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She Suffers from Cerebral Palsy, but Kathleen Barrett Takes Flight as Crusader for the Handicapped

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The slim, blue-eyed brunette in the glider cockpit bears more than a passing resemblance to Amelia Earhart as her bullet-nosed craft soars and swoops high above the corduroy-textured hills of central California. But once back on terra firma, Kathleen Barrett, born 31 years ago with a severe form of cerebral palsy, is no longer in complete control; she walks with a lurch, her speech is badly slurred and, as she puts it, “My hands don’t always do what I tell them to. Physically, I’m awkward. There’s no way I can get away from it. But when I’m in the glider, it’s quiet, beautiful and graceful.” As for the danger, she says: “Look, I’m crazy—impulsive as hell—but at least I have fun.” That she does. Barrett also tools around in a money-green 1973 Jaguar XKE-12, swims, hikes and travels widely (50 states and 29 countries so far).

Barrett’s determination has made her a national symbol for United Cerebral Palsy (its 30-second TV spot now seen nationwide shows Barrett airborne). She is also a force in Sacramento, as a $16,000-a-year staff services analyst for the state’s Department of Developmental Services and as an off-hours lobbyist for the rights of the handicapped.

“I got off to a bad start, you might say,” understates Barrett, a San Francisco native. According to her mother, Nancy, a retired department store executive, Kathleen suffered brain damage due to an interruption of her oxygen supply during delivery. When Kathleen was 3 months, her father, a children’s clothing salesman, split. But with the help of her godmother, the child was raised to be active—taken to restaurants, horseback riding and even skiing. At 7, Kathleen was trying to learn to skate at Squaw Valley when Bing Crosby grabbed her hand and, she recalls, “We glided along the ice.”

At 16, Kathleen made the difficult switch from a special school to a public high school. “It was hard,” she says. “People think a person with CP is mentally retarded, and that can hurt.” Only her speech and movements, not her intelligence, are impaired. In fact, she graduated with honors in 1970, and was majoring in medieval history at the University of California’s Davis campus when State Senator George Moscone hired her over 200 other applicants as his summer research assistant. Barrett, who graduated in 1973, worked for Moscone until he became mayor of San Francisco in 1976. Two years later he was assassinated.

Barrett landed her current job in 1979. Now frequently called upon to testify before committees in Sacramento and Washington, Barrett tackles her audiences’ uneasiness head-on, telling them, “I don’t mind having cerebral palsy as much as you mind me having it.”

Barrett has plenty of examples to bear her out. Because of her rolling walk (“I go as fast as I can to get it over with”) and her garbled talk, Kathleen has been stopped by the police on the assumption that she was tipsy, and once when her car broke down she could not get through to AAA; the phone operator kept connecting her with Alcoholics Anonymous. Barrett’s favorite T-shirt anticipates such surreal incidents. Its message: I DON’T HAVE CEREBRAL PALSY—I’M DRUNK.