[Congressional Record Volume 152, Number 117 (Tuesday, September 19, 2006)]
[Senate]
[Pages S9717-S9719]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]




                         TRIBUTE TO BEN CHATER

  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, in my 32 years as a U.S. Senator, I have 
met many extraordinary people. They have included Presidents, Kings and 
Nobel laureates, artists, soldiers, nurses, activists, and ordinary 
Americans who are doing any number of wonderful, selfless, and 
courageous things for their families, their communities, and their 
country. Some of these people chose careers in public service. Others 
were leading normal, uneventful lives when they were unexpectedly 
confronted with circumstances that caused them to become leaders. Many 
have simply lived inconspicuous lives caring for others. And then there 
are those who have struggled to overcome unfair and seemingly 
impossible hurdles and in doing so have shown a force of character and 
spirit that breaks barriers and inspires awe among everyone they meet.
  Ben Chater, a Vermonter who interned in my office several years ago 
during the summer after his sophomore year at the University of 
California at Berkeley, is in the latter category. Born with cerebral 
palsy, Ben has faced obstacles from birth that the rest of us could not 
even imagine, much less overcome. He has done so with amazing grace, 
courage, and good humor, and his accomplishments are nothing short of 
awe inspiring. Ben's refusal to let his disability prevent him from 
taking on practically any challenge has been an example for me and my 
wife Marcelle, for my staff, and for virtually everyone who has come 
into contact with him.
  I have little doubt that Ben will continue to set ambitious goals and 
in reaching them he will demonstrate even further the incredible 
capacity of the human spirit to overcome adversity. He will also 
continue to erase the stereotypes and misconceptions about the 
potential of people with disabilities.
  Ben was recently the subject of an article in the Vermont Sunday 
Magazine by Tom Slayton, who is also the editor of Vermont Life, and I 
ask unanimous consent that it be printed in the Record so others can be 
inspired by Ben's life and accomplishments.
  There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in 
the Record, as follows:

        [From the Vermont Sunday Magazine, September 10, 2006].

   ``In Awe of Ben''--Ben Chater, 23, with cerebral palsy, finishes 
              Berkeley, prepares for life's next challenge

                            (By Tom Slayton)

       This is the story of a fine mind living in a body that 
     won't cooperate.
       Ben Chater, 23, of Montpelier has had cerebral palsy since 
     birth. Due to a difficult birth, Ben's brain was deprived of 
     oxygen for a few moments. As a result, he has a major 
     disability--he has limited control over movements of his 
     limbs, or the rest of his body.
       He requires assistance with everyday living--getting 
     dressed in the morning, eating a meal, taking a shower. He 
     speaks with some difficulty and requires a motorized 
     wheelchair to get around.
       However, Ben's mind is complete and undamaged. In fact, he 
     is extremely bright.

[[Page S9718]]

