Judith Babbitt (nee Knecht)

Judith Babbit and her parents Don and Helen Knecht and brother Richard in 1941

San Antonio Texas

June 2005

Maria Gloria Flores

Palo Alto College

History 1302 - Summer 2005



Judy Babbitt was born in 1940 in Rapid City, South Dakota. Her father and mother were Mr. and Mrs. Don and Helen Knecht, both also born in Rapid City. . Her fatherís parents came from Germany and homesteaded in Nebraska in the late 1800s. Judy has one brother, Richard and a sister, Dana. They too live in Rapid City.

In 1946, Judy was struck with polio, a contagious disease that affected nerves, paralyzed and killed many across the entire USA. Polio had no bias. It struck rich and poor, young and old, black and white. Because the polio vaccine was not yet created, those that had polio were often isolated for months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers. There were simply not enough hospitals at that time with the services necessary to treat the huge influx of polio patients, so makeshift hospitals were created to accommodate the numbers.

Being only six at the time, Judith learned quickly to adjust the new way of life. When one is young, everything is a challenge so polio was just one more challenge. The treatment for polio was brutal and for many adults that got the disease it was even more difficult for them to recover. This interview is not about polio but suffice it to say that there was a lot going on in the environment of a child with polio and their families.

Judy was taught from the ďget-goĒ that while she had a difference and a different way of doing some things, she did not have a deficit. There is a huge difference in those two words and once it is understood that a difference can often lead to creativity and success and a deficit may lead down the other path of self-pity and bitterness, one can quickly see which path leads to success and happiness.

Judy has always been a woman of strength and determination. After she was no longer in treatment, Judy returned a year later to Rapid City to pick up where she left off , entering the fourth grade at the local elementary school. From there is was Rapid City Jr. and High School; University of Colorado, and then served in the voluntary United States Peace Corps for two years. In the Peace Corps, Judy was stationed in the Philippines and taught English as a second language to Filipino teachers. In March of 1965, Judy married Milton Babbitt, a high school pal and they moved to San Antonio where he was employed as an architect and helped design The Tower of the Americas for Hemisfair '68. Judy then attended Trinity University and received her MA degree in Urban Planning in 1972. Along the way, Judy was a camp counselor for three years, traveled extensively in Europe during college, traveled around in Asia with a backpack for three months after the Peace Corps, became a real first-class member of the hippie generation, lived in a commune, developed and managed an after-school study hall in a vacant apartment in San Juan Homes in San Antonio.

Judith has been a true friend to EVERYONE and especially, a true friend to me.


What year were you born?
I was born in 1940.

What was it like being a child in 1946?
The same as is with happy growing kids now. Everything was great; I ran around and played, got into trouble and out of it as all kids do. It was great, until July 5, in 1946 when I was diagnosed with polio. Everyone knew what polio was, and parents were urged to keep their kids always from pools and other places that were virus generators because of crowds. I wasnít really afraid, just sick with a horrible headache and fever.

Judith Babbit in May Day Parade

What happened in 1946?
Everyone was getting polio. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it. Yes, and as I grew older, he became an idol. He had the same disability I did. When I got polio, it was the disease of the nation and you know there was hardly one family that wasnít affected by it.

Really, why?
Because it was something they had no control of. It was like an AIDS epidemic because they had no way to control it. It was a significant national crisis. There was not a cure, it at first felt like the flu, with headaches and fever. It was at first very painful. Polio is a disease affecting the nerves. Iím no scientist, but it affects the neurological system which messages to muscles to move and act. What it does, it affects the way the nerves work so they quit sending messages and then nerves began to die and then muscles weaken. This happened because the nerves arenít stimulating the muscles and they donít move. Polio is very interesting in that some of the lost muscles and nerves will return and often people that were infected recover almost all strength. In my case, I regained enough muscle in my legs so that for years I could walk, but with a severe limp. I still had muscle loss but not to the point of using a chair for mobility.

Was there any medicines given back then?
No! Everyone now gets polio shots and you give your kids polio shots, but from the point before that was done, just about every family in the country had polio. Now, with the shots nobody gets polio. However, it is still prevalent in Africa. When I was disagnosed, there was no treatment for it except heat, stretching, exercises and braces to protect the weak muscles. Some people were affected in the muscles that control all the breathing so they had to use what was called an Iron Lung. This was a huge long tube that the whole body was put in and it then provided the in and out function for the lungs. Some people spent years in those lungs.

What was the cost for all of this?
I have no idea what the treatment and isolation wards costs. I was only six. I know that the Easter Seals original purpose was to raise money for polio treatment.

Very much! I was isolated! It was like an epidemic, Everyone caught it very quickly. Like the flu.

Yeah! Yeah! Mrs. Babbitt then whispers: We could do another interview just on that.

Polio contagious?
I was isolated from my whole family, my sister, my brother, and my parents for almost a year! While my parents could visit me, my other family members could not. I was in a facility 6o miles from my home. That year threw real twist into the entire familyís way of doing things. After a while, I essentially got over the sickness;; I went home back to school. Then there were no laws prescribing accessible communities which meant there were no ramps, curb ramps and not many elevators. Getting around was pretty tough but I was little and tough and the barriers didnít seem to matter. I was using crutches then and got such strong arms and shoulders they keep me going to this day.

Disability was an unknown in those days. There was no acceptance of people with any disability and many disabled people were isolated at home all their lives. In the '60s, I walked well enough without crutches that I could step up curbs and could climb steps. However, I often found that a there were long flights of steps involved and that was always a challenge. Schools were not modified. The people that couldnít walk were not around, they were nowhere, hence isolated from the real world. Many were forced into institutional settings.

