I was planning on writing about Maggie Full of Grace and her life after polio in this post but have been characteristically sidetracked. (It’s not hard to do.) You see, I can never think of Maggie without thinking about her disability, and disability as a whole has blossomed into a topic that’s curious to me.
Probably because I was so oblivious to it in my youth. I had little exposure to the disabled kids back then because long, long ago and far, far away, “special needs” kids rode on “special” buses to “special” schools and were referred to, in the brainless vernacular widely employed in those days, as retards and cripples.
(Anyone who thinks the good old days were the Golden Age and that the world is now morally deteriorating should cast their mind back to some of the common cruelties of yesteryear. Trust me. We weren’t nearly as golden as we like to remember.)
I was in my forties and working with hospice before I finally had my first, up close, and sustained interaction with a person of disability. By then I had dutifully learned a newer, kinder vernacular based on an upwardly evolving world view. I’d cleaned up the ugly, childhood slang, learned to speak respectfully about the disabled, and sincerely believed I was now wise, open minded, and prejudice-free.
Aaaah…but those worms within.
I soon discovered that, while my surface language had improved, it was just camouflage. The old, subconscious memes of childhood were still very much alive and skulking around in face paint, just underneath. Has anyone else ever experienced this? Discovered that what you want to believe and what you were once conditioned to believe just don’t synch? It’s kind of weird how old biases can continue to operate without our even knowing it.
I found that a lot of what came out of my mouth was condescending. Patronizing. Even when I tried not to I’d sometimes fall back into talking to people as if they were stupid, childish, or deaf. It was horrifying. At times I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. I wanted to clap my hands over my mouth, drag me outside, and beat me. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I stop? Was I really, in spite of all my best efforts and a deep and genuine desire not to be one, a bigot?
It turns out, no. (Thank god.) I was unfamiliar, inexperienced, and badly educated, yes, but fortunately these are all things that can be rectified. The people I worked with were surprisingly generous with me, seeing through my awkwardness to the sincerity that lay just underneath, and given enough time I finally discovered that they weren’t even disabled people at all. They were people. Sans label. Go figure.
If you get a chance check these out. This a YouTube video of Aaron Fotheringham cruising around in a skateboard park in his wheelchair. And this one is a video of The China Disabled People’s Performing Art Troupe dancing the Thousand Hand Guanyin. (All the dancers are deaf.) Besides being outrageously entertaining I’ve found that both these videos are helpful for blowing the creepy, old world view about disabilities right out of the water.
I look at my kids and their friends and it’s obvious they won’t have to struggle with a lot of the stereotypes that saturated me earlier on. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for that. I know that doesn’t mean the Great Work is finished by any means. No sirree bob. There’s still a lot of work to do before we’re all seeing and accepting one another for who we really are. But still, at least some of the worms are dying and I think it’s safe to celebrate the small wins.
copyright 2010 Dia Osborn