     He graduated this year, with honors, from the University of 
     California at Berkeley with degrees in English and 
     linguistics, the study of language--how it works, how sounds 
     combine to make meaning, how the language we use shapes our 
     thinking and our experience.
       Linguistics is not for the faint of heart. Or mind. But Ben 
     is neither.
       For his work in that field, Ben received the Departmental 
     Citation for Excellence in Linguistics, awarded by the 
     faculty of the department to an outstanding student. He was 
     the only student at Berkeley to receive that award this year.
       Ben is not only an outstanding student; he is an 
     outstanding person.
       After talking with him for even a few minutes, one forgets 
     the fact that he is in a powered chair and has some 
     difficulty forming words. What remains is the lasting 
     impression of an intelligent, positive, hopeful young man.
       ``I'm frankly in awe of Ben,'' says his mother, Maude 
     Chater. ``There's a grace about him that I don't understand--
     nor do I need to.''
       Maude and her husband, Mike, have worked long and hard to 
     help Ben achieve an independent life. Perhaps the hardest 
     thing for them to do, in recent years, has been to stand back 
     and get out of Ben's way.
       ``It's very hard for families to resist their protective 
     instincts,'' she notes quietly.
       In addition to academic success that would be remarkable in 
     a person with normal abilities, Ben has served as an intern 
     in the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, living in 
     Washington while working for the senator. And he recently 
     took--and aced--the LSAT exams--the qualifying exam for law 
     school.
       However, all that success does not eliminate the fact that 
     he has difficulties the rest of us cannot imagine.
       Recently, Ben went outside into the back yard to check on a 
     blueberry patch, alone, while family members were out and 
     about, as usual. He drove his motorized chair uphill 
     toward some trees--and got mired in a soft spot in the 
     yard.
       Two hours later, when his mother arrived back home, she 
     found Ben, still mired, still in his chair, stuck in front of 
     one of the trees. When she went to assist him, Ben's only wry 
     comment was:
       ``It's a nice tree . . . really!''
       Early on--when Ben was a junior at Montpelier High School, 
     to be exact--his special qualities became apparent to all of 
     his classmates.
       For Ben, as for most kids, it was a time of change, 
     uncertainty and social stress. Many of the young people he 
     had grown up with had begun to change their interests, and 
     old friends drifted away and new ones didn't appear to take 
     their places. More than most kids, Ben felt isolated.
       Unlike most kids, though, he decided to do something about 
     it. He received permission from the school administration to 
     call a school-wide assembly, and at it he spoke to his fellow 
     students about what he saw and felt. He spoke about what it 
     was like to be Ben Chater, teenager, confused and lonely. ``I 
     felt I needed to do something,'' Ben says, remembering the 
     assembly.
       What he discovered that day was that he was not alone. Many 
     of his classmates and other students approached him afterward 
     and said they felt exactly the same way--and they thanked him 
     for putting their feelings into words along with his own.
       ``I don't know a single kid who loved every minute of high 
     school,'' he says.
       With his parents' backing and encouragement, he has always 
     tried to join in the activities and share the interests of 
     his peers. If a school field trip involved climbing a 
     mountain, Ben's first thought was not: ``I can't go,'' but 
     ``How can I climb the mountain, too?''
       (Answer: ``We need to get a really strong guy to carry me 
     up the mountain on his back.'' And that's the way it 
     happened.)
       But college presented a whole new set of challenges.
       How could Ben get by without the assistance of his parents? 
     (Answer: Hire and manage assistants. There are some Social 
     Security funds for just that purpose.)
       How could he do the immense amount of work that college 
     typically demands? What about lengthy term papers, for 
     example?
       (Answer: The world of electronic communication--computers, 
     e-mail, the Web, blogging and so on--has actually been very 
     helpful to Ben. True, his hands and fingers won't obey his 
     mental commands, but he makes expert use of a headset that 
     enables him to type by tapping with a pointer attached to 
     his head.
       When ``translated'' into computer strokes and electronic 
     impulses, Ben's words and ideas can be communicated freely. 
     And the excellence of his ideas and scholarship stands out.)
       How would Ben get to classes in a multi-story building, 
     meet with professors, register, even accomplish something as 
     basic as going to the bathroom in a standard multi-story 
     academic building? (Answer: Attend a university that prides 
     itself on integrating disabled students into all its classes 
     and activities.)
       After considerable research and a couple of visits, Ben 
     decided to apply and was accepted at Berkeley, one of the 
     nation's most competitive universities.
       ``Going to Berkeley expanded my horizons in just about 
     every way imaginable,'' he says of the school, which is 
     located across the bay from San Francisco.
       As Ben explains the situation at Berkeley, he smiles and 
     mentions the school's diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural 
     student body.
       ``In most cities, `diversity,' means there are a lot of 
     different sections of town, each with its own different 
     ethnicity or whatever,'' he said. ``But in Berkeley, 
     everybody--all the different kinds of people--lives together. 
     . . . And that creates a kind of social comfort I had never 
