Ruth Sienkiewicz Mercer was born in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was a healthy baby, but was afflicted with a severe bout of encephalitis at the age of five weeks. At thirteen months, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy resulting from the encephalitis. Her control over her entire body, except for her face and digestive system, was severely impaired; though not completely paralyzed, she could not care for herself or communicate through speech as most people know it. Due to her inability to communicate normally, she was diagnosed as an imbecile at the age of five.
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