A paralyzed man in a wheelchair attends a college football game surrounded by other spectators.

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Paralyzed from the neck down as an undergrad, Ken Kunken ’72, BS ’73, MA ’77, has become a lawyer, husband, and father of three

By Lindsay Lennon

When teenagers declare their college plans, it’s not typically fodder for the local TV news—but most high school seniors aren’t the Kunken boys. When the 18-year-old triplets decided where they’d be going to school in fall 2023, the story made headlines in their hometown newspapers.

It even drew a camera crew from CBS New York to record a segment in their airy, light-filled living room in Rockville Centre, Long Island.

For the family, it’s a familiar scenario: the brothers—James, Joseph, and Timothy—have been the subject of media coverage since they were born in January 2005.

A man in a wheelchair with three teenagers and an adult woman standing behind him.
Kunken with wife Anna and (from left) sons Joseph, James, and Timothy, each clad in their college swag.

That’s because their dad, Ken Kunken ’72, BS ’73, MA ’77, defied the odds not only in fathering them, but in overcoming barriers throughout his adult life.

As a 20-year-old junior on the Hill, Kunken suffered a severe spinal cord injury while playing football, resulting in near-total paralysis from the neck down.

Less than a year later, he returned to complete his engineering degree, becoming the first quadriplegic to graduate from Cornell.

He went on to earn two master’s degrees and a JD, becoming an assistant district attorney for Nassau County, NY, where he prosecuted more than 50 felony jury trials to verdict over a 40-year career.

Prior to law school at Hofstra, Kunken worked as a certified rehabilitation counselor for people with severe disabilities.

He remains an active motivational speaker and advocate for laws and accommodations that empower disabled children and adults to achieve their full potential.

Now 73 and mostly retired, Kunken has notched yet another achievement: authoring a memoir.

The book cover of "I Dream of Things that Never Were: the Ken Kunken Story."

I Dream of Things that Never Were: The Ken Kunken Story, published by a small press devoted to legal affairs, came out in e-book form in August 2023, with hard copies expected in early October.

The book, Kunken says, has been more than a half-century in the making.

While he was in a NYC rehabilitation center after his injury, a friend encouraged him to share his thoughts as a form of therapeutic journaling—and to offer others a glimpse into his experience.

Two men and a woman at a college party in the 1970s.
Kunken (right) a week before his injury.

The friend would visit Kunken weekly, asking about his daily life as well as his background. After about a year, Kunken had a pile of transcribed notes.

“And then,” he says, “it just sat there.”

Having retained partial use of his left arm, Kunken—using braces, splints, and occupational therapy techniques—learned to feed himself and turn pages on his own, but even small exertions still tire him quickly.

Sporadically, he added to the memoir over the years, typing with the eraser end of a pencil inserted into a wrist splint worn on his left arm.

A paralyzed man in a wheelchair smiles.
Back on campus as an undergrad.

“If I could type one page,” he recalls, “I’d be thoroughly exhausted.”

Eventually, he began dictating it, with the transcription done by his wife, Anna. “She’d say, ‘You’ve got to talk more about your feelings,’” he recalls. “She tried to draw out more from me.”

Running 400-plus pages, the memoir explores Kunken’s experiences in unsparing detail. Some chapters, particularly those covering the injury and its immediate aftermath, are harrowing.

“I debated whether it would be too difficult for some people to read,” Kunken admits.

“But then I started thinking: it’s important. I’m at a terrific place in my life. I have an incredible wife, three wonderful sons whom I couldn’t be more proud of. To talk about what it was like when I couldn’t even envision something like this happening to me was very difficult—but I want people to know what that was like.”

His overarching message: if we expect more from people who are severely disabled, and provide them with proper support, thousands could lead far more fulfilling and productive lives.

I debated whether it would be too difficult for some people to read.

In fact, Kunken says, the book’s title is a call to action for disabled individuals to dream bigger—and to push the limits of what the world thinks they can do.

“He shows that you don’t really need the standard family structure or setting to have a good life,” reflects Joseph. “We’re different in every single way from the norm—but I think we came out okay.”

Of the triplets, Joseph is the only one who has followed his dad to the Hill, matriculating into the Class of ’27 with plans to study physics in the College of Arts & Sciences.

But all three are staying in New York State, with Timothy at Syracuse University and James at SUNY Morrisville.

