year of successful private practice in Omaha, Suchanek moved with his wife to Washington, D.C. to seek greater challenges. At first simply finding a job proved challenge enough. "I had no idea," says Suchanek, "how difficult it would be to persuade people that a partially deaf and totally blind person could do the work."

In time he caught on with the GSA, which handles all federal government purchases and leases, everything from cars to computers to paper clips. Starting out as a junior trial lawyer representing the government in disputes with its contractors, Suchanek relied on the eyes and ears of a personal assistant to aid him in the courtroom. He rose rapidly through the ranks by his usual strategy—working seven days a week, up to 20 hours a day. Marvels Robert Lieblich, a colleague, "I've never known anybody else who pushed himself that hard." "To overcome being handicapped," says Suchanek, with a shrug, "you've got to work yourself to death."

That's one tough philosophy, placing demands not only on the philosopher but on the philosopher's family. Fortunately, wife Carol does not begrudge Suchanek the time he's spent away from her and their son, Mark, 16. "Leonard," she says, "is very gifted. We have had to make sacrifices, but to be content, he must dedicate himself. He's not unlike an artist who has to paint or a writer who has to write."

Suchanek feels he has sacrificed only one thing. And what might that be? "Failure," he says flatly.

In 1978 he was promoted to his present position. (His job is to decide impartially between GSA and those with claims against it.)Though still an unabashed workaholic—he rises each morning at 4 in his comfortable Falls Church, Va. home to review his Braille shorthand notes—technology has allowed Suchanek to reduce his workday to a leisurely 10 to 12 hours. In fact, he sees technology as the "great equalizer" for the handicapped. Just as Braille gave the blind greater access to the world around them, so has the microchip. Suchanek's office computer comes equipped with a Braille print-out accessory. Even closer to state of the art are his Kurzweil Reading Machine, which scans a printed page, recognizes words, and reads them aloud in a synthetic voice; and Total Talk, a computer terminal which responds verbally to typed commands, allowing Suchanek to hear whatever is in the computer.

Still, it's the man, not the machinery, that is most impressive. Says Saul Katz, director of GSA's Office of Ethics, "I don't think of Leonard as disabled. I think of him as the finest judge and best legal mind that GSA has. He's come a long way since his Nebraska days and will go a lot further."

That is, if he can stay out of manholes and away from rapidly moving vehicles. Fortunately, the judge has mellowed a mite. Now, before crossing a street, he'll raise his hand for assistance. Cab drivers, mistaking the gesture, will often stop. "I meet a lot of cab drivers that way," he says, smiling at the thought of how far he's come since no one would talk to him at his high school dance.

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