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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
could he be autistic?" the flunky persists. When Derek enters
the room, he asks him directly. "Have you ever been tested for
"I'm no good
at tests," Derek quips.
mind seeing someone?"
"Well an expert,
a doctor," his true intentions at war with his dialogue, the flunky
have to," Hannah breaks in.
the pertinent question. "If I am 'tistic, will I die?"
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
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
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.
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.