“This is the first time our boys have been separated for more than a few days,” Kunken observes.

“They’re all pursuing something different. It will be quite an adventure for them—and for us, not having them here.”

A man in a wheelchair attends a college lecture course surrounded by other students in seats.
Attending a lecture.

In mid-August 2023, the couple took the family’s customized accessible van from Long Island to help Joseph settle in on the Hill.

Nowadays, Kunken notes, college campuses—along with theaters, train stations, and government buildings—are places where he can expect his wheelchair to be accommodated.

He knows, without calling ahead, that there will be accessible bathrooms, curb cuts, and ramps allowing him to navigate the world.

A lawyer sits at his desk in a wheelchair.
At work as an assistant DA.

That wasn’t the case in the early 1970s, nearly two decades before passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Returning to campus meant relying on others to get around, not to mention for help with other activities of daily life.

Before ramps were standard, Kunken was bounced up and down countless sets of steps; in his book, he writes about his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers carrying him through two feet of snow to attend a hockey game at Lynah.

“You just didn’t see other people in wheelchairs,” Kunken recalls. “And if you did, they at least had use of their arms and could wheel themselves. Few people had ever seen somebody in my condition out at all—let alone at a college campus. It attracted a lot of attention.”

Just before resuming his studies at Cornell, Kunken had an opportunity to use his newfound publicity to advocate for change—though he admits that at the time he didn’t realize his potential impact.

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When the late U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy was scheduled to conduct a health subcommittee hearing, one of his aides asked Kunken to attend, having read a Newsday editorial about him and the mounting costs of his daily care.

A man in a motorized wheelchair and two teenage boys tour a college campus.
Touring his alma mater with Joseph (right) and Timothy.

Kunken’s testimony made national headlines, and he was extensively quoted in Kennedy’s 1972 book, In Critical Condition: The Crisis in America’s Health Care (the senator also sent Kunken an autographed copy).

In Kunken’s memoir, he recalls being “dumbstruck” when Kennedy talked about him on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Years later, Kennedy would introduce the landmark bill that led to the passage of the ADA in 1990.

The subsequent federally required accommodations opened up a life for Kunken that had previously seemed impossible—from taking train trips into the city for Broadway shows with Anna to going on college tours with his sons.

A man in a wheelchair with three men standing around him.
Kunken with his father (far right) and (from left) U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy and Peter Dominick.

“The difficult part of what I went through was not just my physical condition,” says Kunken, “but people’s attitudes and expectations towards me and what I could do, should do.”

If few people believed Kunken could earn four degrees and prosecute criminal cases, even fewer thought he’d ever get married.

In his book, he admits he didn’t think it was possible.

“I was certain,” he writes, “a woman would be better off with someone who did not have the severe physical limitations I had.”

But that changed when he met Anna, who came to the U.S. from Poland to immerse herself in English and fell for Kunken while working as his home health aide.

Two years after their wedding, a then-novel in-vitro procedure enabled the birth of the triplets.

While they were born five weeks premature and spent nearly a month in the neonatal ICU, they had no lasting medical issues.

A bride and groom dressed in a white wedding dress and black and white tuxedo
The Kunkens at their 2003 nuptials.

Joseph says that when he and his siblings were young, Kunken’s condition inherently “made us more aware of the world around us, and how accommodating it is” for people like their dad.

A number of times, Kunken also took the triplets to visit a school and vocational training facility for people with disabilities.

“I wanted them exposed at a very early age to not just myself, but to a lot of people with different types of disabilities,” says Kunken, “and to not only feel comfortable around them, but to appreciate all the things a person with a disability can do.”

The Provider

In an excerpt from his memoir, Kunken recalls grappling with what fatherhood would mean

Timmy now seemed to have his eyes open every time I was in his room, as if he had been waiting for me, so I tended to spend more time beside his incubator. There was a big difference between just watching a sleeping baby versus watching a baby who was looking straight at me intently.

The nurses said that Timmy would benefit from close contact with his parents. “Cuddling with Daddy” therapy was recommended. During one of my evening visits, Anna unbuttoned my shirt, pulled up my T-shirt, and put a diapered but otherwise naked Timmy against my chest.

He snuggled there for a while, with Anna holding Timmy close to my skin. It was incredible to feel his small hands touching me. It was wonderfully strange to feel him moving against me.

