this is not a review: ‘falling for myself’, by dorothy ellen palmer

 

A few years ago on this site I told the story of watching a short man emerge from a large truck and how my mother, seeing the same thing, saw a handicapped man and how I just did NOT see the handicap. On the contrary, I saw resourcefulness in a world that was not built for his height. (And that if it were built to his height, well then, we’d be the ‘handicapped’ ones.)

I remember also a time when my sister, who had ALS, was confined to a wheelchair and the looks of outright peeved annoyance as I rolled her about some store or other, taking up, I guess, more room in the aisles than ‘normal’ people. I was shocked by these looks and later wondered if the people giving them were possibly the same people who, in a different situation, one that wasn’t inconveniencing them, looked at my sister with pity and prided themselves on their ‘compassion’, which probably more often than not translated into gratefulness for not being her.

My sister was also asked to please not attend the wedding of a close family friend (formerly close) because her wheelchair and generally emaciated and twisted appearance and inability to talk in anything more than grunts and slurs, was not the vibe the general wedding decor/party/event was going for.

Judgement.

All this, and more, comes to mind after reading Falling for Myself, by Dorothy Ellen Palmer, a memoir that addresses ableism and judgement and what Stella Young termed Inspiration Porn, (a reference to the way the disabled are treated differently, referred to as ‘inspiring’, and used to make the so-called ‘normal’ people feel better about themselves for a) not being disabled, and b) being ‘kind’ to those who are.

“In inspiration porn, the disabled person is reduced to the object, the silent prop. The heroic captain of the football team leans down and asks ‘a wheelchair girl’ to prom. A brave tech entrepreneur takes the ‘risk’ to hire a disabled programmer. A mega-millionaire basketball star drops by with cameras and has lunch, once, for ten minutes, with a  bullied, autistic child. In inspiration porn, the abled person is the hero; the disabled person is the second banana, the sidekick.”

Inside the cover (cleverly designed as an accessibility sign) Palmer writes from the place of someone who was born with the challenge of walking and staying upright. Her feet, as an adult, are size one and half, and two and half. She has given each foot a name. She also names her walking tools, her crutches, etc. She has done/continues to do much in her life as a teacher, activist, union executive, writer, and member of the Accessibility Advisory Committe of the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). For starters. She is also a daughter and mother and citizen of a city and country that (like so many cities and countries) needs to take a look at how public spaces are built in order to accommodate both the disabled and able bodied equally.

Because the current tokenism that exists in the form of a designated parking space that is used by people who are not disabled and who justify that use since they’re only going to be a minute …. ditto that one wheelchair accessible stall in the loo… and a host of other issues knowable only to those who use chairs and walkers, who have impaired vision or hearing… isn’t going to cut it.

In a very conversational way, through frustration laced with humour, Palmer sheds light on an issue that shouldn’t exist but is, instead, sadly ubiquitous, and which stays hidden due to inspiration porn, ableism and much of the world patting itself on the back for NOT taking that parking spot.

Essentially, the book is about how she lives as a woman… also how she lives as a woman with a disability. The disability not being her body, she’s very content in her body… it’s the rest of the world that’s a bit of a challenge.

And if anyone reading this says well, heck, are we supposed to accommodate everybody??? The answer is a resounding YES. Because that would be the kind of progress that would actually benefit all of society, not just those who stand to make a profit from so-called ‘progress’.

“We all need to stop falling for the double lie that disabled people can be healed and should want to be healed.

Would love to see this as required reading in schools.

 

 

 

 

it’s not them, it’s us

Several years ago I was picking my mum up from the hairdresser and as I waited in the parking lot of a small plaza, a huge green pick-up truck pulled in beside me. The window was open and the guy driving was heavily bearded, ruddy-faced, plaid-shirted, the kind of guy you just know spends a lot of time outdoors; you could almost smell the pine boughs and bait—I guessed fisherman, hunter, lumberjack. Maybe all three. When he opened the door I expected a giant to emerge but what happened was he lowered a tiny step-stool attached to a rope, then turned and slid himself off the seat and onto the running board and, with a cane for balance, hopped down to the step stool and onto the pavement. Then he tossed the stool back into the truck, shut the door and made his way into the plaza.