Nowhere? Who helped them?
No one helped them. They lived with parents or in institutions, often with no regard to their abilities or income. That is precisely, why the disability right advocates talk about disability as being isolating and discriminatory. People who have been isolated all their lives canít be expected to suddenly be on the streets or how to function as a responsible member of society and understand how to go to restaurants how to go anywhere. My family would say, ďyou go lil sucker, you get out there and you are going to do the dishes like everybody else and youíre going to help clean the house and go to school. And I think that is why I appreciate being brought up with a family that never said, ďpoor youĒ. I grew up with the full knowledge that I was a participant in my own decisions and responsible for them.

When did the isolation stop and how?
The isolation is still there and it is often reflected in peopleís attitude and learned beliefs about people with disability. The civil rights laws for disabled people, principally the ADA, passed in 1990 have had the most to do with opening doors to disabled people.

What would you do different now?
In my life? You know, I donít know, I feel I try to do the best I can. I think I could say in my religion is not include going to church every Sunday, but living every single day like its my last day. Iím going to live here and do the best I can every day because there may not be another day. This may be it. There may be no after-life. This may be my one chance to live my life so that I have made a difference and have contributed. With this philosophy, I can honestly say that I like myself and have had fantastic experiences and have been able to share them with others. Through those life applications perhaps I have and continue to help make some substantive and positive changes in my community.

In reality your disability has been a door opener for you?
In a way it has, but what has altered my directions was joining the Peace Corps. I volunteered for two years and was in the Philippine Islands in a very remote village with no running water or electricity.

With your disability?
Yes. I surely didnít lose the disability, I am who I am. I have a disability but only in certain activities. Environmental barriers create disability so no barriersóno disability. This was in the early days when John Kennedy was President I did my training for two months in Hawaii. The Peace Corps Staff did what we now call reasonable accommodation. For instance, when all the trainees would go on these long hikes, I would swim miles because I am a great swimmer and I have always loved it. I learned to swim when I was recovering from polio. Instead of walking for miles, I would ride a horse! All of my life I have been very creative in planning ways to do things to accommodate my lack of muscle strength! What I canít do, I have to figure out a way around it to get to the same destination. In South Dakota, I was very isolated from others races simply because in South Dakota There are very few minorities with the exception of Native American from principally the Sioux Nation. It was when I joined the Peace Corps that I befriended a black person, my first black friend. I was 22 years old! The Peace Corps experience taught me so much about acceptance of all people and their cultures. Not only acceptance but the beauty of differences and how much they can enrich us if we allow those barriers to fall.

Judith Babbit and husband- wedding

Why do you feel it took so long for you to know a black person??
Because there were few of any black people in South Dakota! In my town there were no black or Mexican people or Hispanic people either.

No Hispanics?

Where were they?
I donít know, they arenít there now either. You know, I just read the statistics. South Dakota is the only state in the USA that on the census of 2000 has zero, Hispanics, zero!

Why is that? Racism or what?
No! I am not a demographer so I invite you to go to South Dakota and evaluate that for yourself. You will like it. It is a great place, but it is what we call provincial. Itís a different kind of place. Itís an isolated small population, very beautiful country. I always say to people down here, why have you never been up there? Seems many from Texas never venture outside the wall of Texas.

I am going to make it a point to go visit.
See Mount Rushmore (the four faces of Presidents carved into a mountain). You know one reason there are no Hispanics is that there tends to be a large Mexican American population where there is or was a need for migrant laborers. South Dakota has no crops that require hand picking, manual labor, only grains, and corn and crops harvested using mechanization.

I am learning a lot more now.
Perhaps, I should teach you South Dakota Trivia.

What is it that you do?
I am a City Planner. I work for the City of San Antonio and I assure or I try to assure that the laws protecting the people with disabilities are implemented. I also encourage designers and builders to use Universal Design concepts in their planning. Universal Design is simply designing for all people so that our environments are easily adaptable to all people as they age.

What would you tell Mr. Myers?
I think itís a great opportunity for the students to get to know people that they might not ordinary know. This sort of exercise includes the multiple dimensions of history, geography; politics of the day; economics all within the context of peopleís real lives. Additionally, if there are 20 individuals in the classroom and you have 20 different perspectives on our community this new and enlightening information will enrich the class and hopefully the perspectives they have on their own history and place in our communities. In summary, this project is very creative.

Judith Babbit in parade



This interview has taught me more than any other class or teacher ever has. I never knew the struggle and isolation my friend Judith went through as a child. Now I can understand and see why she is an advocate for anyone with a disability; why she makes sure no one struggles to get around from one place to another. She was not only a witness of this deadly disease, but a victim and a survivor as well. I also learned about polio, the deadly disease. Who discovered it, its effects, and how people with this disease were disabled and isolated before. How ironic, this being a history class where I have learned how immigrants struggle to come to America for a better way of life, that itís an immigrant Russian and Jewish coupleís son by the name of Jonas Edward Salk, who makes history by discovering the polio vaccine in 1954. I now wonder, what would have happened if his parents had not immigrated to America back in the 1800s?





Peace Corps. (2005) This is the official Peace Corps website.

Disability Etiquetted Handbook


May Day

Jonas Edward Salk 1914ó1995

The Cycle of Men

Through the windows of history we see from the north, south, east, and west,
what weíve accomplished and what could be our next quest.

The answers to the questions who, when, and why, in books and research lie.
In the future, the answers to the questions what and where,
can be the starting point from here to there.

Through the windows of history we see from the north, south, east, and west,
How men change history, but history does not change men.
This to no one is a mystery, for this will always be history.

Maria Gloria Flores


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