It was wonderfully strange to feel him moving against me.

One day, a NICU nurse who didn’t know me very well thought it would be great if I held Timmy by myself. I was apprehensive but figured the nurse knew what he was doing. He assured me he would remain close by. He then put Timmy, bundled in a blanket, in the crook of my left arm.

Timmy was very small but still weighed more than three pounds. My left arm had gotten stronger over the years, but supporting Timmy’s weight for more than a few seconds was a huge effort for me. I didn’t even have my lapboard to rest my arm on.

As soon as the nurse put Timmy in my left arm, I knew it had not been a good idea. I was scared to death that my arm would fatigue and I would drop him. Within a few seconds, I told the nurse to take Timmy away. I didn’t want the nurse to think I didn’t want to hold my son. I would have given anything to be able to do that for hours, but I knew my limitations.

A man reads to three young boys.
Storytime for the triplets.

I recognized that my role as a father would be limited physically. I would never be able to pick the boys up when they cried, or change their diapers, or give them a bottle. I would have to find different ways to be helpful. My role was to be exclusively that of provider, and I worried I wouldn’t even be able to do that adequately.

As soon as we had found out we were expecting triplets, I couldn’t stop thinking about the expenses it would involve. During many long, sleepless nights, I tried to come up with different ways to pay for the help Anna would need.

I thought about every possible way to use my financial resources to the best advantage. No matter which way I approached the problem, though, I still seemed to fall short.

I recognized that my role as a father would be limited physically. I would have to find different ways to be helpful.

Anna pointed out that my role of “provider” was very similar to the role my father had assumed after my accident. He never really provided me with any physical help. Instead, he focused on making sure money was there to pay for the help I needed.

I desperately wanted to care for my sons but I obviously could not do so physically. I started to better appreciate my father’s concerns about finances.

I also started to realize how awful my father must have felt, back in 1970, when he received that first phone call about my injury. My three sons were only a few weeks old but already I could not imagine my life without them.

From I Dream of Things that Never Were: The Ken Kunken Story by Kenneth J. Kunken, a publication of Twelve Tables Press, an independent legal trade press. Copyright © 2023 by Kenneth J. Kunken. Included by permission of the publisher and author. 

Top: Cheering the Big Red at Schoellkopf. This and other vintage, black-and-white campus photos by Jim Cunningham ’71, BS ’72, MEng ’75 (except the shots of Kunken at a lecture and in Sage Hall, by Roger Archibald ’68, BA ’73). All other images provided.

Published September 8, 2023


  1. Nancy Miller Clifford

    Fantastic story, Kunk. This excerpt gives the reader a real sense of how descriptive, detailed, and inspirational your memories are and leaves us wanting more. Congrats on your launch as a terrific memoir author!

  2. Charlie Kunken, Class of 2005

    Love you uncle Ken

  3. Roy Danis

    Kunk, I remember that day at Schoellkopf, (I’m sitting next to you on the railing, as you well know). 50 years later, you’re still my hero and inspiration and the primary reason I dedicate as much time as I do, to the disability community. You are a trailblazer for others with disabilities to enjoy a quality of life unimaginable in the 1970’s. We are all so proud of you…….Congrats on the book! Keep up the good fight and “Go Big Red”!

  4. John D Kemp

    An excellent article about Ken, an extraordinary person; his wife, Anna; and their 3 great sons! Bravo, Ken! Dr. Viscardi would be so very proud of you like we all are!

    • Meryl Kunken Leshansky

      Kenny…..I just read the above excerpts of your upcoming book!!!! It gave me chills!!!!! You are an inspiration to all who meet you!!!! I am so very proud to call you my brother ! Even prouder that you are the best uncle to my three sons who grew up admiring you ! You were always there for them .Uncle Ken was always our go to person when we needed Help or advice ! I can’t wait to read the book ! Years in the making ……but well worth the wait!!!!Keep on inspiring !!!!

  5. Jay Brozost, Class of 1972

    Kunk,from Oceanside High School to Cornell together I fondly remember our early days.Russ has kept me apprised of what has been going on in your life but I was totally bowled reading the article.You are truly an amazing man and I could not be happier for you.What you have accomplished with your family,your work, while dealing with your hardships is inspirational.Expect a call.

