By George Verity
“It got to the point where I was just so tired of breaking bones, having surgeries, and needing physical therapy that I decided to move into a wheel chair full time,” said Matt Skolnick, a full time student at the Ammerman campus.
Skolnick is a 20- year-old from Islip who has been on campus for the past three years for a total of five semesters. He has a 3.9 GPA, is in the honors program and loves to give back to his community by serving as the president of his high school alumni association. Currently, he is a member and an officer of Phi Theta Kappa . His tremendous work ethic doesn’t let anything slow him down in life, not even his disability.
“Without a doubt a disability becomes a part of who you are. I would not be the same person without it; but I don’t let it control my life. That’s the difference” Skolnick said.
Medically diagnosed at birth with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), a genetic disorder characterized by fragile bones that are prone to fracture and is often referred as the “brittle bone disease,” Matt has been wheelchair bound since the age of eight.
OI is caused by a mutation on a gene that affects the body’s production of the collagen found in bones and is not caused by poor nutrition. Just drinking more milk won’t help.
Matt’s father was born with OI, caused by a genetic mutation. “I inherited OI from my dad at a 50 percent chance,” Skolnick said. But Approximately 35 percent of children with OI are born into a family with no family history of OI.
Several variations exist in this gene0tic disorder. Though cases of OI can be diagnosed, the disease is so variable that eight different types are described in medical literature ranging from mild to severe cases depending on the person. Skolnick has a mild diagnosis, but it will affect him for the rest of his life.
“I’ve had 20 or more fractures in my life. By the time I was 8 years old I hated itchy casts from my fractures so much that I decided to go into a wheelchair. I used to be able to walk around, but after fractures, surgeries, and lack of strengthening such as weight bearing I can’t walk on my own anymore. Maybe with a walker, but it’s been a while. I can still stand though,” he said.
Skolnick is an average Joe in the sense that he loves to play sports and video games. In addition, he is also a “full-time Yankee fan.”
Skolnick graduated high school from Henry Viscardi School. HVS is a dedicated school that teaches students with physical disabilities and health impairments to enable them to be active, independent, self sufficient participants in society. The school ranges in grades from kindergarten to 12th grade and is state funded.
Matt enrolled at HVS in the middle of 5th grade. “I didn’t want to go to the school at first because I was afraid of all of the kids who seemed to have more severe disabilities than I did. But as time went on, it became a great comfort zone for me because someone was always there to help, and the classroom setting was very small which meant making friends was easy,” he said.
“After graduating I wanted to make a gentle transition into college so I choose Suffolk County Community College. I have to say my academic experience as a college student has been outstanding because academically this is a good school. But socially it’s pretty hard. There’s always that one seat empty next to me”
Prior to his first semester on campus, he had to purchase and move into a power chair rather than the manual chair he was previously in because of the hilly area. Transportation and accessibility as a whole; not just for Skolnick, but all disabled individuals is improving because of the changes that are being made throughout society and the community.
“People are very helpful to my situation but they notice and stare at times. Not so much in college, but out in the community with the general public. The best way I can describe it is like if Lady Gaga was walking through Penn Station in her meat dress; people’s heads would turn and eyes would stare and the attention would all be on that one person. They just can’t help it”
With graduation at Suffolk approaching , Skolnick said he is looking to make another gentle transition to continue higher education at another institution without leaving his comfort zone. He plans on staying in New York and on Long Island. But, the first question, like so many other college students have, is what lies ahead in his life? In addition to finding the right school academically fit for his best needs other questions hover over his future plans. Where will he live while attending his future school? How will he commute? Will he dorm? One thing is for sure his friendly personality and his steady work ethic will carry him though life.