He was maybe three feet something tall.

A few minutes later he was back, walking just ahead of my mum and her fresh perm. He reversed the stool routine and got into his truck as my mum sat down beside me.

Poor man, she said. It must be terrible to be handicapped.

Had I just glanced at him I might have agreed, but I’d had time to watch, time to think what it means to be handicapped, because this man certainly wasn’t. He was a short man functioning very well in a world designed for people who fall into certain categories, certain heights.

I wondered how well I’d do in a world designed for his height. A whole world where everything, everything, was way too low. My back aches just thinking of it.

The word handicapped just doesn’t seem right somehow, the way we use it, except to suggest that anyone could be handicapped in a situation not ideally suited; we, who thrive in this world, would be handicapped in a world not constructed for us—not by our limitations, but by the limitations imposed on us by awkward ‘constructions’.

It seems that in our narrow view of what’s ‘normal’ we’ve built a rather limited world, one for sighted, right-handed, hearing people of a certain size. I suppose it’s a ‘majority rules’ kind of thing, which really isn’t a good answer but if that’s the best we’ve got then you’d think at least we could get our perceptions straight and see things for what they are—that very normal people who happen to be blind or smaller than the ‘majority’ are seriously inconvenienced as a result of those ‘majority’ rules.

They are not handicapped.

If anything, our thinking is.

I’ve been meaning to write about this guy ever since I saw him. He came to mind again when, the other morning, I heard about Oscar Pistorius qualifying for the Summer Olympics.

“My disability is that I can’t use my legs. My handicap is your negative perception of that disability and thus of me.” – Rick Hansen, Man in Motion, 1987

perspective is the handicap

 

While waiting for my for my mum outside the hairdresser, one of those oversized pickup trucks pulls in beside me. The guy driving is bearded, tanned, leathery skin, the rugged outdoorsy type; six foot something probably, built like a brick shi—  Well, you get the idea.

When he opens the door he’s holding a block of wood on a string… I see hardware that converts the foot pedals to hand operated ones and I see that the man himself, while rugged indeed, is closer to three foot nothing. He lowers the wooden block to the pavement, slides down to the running board, onto the block, hops off, and places it back on the floor of the truck—all in one smooth movement.

Then he slams the door shut and makes his way toward the bank.

Ten or so minutes later he comes back out and at the same moment my mum emerges from the salon. The guy gets to his car first, opens his door, reverses the wooden block process, and drives away.

Meanwhile my mother is settling into the passenger seat beside me and says, “Did you see that poor handicapped man…?”

And I think:   no, I didn’t.  

The word handicapped just didn’t apply.

What I saw, I realize, was a short man making adjustments for himself in a world designed for five and six-footers. Anyone paying attention to his actions rather than his size, would see him as resourceful not handicapped.

It’s a matter of perspective.

Let’s say that every vehicle, house, appliance and shopping cart in the world is designed for people three feet tall. Newspapers and labels on food are printed only in Braille. Lectures and plays are conducted only in sign language. If that were the case it would be us—the so-called able-bodied—that would be unable to function. We would be handicapped by a mere change in the design of things around us.

It seems we’ve merrily built a world suited only to one type of person, to one idea of normal—then allowed ourselves to judge those who can’t easily function in it as abnormal. It’s like greasing the dance floor and standing aside, clucking our sympathy for those who fall.

I think about all this during the meagre coverage of the recent Paralympics—and how those events are seen as secondary to the ‘other’ Olympics—how the athletes are referred to as dis-abled. And why that is.

Perspective.

Because the guy in the truck wasn’t dis-abled.

And the athletes in the Paralympics certainly aren’t.

There are, of course, the truly dis-abled, those who can’t function due to physical or other limitations—

—and then there’s those of disabled through ignorance, who define ‘normal’ in relative terms…perpetuating the views of a society whose perverse logic once deemed the left-handed next to useless.