  6. Betty Reba

    This is a great read for everyone. A great lesson in beating the odds and finding ways to make your life productive, meaningful and joyful.
    It will allow readers to understand why you are such a “people magnet”!
    Love you and the book.👏

  7. Joani Madarash

    I am so looking forward to reading Ken’s book. I ordered it from Amazon months ago and am waiting for it to arrive in the next few weeks. Ken is an inspiration to me and to everyone who meets him! Bravo to Ken, Anna and their 3 incredible young men.

  8. Karen Guttentag

    Between you and Anna, those boys have inherited some serious superpowers! Sending big love.

  9. Linda Byard, Class of 1968

    I took some classes with you after your injury and always wondered how your life worked out. It did and I’m so glad!

    • Ron Demer, Class of 1959

      Hi Neighbor,

      I read your comment about Ken Kunken. Amazing guy. His nephew, Charley ’05, is my SAE fraternity brother and was house president.

  10. Bob Patterson, Class of 1968

    Most grateful thanks for sharing your incredibly inspiring, and inspired, message with us. You are a sterling example to all of us!!

  11. Clifford Ribner, Class of 1973

    I never met Ken when I was there at more or less the same time, but I knew about his terrible injury and, like everyone there in the early 70s, knew about how brave and remarkable he was in returning to school (with all those practically-vertical hills all over the place it must’ve been the most difficult campus in the country for him to negotiate!); & I was aware that one of my dearest friends, Tom Churchill, RIP, an engineering genius was a huge admirer of his and was working on stuff to help him in some manner, and I know he was so excited about something he came up with, some invention of some kind, and I wish I could remember what it was

    Awe and congratulations (an understatement) for a life lived with amazing courage, superbly

  12. John Reynolds, Class of 1973

    Ken, I was on the sideline when you were hurt. We had the same major and studied together for many courses. At graduation I was honored to push you on the long procession through campus. You have lived a life in full and are an inspiration.

  13. Liz Gordon

    My brother Jim Gordon was on the field with you that day and my Dad, Dr. Harold Gordon, was watching the game and rushed out to as soon as you went down. We knew your father well. It is so wonderful to read your story.

  14. Marlene, Class of 2001

    I will read the book to my children! Congratulations on everything you have accomplished, Ken, and thank you for the inspiration.

  15. Judith Cavell Cohen

    Magnificent. Such a great example of perseverance and resiliency. So glad his life worked out so beautifully.

  16. Dottie Clark Free, Class of 1953

    Read this and be inspired to somehow do better.

  17. Ira Casson, Class of 1971

    Ken Kunken is the greatest Cornellian of our generation.

  18. John Hupcey, Class of 1974

    In one of my sophomore engineering classes the professor (Henry Block?) said that Ken needed help with his telephone. Cornell had provided him with a Bell System speakerphone. The problem was that you had to press one of two round buttons on top to turn it on or off. I replaced the two buttons with a single toggle switch onto which I glued a long, flat plastic handle. He could easily move the switch with a stick to the right for ON and the left for OFF. I remember he had a large room in Sage which I visited a couple of times. I was happy to have been able to provide this “fix” for him.

  19. Jenifer Ong-Meyers, Class of 1986

    Wow, this could not be more inspirational during a depressing, rough period of history in so many ways, between international and national news. Ken, you are obviously a super hero – thank you for sharing and will look for the book. Congratulations on all your successes. I wish you and your family continued great days and super strengths.

  20. Robert Slocum, Class of 1977

    I will never forget that he gave a great speech at my High School graduation in Dryden NY in June of 1972.

  21. Jack Sobel

    I was Ken’s teammate in high school. He was relatively unimpressive physically back then. But Ken Kunken never gave up. Never. If he was challenged to a race by a long-legged speedster, he’d accept and run as hard as his shorter legs could go. If he didn’t win, he’d insist on a rematch. I was impressed that he always thought he’d win through superior effort. No matter what, he knew he could overcome any challenge just by trying harder than the other guy. And his moving and inspiring story proves he was right. His high school teammate, Jack

  22. Robert”Barney”Hillman

    Ken it was a pleasure to work with you for the 45 years I spent with the Nassau County Police Department. You were always an inspiration to those around you. When we spoke about a case or just about things In general you had the unique ability to make not only me but those around you think of you as a man with abilities not disabilities

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