Who is Kim Peek and why does he matter?

December 30, 2009 by barbara

barbara writes

My friend PC shared this amazing video with me. It’s a relatively current-time summary of the life of Kim Peek. We know him better as “Rain Man.”

Excerpts from the UK’s Times Online:

Kim Peek, the autistic savant who inspired the Oscar-winning film Rain Man, has died, aged 58.

Mr Peek's father Fran said that his son had suffered a major heart attack on Saturday and was pronounced dead at a hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, the town where he had spent his life.

(snip)

Born in 1951 in Salt Lake city, Mr Peek was diagnosed as severely mentally retarded and his parents were advised to place him in an institution and forget about him. Thirty years later, he was classified as a "mega-savant," a genius in about 15 different subjects, from history and literature and geography to numbers, sports, music and dates.

(snip)

He would read eight books a day, taking just ten seconds to read a page. He could read two pages simultaneously, his left eye reading the left page and his right eye reading the right page. Read on.

But throughout his life he still needed 24-hour care. Despite his great mental agility, his motor skills remained limited; he could not perform simple tasks such as dressing himself or combing his hair.
His father Fran became his sole carer after Mr Peek's parent divorced in 1975. Fran Peek said that care of his son was a 30-hour-day, 10-day-a-week job.

(snip)

(“Rain Man writer Barry) Morrow said of him: "I love the way he's flowered, it belies the myth that people don't change, especially people with developmental disabilities."

Four years before his death, Mr Peek said: "I wasn't supposed to make it past about 14, and yet here I am at 54, a celebrity!"

Kim Peek and my brother are vastly different from each other, though they share a mental retardation diagnosis. Even so, revisiting Kim's story has made me acutely aware of the possibilities (from modest to stunning) for people with developmental disabilities to “flower,” each in their own way.

Please watch the video and read the accompanying text from Times Online.

My brother is hardly a candidate for newspaper coverage nor for a Hollywood bio-pic. But just four years older than Kim Peek, my brother was born in a era in which my parents were encouraged to pop him into an institution and forget about him. Thanks to a benevolent arrangement of the universe, they didn't do that. He lived at home, went to school, has worked in the community since he was 18 years old. He has, in fact, worked hard all his life to maximize his somewhat limited abilities. And he has come so very far!

Kim Peek's story is not one that directly affects many – even most – of you, I suspect. But I hope it serves to help all of us look at disabilities with fresh eyes. And you may be sure I am going to pop off a link to this post to my state and federal legislators. And also to our uber-conservative governor, Tim Pawlenty, from whom I will receive a self-promoting, generic response that says essentially nothing. “Thank you for writing. You input is valuable (they make me say that. but guess what -- I don't really give a rip!)."

You know what? It is incumbent upon us as a compassionate, caring nation and as people of any faith (or lack of same) who give a damn about justice to go to bat for our most vulnerable citizens, even as the country and state decimate the services that help them survive and thrive. I so totally mean this.

Please and thank you.

(cross-posted at firedoglake's Seminal.)

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