Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer was
born in 1950.
She never spoke a word, never wrote or typed a sentence.
She had little formal education, and read, at best, at a first grade
level, recognizing only simple words placed before her in a familiar
Ruth was confined to a wheelchair or a bed for every
waking hour of her life. She never walked, never fed herself, never
combed her own hair, never dressed herself.
Ruth was a quadriplegic, a victim of cerebral palsy.
Aside from her eyes, ears, nose, digestive system, and vocal chords
(which can produce about ten distinct sounds), Ruth's body was functionally
Ruth lived in virtually every situation possible
for a severely handicapped person. She spent her early years at
home with her deeply caring parents and two younger sisters and
brother, first in Amherst, then in Springfield, Massachusetts. She
enjoyed three and a half years at a wonderful private facility,
the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center in Greenfield, New Hampshire.
Then, in 1962, due to her parents' inability to continue to care
for her, she was committed to a state institution, the Belchertown
(Massachusetts) State School.
Ruth remained at the State School until June 1978
when, along with four handicapped friends and fellow residents,
she left to live in her own private apartment in Springfield. She
married her longtime friend from the State School, and they moved
to Northampton, Massachusetts where Ruth lived until her death in
Ruth began working on her autobiography while still
at the State School. She met Steve Kaplan in 1979 when he began
working with her in an educational program, and they undertook a
unique collaboration on writing Ruth's autobiography. Working together
on and off for the next nine years, Ruth "dictated" sentences,
messages, comments, and ideas to Steve on her word boards, he wrote
passages, and they worked together through countless rewrites to
formulate her narrative.
I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes was first published
in 1989 by Houghton Mifflin. Although Ruth had already become a
noted spokeswoman for treating disabled individuals with dignity
and respect, the publication of her autobiography thrust her onto
a national stage. The book, and Ruth herself, received an incredible
level of attention in the local and national press-from lead articles
in The Boston Globe, PARADE, and People Magazine, to a feature docudrama
on NBC's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Maria Shriver, and an
appearance on The Joan Rivers Show.
Ruth addressed numerous regional and national organizations,
and appeared on numerous television programs and in scores of national
magazines and newspapers. Until her untimely death at the age of
48, she worked tirelessly to advocate equal rights for the disabled.
Perhaps her greatest triumph occurred in March 1989,
when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts permanently closed the notorious
Belchertown State School.
Steve Kaplan is an attorney
in Hartford, Connecticut, where he has practiced construction law
since 1982. He is a graduate of the University of Connecticut School
of Law, and holds an M.A. in Literature from the University of Massachusetts
and a B.A. from Columbia University.
In 1979, before he started law school at the University
of Connecticut, Steve worked in an educational program in Amherst,
Massachusetts, with Ruth Sienkiewicz, Norman Mercer, and several
other disabled adults who had recently been "liberated"
from the Belchertown State School by their friend, and unique visionary,
Paul Shelton. Steve and Ruth immediately struck up a strong friendship
that deepened tremendously as they began working on Ruth's autobiography,
which she had started while still at the State School.
By interviewing Ruth through her word boards, and
keying into her facial and vocal expressions for emphasis, coloratura,
humor, sarcasm, sorrow, and frustration, Steve was able to draft
narrative pieces of Ruth's story. They then reviewed each anecdote
numerous times, refining and expanding it until her autobiography
began to emerge. Ruth's friends and family, former attendants at
Belchertown, and even her medical records provided authentication
for dates, names, places, and sequences of events-but the story
was entirely Ruth's. Essentially, Ruth told the story and Steve
In late 1987, Ruth attended a writer's workshop
being conducted in Northampton by the inimitable Richard Todd. After
the session, Ruth-with assistance from an attendant-presented Mr.
Todd with the half-finished manuscript and explained that it was
her autobiography, written with the help of a friend. Dick Todd
was gracious enough to keep his promise to Ruth and actually read
the manuscript, and was so impressed by it that he took it to Houghton
Mifflin, persuaded them to put it under contract. Ruth and Steve
then completed the narrative, Dick Todd masterfully edited it, and
I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes was published in 1989.
After the hard cover publication, Avon Books published
a paperback edition, and the book also was published in France,
German, Holland, and Australia. It was out of print for several
years in the '90's until Jim Hughes insisted that it be reprinted
and made available in paperback through Whole Health Books in 1996.
We have kept it in print to continue to honor Ruth's memory, and
to nurture the ongoing interest in Ruth's life story and teachings.
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