From the very beginning of her life, Linda Mastrandrea defied the odds. She was born as half of the second set of twins in her immediate family—a highly unusual occurrence. Despite being diagnosed with cerebral palsy at a very early age, she rose to prominence as an accomplished athlete and communicator. And in a world where everyday tasks are made more difficult for people with disability, Linda finds ways to create opportunity and empowerment for herself and others in the cerebral palsy community.
It’s not unusual for twin sisters to do everything in each other’s company. Linda and her sister Laura were no different. They did everything in tandem – everything, that is, except for sports. When Laura went to gym class or after-school practice, Linda had to remain behind.
The reason was Linda’s physical challenges. At the age of three, she had been diagnosed with spastic diplegia cerebral palsy. Also knows as Little’s Disease, this form of cerebral palsy causes severe stiffness in the hips, legs and/or pelvis, and often results in spasms, as well.
Despite this condition, Linda had normal use of her legs. She never used a wheelchair or crutches. For her, it was normal to walk as long as her legs would allow, and to be carried when her muscles grew tired.
But as a result of being left out of sports, Linda grew up believing that recreational athletics were off-limits to her. Instead, she applied herself to academics. After graduating at the top of her class, she went on to study speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
It was there that everything changed.
“Something I Never Thought Possible”
Linda didn’t know this at the time, but she had enrolled at an institution with a history of pioneering accessibility for the physically disabled. In 1948, the University of Illinois became the first post-secondary institution to create a support service program for physically disabled students. This program introduced the wider world to curb cuts, buses equipped with wheelchair lifts, and other architectural accessibility standards that broke down the barriers between disabled students and a college education.
The creator of this program, Timothy Nugent, was widely known as the “Father of Accessibility,” and his vision for equal accessibility went far beyond architecture. Right on the heels of establishing the university’s Division of Disability Resources and Education Services, he founded the very first collegiate wheelchair basketball league.
So it’s no surprise that one of the first people Linda encountered in her freshman year was Coach Brad Hedrick, who headed the women’s wheelchair basketball team at U of I. Both Hedrick and his wife Sharon were accomplished players of the game, and with the coach’s encouragement, Linda seized an opportunity that she had long assumed was not available to her.
“What inspired me,” Linda says, “was…I didn’t have to sit on the sidelines like I did growing up and watch everyone else. I could play. It was something I never thought possible.”
“The Potential To Be and To Do Anything”
The next person to influence Linda’s life was coach Marty Morse, a legendary member of the U of I athletic faculty who not only pioneered the school’s wheelchair track program, but introduced some revolutionary changes to how the sport was played. (Wearers of wheelchair gloves can thank Morse for the improved design they enjoy today.)
Coach Morse recruited Linda to the track team, further developing her belief in herself.
“He saw me not just as an athlete but as a person, and believed in me wholeheartedly,” she recalls. “It made me see myself in a whole new way. I saw a whole new side of myself, and it rounded me out as a person.”
The biggest challenge Linda faced in her sports career was, in fact, learning to use the wheelchair. Since she had never relied on it in her childhood, there was a steep learning curve involved—she had to develop strength for speed on the track and coordination in handling a basketball while propelling herself around the court.
This challenge might have caused some people to give up, especially those with ambitions outside of sports. Linda had set her sights on a law degree and knew that the rigors of graduate school and taking the bar exam awaited her.
But for Linda, playing sports meant a lot more than recreation.
“Sports made me a whole person, made me believe in myself in a way I never did. It made me believe I had the potential to be and to do anything. I went from someone who was barely capable of wheeling a chair to someone who was breaking world records and winning medals.”
For Linda, giving up was not an option. The year after her graduation found her enrolled at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and training for the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain.
New Challenges, New Opportunities
Flash forward several years, and you’ll find Linda Mastrandrea heading her own law firm in Chicago, Illinois. Her practice focuses on disability law, civil rights, and helping in discrimination cases. In addition to a busy speaking schedule and authoring books on topics related to disability and athletics, she also recently ran for a circuit court judge seat in Illinois’ Cook County.
It’s hard to say what makes her platform more impressive: her tireless service on behalf of the disabled community, or her numerous athletic accolades (including 15 gold medals, 5 silver medals and numerous national and world records from two Paralympic Games, three World Championships, the Pan American Games and the Stoke-Mandeville Wheelchair Games).
If there’s one thing Linda’s story illustrates, it’s that the physically disabled, when given the chance, can be strong leaders.
“The time for tokenism is long past,” she asserts. “People with disabilities are interwoven into the fabric of our community. It is not an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it is a ‘we.’”
She adds, “We don’t always have to be on the outside advocating. Life is short. Make the most of every opportunity that comes your way.”