CHAPPAQUA, N.Y. – Geri Mariano knows what it’s like to be treated differently because of her appearance.
In medical terms, the 45-year-old Armonk resident was born with diastrophic dysplasia. Or as she calls it, dwarfism. Using prosthetic legs and two canes to move around, Mariano spoke to Seven Bridges Middle School students Tuesday morning about the challenges she had growing up and how students can have a direct, positive affect on classmates with special needs.
“I noticed all my life that little kids will stare at me and point at me and ask their parents in their children’s voice what’s wrong with me,” said Mariano, who began speaking to children 20 years ago. “I wanted to let them know there is nothing wrong with me. I’m a normal person.”
Mariano’s presentation was part of Chappaqua’s celebration of National Inclusive Schools Week, which promotes inclusive education around the nation.
Mariano was accepted by the Byram Hills Central School District in 1972 after many Westchester districts rejected her. Public schools were not legally obligated then to accept special needs students.
She grew up in Armonk with her adoptive family after her biological parents abandoned her after birth. Mariano spent the first year and a half of her life living in the Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla. The hospital eventually put Mariano up for adoption through an ad in the local paper.
“They were thinking progressively, and they were thinking way back when that everybody should have a chance in society,” Mariano said.
She recalls her time in Bryam Hills as mostly positive, but said students would occasionally pick on her because of her dwarfism. Mariano recalled one particular student who would insult her, but only when no other students were around. The teasing, however, eventually stopped when a classmate intervened.
“She knew she couldn’t get away with teasing me in front of other students because they wouldn’t allow it,” Mariano said, leaving the Seven Bridge students with a simple question. “Wouldn’t you want your classmates to be there for you?”