Disabled? Who? Me?

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People are always asking me silly questions. Well, they’re silly to me and I doubt the questions, or any answers I might give, have any real import to the inquisitor. Perhaps they are just trying to make idle conversation. I don’t know. I’ve never been good at that sort of thing.

I’m talking about questions like,

“What is your favorite song?”

“What’s your favorite fruit?”

“What single malt whisky do you like best.”

I answer questions like that by saying it is a matter of context. When selecting a whisky to sip during an evening of conversation with friends (defined as people who have never asked me anything like one of the questions above) I sometimes enjoy the peppery flavor of Talisker, but on a damp foggy night in late autumn when I am sitting in my chair reading and listening to the muffled sounds outside, the iodine-laced Laphroaig appeals to me. Or when looking for a light refreshment….

By this time I’m looking at a slack-jawed head nodding slowly up and down with “uh huh” emanating from it. You’d think that would slow me down, but I’m just getting going.

At some point I’ll really hit my stride and say something like, “you see, context determines everything, even what we call disabilities.”

A long time ago I was involved in the disability rights movement on Cape Cod. This was long before the American with Disabilities Act. I belonged to an organization whose main activities involved teaching what I then considered to be “normal” people (I know, but I was young and foolish and this story is about how I learned better) about disabilities. We’d set up obstacle courses at malls with steps, doors too narrow, with handles too high or opening the wrong way), and other situations people see every day. We would give people the chance to maneuver through these obstacles in a wheelchair, using crutches, or wearing a blindfold and using a cane. Then we’d give them our spiel about architectural barriers.

One evening following one of our mall appearances all of us went out for drinks. The group included a married couple who both used wheelchairs because of polio, a woman with muscular dystrophy who would go on to be named Miss Disabled America, and a young woman, named Brenda, who had a spastic form of cerebral palsy and who may be the funniest person I’ve known other than my wife.

It was summer and we were on a deck over Hyannis Harbor chatting about how people react to people who have visible disabilities. One person said that people would speak very loudly to him.

“I tell them my legs don’t work but my ears do.”

Then Brenda spoke.

“You know what I hate. I hate those well-meaning people who look at me and ask what happened to make me the way I am, like there’s something wrong with me.

“Well, I fixed a couple of them the other day. I was standing by myself in the mall waiting for my ride to the eye doctor. These two little blue-haired old biddies kept eying me. Finally they came up to me and said, ‘Oh, you poor dear. Are you all right? What happened to you?’

“I got really pissed off. I looked them in the eye (at this point we all start laughing because Brenda cannot hold her head still at all). Well, I looked them in the eye as best as I could, smiled sweetly and said,

‘Ladies, what you see here is the result of ten years of hard sex!’

“I thought they were going to faint.”

Later on that evening I asked Brenda what she meant when she said, “…like there’s something wrong with me.” The answer I got was one of those simple statements that change your life.

“What I am, HOW I am, is normal. It is normal to me. It’s the only frame of reference I have. I’m normal to me, it’s the world that’s different.”


6 Responses to Disabled? Who? Me?

  1. Ira Socol says:

    I’ve been struggling this weekend with a friend as we try to get a book chapter on what we call “faggots and retards and teacher identity” written and in the end, it is all about this. Who do I choose to play on this stage? I don’t like victim roles much, so I make other choices. Oddly, these days, most “able-bodied” white protestant straights have decided they love playing the victim. Oh well, to each his own.

    In a class last semester a young woman asked me, “If you could read normally, wouldn’t you want to?” “What would I have to give up to get that?” I asked her. She was baffled, so I added, “It all works together, if you change my brain to read the way you want me to, what do I lose?”

    • Michael J says:

      Kids and editors looking for copy are always prowling around for the top ten, top 100, top 1000. It’s very satisfying because it’s about “me” or “people like us.”

      It always feels good to be part of a tribe. As long as you don’t mix up “me” or “people like us’ with everyone else.

  2. Brenda is an inspiration for sure!

    • Deven Black says:

      The message I got from Brenda’s comment is that she does not see herself living her life any differently than how she sees me living my life. She cannot know what it is like to live my life any more than I can know what is like to live hers. She does not see her life as any more difficult than mine; It is just different. She assumes, correctly I think, that everyone’s life has pretty much the same mixture of joys, sorrows, difficulties and rewards as hers. She would object to seeing herself as an inspiration because while she acknowledges differences between anyone, including her, and anyone else, she does not see herself as any different from anyone else.

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