The Disadvantage of Disability

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader writes:

It’s interesting today that people who are not of color—if that is even a possible thing—seem to be the one group that can be openly stigmatized, stereotyped, ridiculed, and vilified as a group with impunity. Note the incident at Baker-Berry library on Dartmouth campus. It’s ironic that people who are “of color” are at the heart of the new movement to polarize society along racial lines, behind a national campaign to devalue people who are not of color with battle cries about white privilege and demands for banning of free speech and mandatory diversification training. Yes, interesting.

It’s ironic that people who say their complaints are grounded in the ignorance of other people, an ignorance of the human worth of people whose only crime is being of a different skin color, would demonize a whole group of people who are, themselves, individual humans of differing cultural backgrounds, religions, experiences.

I am 68 years old and a light skinned male. My mother was a lesbian at a time when it was not socially or morally acceptable to be gay. She did as most every gay person, male or female, did in those days: she married and had a family. The marriage—a union between a Protestant lesbian and an uneducated working-class Jew—didn’t last long.

In the late ‘50s, my two two younger sisters and I were placed in what was then called an orphanage, essentially institutionalized child warehouses.

In the orphanage, my building had three elderly women in charge of 50 young boys. That was just the first of five such places around the country where our mother would place us when she became involved in a new relationship. Inevitably, she would be found out, lose her job, and have to relocate. She would come get us before she moved, then give us up whenever she was settled in to a new location and found a new lover.

Those were the days before national databases and background checks. Every one of our “children’s homes” was rife with child abusers and sexual predators. They were candy stores for pedophiles and serial child torturers. The first orphanage we were in, the house parent in my building would come into the room of the oldest boy at least two or three times a week, early in the morning, and beat him mercilessly until he screamed loud enough for every boy in the building to hear him. The thought that the oldest could be made to suffer that much kept all the younger boys under control. It was an effective, though insane and ungodly, ritual.

Unfortunately, I was the oldest boy’s roommate because I was the next oldest. When that boy eventually left, I was the oldest boy for over a year before my mother came to claim us again.

During one of the short times when our mother had us, in my 11th year of high school, she had a severe stroke and became paralyzed. She appealed to a local church for help, and one day the elders came to me and offered me a chance to work with a member of the church—a real job and a real paycheck—but I would have to quit school to do it. I didn’t hesitate and worked for two years as the breadwinner of the family, until my sisters were old enough to fend for themselves. No longer the sole supporter of the family, and a high school drop out, I lost my draft deferment and entered the military during the Vietnam War.

It was in the service that I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, something that had hindered me since childhood—social awkwardness, not being able to make friends, shunning gatherings, unable to make eye contact, single-minded obsession with solving a problem. Even though not much was known about Aspergers at the time, it gave me a starting point to try and manage my situation.

In the years since my childhood and the end of my military service, I have been singled out many times because of my skin color, my gender, my accent (I was born and live in the South), my father being a Jew, me being a Vietnam Vet, because I have a limited education and because I am “peculiar” (Aspergers). It was almost always by people who don’t know me or know very little about me, only what they see.

I survived combat, but my back was broken and I was paralyzed from the waist down. I have had a fractured pelvis, torn both ACLs, and lost part of one foot. I’ve had surgery on my pelvis, my foot, a cadaver ACL transplant, and a titanium PLIF in my spine. I survived colon cancer in 2006 and it returned two months ago, stage three.

I write all this for one reason: to make the point that to look at me, or any other human, and judge us and our “privilege,” based on our skin color and/or gender, is a monstrous thing to do, in my opinion. It is supremely arrogant and dehumanizing. I have never done it to anyone—maybe because of what I have been through, but I prefer to think I would have refused it anyway, without the horrors in my life.

I also would like to say that there are groups of people that are so much more marginalized now than many whose sole complaints are that they have been insulted through cultural misappropriation or because of a racist remark. Does anyone know what it’s like to be disabled? I do. I am an advocate for the blind, the deaf, the mute, the physically and mentally disabled, people who live with permanent limitations that can’t be overcome by diversity training and cultural sensitivity. Lifelong disabilities. Forever disabilities. Disabilities that will never be “cool,” will never be in style. Physical and mental limitations that no one will ever want to experience.

I see people of all colors and races, people who can see, hear and speak, who are mobile without the aid of mechanical devices, who overlook the disabled in their groups, in their churches, in their societies, their schools, even in their own families. Of the 333 colleges tracked by FIRE, how many protests on those campuses have included the disabled in their demands for administrative consideration? So far, I see none.

For all those out there complaining about perceived racial slights and injustices, I dare you to wear blindfolds for one week. To wear ear plugs for one week. To strap a brace to your legs so you can’t bend your knees for one week, to have to speak with your hands only. To go through, for one week of your life, what we have to go through for an entire lifetime. Then take a good hard look at your list of demands. Think of what we, the disabled, would wish for.