Understanding Disability

A reader takes me to task:

I am writing in response to the powerful irony of the tag line that runs across the top of your site and your recent postings of unthinking, dehumanizing, brief and lyrical references to disability.

I am a 30 year-old woman born with what is commonly recognized as limited mobility. Even this phrase is irksome because I have yet to meet the individual who could flap his arms and fly. I like it better because disability can mean so many things and it lacks descriptive power. This is a lesson you no doubt learned when you started getting all those questions.

More than anything else, I think, literary imagination forms public perception of the disabled. According to popular language we lead lives that are alternatively manipulative, wretched or inspirational. Everything we say or do is a function of our physical difference from the norm. The language you posted reinforces and recreates this fiction.

First off, you wrote that the disabled person was behaving as though the disability were not there. Though you have never discussed the disability, you presume to know just exactly how that physical reality impacts behavior. What this statement reveals is that you have particular expectations for disabled humans. As soon as your expectations are proved wrong, you speak of remarkable-ness and inspiration. God, the man wrote a whole article without mentioning that he is disabled, he is a saint!!!

Is everything you write a function of being gay?

The emailer who wrote of "blissful ignorance" reminds me of all the people who approach me on the street to ask if I want help, approach me on a staircase and urgently offer to escort me to the elevator, or to offer me The Lord's Blessing for having the courage to carry on. Clearly, the sight of a person moving slowly and not in the usual way disturbs the bliss of many.

Depictions in the media typically use disabilty as a device, and in so doing, dehumanize. Forrest Gump is on TV tonight. In it you will see a scene where a young person with leg braces tries to run from a gang of boys who through rocks at him. They mean him harm. But the braces magically shatter, and low and behold he can run faster than anyone! You see, he just wasn't trying hard enough.

A few nights ago, there was an episode of Law and Order CSI where the murderer was in a wheelchair, but he wasn't really wheelchair-bound, he was just using that to get pity. Remember Seinfeld? George gave all his officemates the opportunity to show off their excellent manners by pretending to require use of a scooter.

In closing I will leave you with this thought. In my own house with no company, my disability is a non-issue. It is beyond my imagination to think that my life would be so very much better were I able to move differently. It is only when the outside world starts demanding that each and every task must be completed in only one way that a different physical experience of the world becomes a disability, becomes a true limitation.

Since it will no doubt be on your mind, if you have ever seen E.R., I use a cane just like the one Carrie Weaver uses. And just in passing, that no one ever leaps in front of her to open a door before she can get to it is a fiction, too."

I'm grateful for the email.