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Writing This Ability: Parables and True Stories


I first began to think about disability and how it is described and then follows a person when my friends had premature twins. The different skills of the brothers, coupled with issues that made their care a challenge gave me my first entrance into the disability community. I then returned to reflect on the children who'd been excised from the classroom in junior high and made to sit in a room at the end of the hall where to all accounts they had no demands placed upon them.

As my friends' boys grew older and their needs became diverse, I was introduced to speech therapists and educational plans and slowly recognized there were a largely unsung army of workers and parents labouring in the background of every child who has assistance and that they are at least partially responsible for ensuring the child's success.

Later, teaching at a mid-size university I dealt with students with a wide range of needs. The first student who was registered with the Disability Resource Centre (DRC)-they later changed their name to Accessibility Resource Centre (ARC) and then trimmed that Accessibility Services-approached me with a letter which outlined some accommodations. I'd not been told anything about how I was to approach that eventuality, so I went to the Centre and asked about my responsibilities and what the Centre did for my student. They outlined the use of scribes for exams and separate rooms and extra exam time for any student whose assessment showed a need. They were focused on appropriate accommodation in order for the student to succeed.

Once I was aware of my responsibilities, and in subsequent years they shifted with each student who approached me, I informed myself more and more about my students' needs. My friends with twins worked in the disability community and likely we talked about need and accommodation more than most. With this sensibility, I began to think of the abilities that I had observed not only in my friend's children, but also in the students I had taught. People with difficulty concentrating wrote A papers and students with dyslexia received equal grades although their editing would sometimes miss a fell where they meant a fall and a were when they were aiming for a where.

They could, it seemed to me, with their native intelligence and sheer determination and perhaps also as a result of their disability, outperform many around them. I typically read very quickly, but once, when an image was flashed on the screen in which the letters were separated by too much detail, what we might call noise, the dyslexic person beside me read it much more quickly. Their reading speed was typically much slower than mine, but they were able to cope with the noise in a way that I couldn't in my attempt to see the whole phrases. Likewise, the clever mistakes of my friend's child were delightfully intuitive and creative, and his brother's memory is phenomenal.

We use the expression scattered skills a lot of the time when talking about disability, and I have come to embrace that idea. Some people are good at math. I am not. I have a good spatial sense. Others do not. I have begun to think about this spectrum of human skills, all the way from Kim Peek to the dullness we call normality as the true range of human ability. In our technological future we will perhaps ameliorate this somewhat with electronic fixes, but in the meantime we are left with the delightful variation that is humanity, the confines of our biology and the cultural attempts to constrain our minds.

The stories in this collection represent more than just tear-jerking accounts of overcoming adversity, although I've told a few of those too. I'm more interested in exploring the potential of what we consider to be dis and ability through characters who are constrained by circumstance and societal expectation even as they fight against those limits.

I constantly come back to a scene from Ricky Gervais' controversial show Derek when thinking about labeling. In the show, a government authority wanting to make some cuts to staff considers if he can come up with a reason to fire Derek who works in an home for the aged.

"Is he ah . . . is he handicapped?" the government flunky asks.

"Yeah. He's too nice for his own good." Deliberately refuting the validity of the question, Hannah, another staff person in the home and a Derek supporter answers.

"I meant, could he be autistic?" the flunky persists. When Derek enters the room, he asks him directly. "Have you ever been tested for autism?"

"I'm no good at tests," Derek quips.

"Would you mind seeing someone?"


"Well an expert, a doctor," his true intentions at war with his dialogue, the flunky answers.

"You don't have to," Hannah breaks in.

Derek asks the pertinent question. "If I am 'tistic, will I die?"

"No. But at least we'd know," the flunky says in an aside to Hannah.

"Will I have to go into hospital and they do experiments on me?"


"So will it change me in any way? Will I be the same person?" Derek asks more pertinent questions.


"Don't worry about it then."

In this witty reply the singular question about labeling comes to the fore. If it is not to assist the person labeled, then what use is it to them?

Rather than use this description to label these characters further, I would say instead that the reach of the human intellect, the intransigence of human dignity, the rough multiplicity of circumstances with which we are confronted, are no match for the fortitude and insight of the one who wants to escape.

No hardened criminal fought harder to carve a prison wall than someone trapped by a story about their abilities and no escapee on a welcoming shore felt more a sense of achievement than one whose diagnosis was stretched and then broken.

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