     seen before.''
       People in the Bay area--in California generally, according 
     to Ben--prefer to make life easy and non-confrontational. 
     They tend to be more accepting of different kinds of people 
     because there are a lot of different kinds of people living 
     close together. That means acceptance is the rule, not the 
     exception.
       ``People with disabilities are just another element in that 
     kind of melting pot,'' Ben said. ``There are a lot of folks 
     in chairs out there--so it's easy to get around.''
       And people with significant disabilities are more accepted, 
     more worked into the everyday mix of society, he noted.
       That doesn't mean that bad things, never happen.
       Ben tells the story of the time he went into San Francisco 
     to a concert. His plan was to meet friends in the city and go 
     to the Fillmore, one of the city's main event venues. Then 
     his friends would help him take the Bay Area Rapid Transit 
     train back across the Bay to his apartment.
       But things began to go wrong as soon as he reached San 
     Francisco. He couldn't find his friends at all, and by the 
     time the concert got out, he realized that he had to return 
     home on his own.
       Unfortunately, by the time he worked all that out, the BART 
     trains had stopped for the night, so Ben had to go home by 
     bus--a much longer and more circuitous route. He found his 
     way to the Trans-Bay Bus terminal, and got a bus part-way 
     home, to Oakland. It was late at night by then, and Ben had 
     to wait in downtown Oakland for a bus to Berkeley.
       The bus finally arrived and Ben drove his motorized chair 
     onto the special lift that buses in the Bay area carry for 
     passengers with disabilities. At that moment, the lift broke 
     down.
       And so at 3 a.m. Ben sat suspended over the street, waiting 
     for 45 minutes for a mechanic to come and repair the lift.
       Eventually the mechanic fixed the lift, the bus rolled out 
     of the Oakland station, and Ben got home--as the sun was 
     rising at about 5 a.m. He passed out in his chair and was 
     later helped to bed by his roommate.
       Such experiences have not cramped Ben's spirit. Now, with 
     his degree in linguistics, a high score on the LSATs, and 
     college behind him, he's taking a bit of a break, letting 
     things settle, thinking about his next move.
       There is an employment possibility at Berkeley that he's 
     considering, but he's also visiting law schools--he and his 
     father, Mike Chater, checked out Yale last week; and Ben 
     would also like to visit Columbia and New York University. 
     Eventually, he plans to apply to several law schools, choose 
     one, and start next year. He's also thinking about traveling.
       Like many young men and women his age, he also doesn't know 
     precisely what career he wants to follow.
       ``The thought of being a lawyer . . . working in an office 
     for the rest of my life is not all that exciting,'' he said. 
     ``But going to law school gives you a lot of options--you can 
     do a lot of things with a law degree.''
       His dad, Ben notes, has counseled him to keep as many 
     options open as he can.
       Ben obviously has some things going for him. One is the 
     steady, strong support of his parents.
       ``Our family was definitely oriented around Ben in his 
     early years,'' Maude Chater says, ``When he got into high 
     school, he directed us to back off a bit.''
       Vacations and trips have occasionally been challenging. 
     ``We travel, but we don't travel light,'' Maude quips.
       Independence has been Maude and Mike's goal for Ben since 
     his birth, and they realize that to foster independence in a 
     person you have to let them be independent.
       But there are moments--especially when Ben wants to take a 
     significant step forward, like foreign travel or learning to 
     drive--that can cause the mental brakes to go on in a 
     parent's head. The difficulties Ben faces with daily living 
     are probably at least as stressful on his parents as on Ben 
     himself. But they have learned to stand back. They have 
     learned to learn.
       And they are regularly amazed by their son's courage.
       For his part, Ben doesn't waste any time at all on self-
     pity. Not a moment.
       ``I've never spent a lot of time thinking about what life 
     would be like if I weren't disabled,'' he said recently. ``I 
     believe that everyone's dealt a set of cards, and it doesn't 
     matter which cards you're dealt--it's how you play them.''
       Interestingly, although he is well aware of the inequities 
     that people with disabilities face in society, he said 
     recently, ``There are a lot of things about our society that 
     aren't right, and that aren't fair.''
       But he said he doesn't want to spend his life worrying 
     about that.
       What he said he has learned, and is still learning, is that 
     the more comfortable people can be with themselves, the more 
     power they have over their lives--and by extension, the 
     conditions around them.
       Ben doesn't think of himself as a teacher, but he is one. 
     Those who know him say he has taught them about the dignity 
     and deep value inherent in every person, no matter

[[Page S9719]]

     what their circumstances. At Berkeley, one of his nicknames 
     was ``The Rabbi,'' because of the wise counsel he would offer 
     his classmates, when asked.
       He remains modest about his achievements, the long learning 
     process he has come through and the long road that remains 
     ahead. ``I'm definitely in the middle of a lengthy process of 
     figuring out which end is up,'' he said. ``It's a process 
     that everyone has to figure out for themselves.''
       And what are his parents' hopes?
       ``Our hope for Ben is that he is able to live 
     independently, support himself, and be happy,'' Maude says 
     ``. . . that he finds his place in the world.''

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