Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Thinking Disability

I recently reread Nancy Mairs' essay, "On Being A Cripple." Mairs writes quite extensively about MS. She also writes about many, many other things - being the foster parent of a teenage boy; extramarital affairs; depression and suicide attempts; being the mother of a daughter; writing itself. I find her fresh and insightful, and she writes with a critical wit and unflinching honesty that I hope to achieve in my own writing. And I never fail to identify with her. No matter what she is writing about - a suicide attempt, for instance, or life with MS - I can empathize with her, even though I have not had those same experiences. She writes like a friend, and I respond to her that way.

I'm always surprised at the resentment some people feel toward those with disabilities. I remember one discussion I had several years ago in Barnes and Noble with a surgeon who was incensed at the idea that people with disabilities should merit a special parking space (he called this a "special right"). I pointed out that some people are in constant, debilitating pain, and many deal with persistent exhaustion. The 30-100 feet they are spared from travelling by having a parking space near a store entrance may not seem like much to a person who is not exhausted and not in pain, but it may mean the difference between whether or not a person who is can shop for his or her own groceries. The surgeon replied that anyone in that much pain wouldn't be helped by being closer to the entrance.

I hope you don't think less of me for this, but when I learned several months after this conversation that he had broken his back and was going through a long and painful recovery - and that it was unclear whether or not he'd fully recover - I could not help but remember this conversation and hope that he was learning something about why people with disabilities might need those "special rights" he had so scornfully dismissed months earlier.

The reality is, as Mairs states in another piece, that society is not constructed as if it desires people with disabilities to be a part of it. The only places I routinely see Braille, for instance, are on elevator and ATM panels. Lots of people never bother to shovel their walks in the winter, effectively confining people who use wheelchairs to their homes or at least making them dependent on other modes of tranportation. We don't learn American Sign Language as a matter of course (half the time, we don't even consider it a language!). (Disclaimer: Yes, I am aware that many people in the Deaf community don't consider being Deaf to be a disability. But even so, I think the ASL example reflects the fact that the hearing community doesn't consider the Deaf community to be an integral part of society, which is also the way mainstream society treats people with disabilities.)

Mairs points out that all of us, if we live long enough, will experience some form of disability as a result of accident, illness, or age. And she suggests that we start thinking of this as an inevitablility - and thinking of ourselves as temporarily abled - rather than pretending that it won't happen, rather than thinking of those with disabilities as "other people." The result, she argues, will be a world that embraces people with disabilities - a world of accessible entrances and bathrooms, a world in which people learn ASL in school as regularly as they learn French or Spanish, a world in which no one is petty enough to complain that someone else is getting the best parking spaces.

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