The new year is always a time of reflection to me. I’m not into resolutions, having broken too many of them. Nonetheless, it does feel like a time of new beginnings, and a time to question old assumptions and beliefs; to clear the mental closet, as it were.
A few days ago, I came across an article on disability in the New York Times. Having recently become mildly (you’ll notice I made a point of using “mildly”) impaired myself, due to a botched back surgery, I began to look at the words used to describe impairment. I couldn’t help but note that “disability” breaks down into “dis” and “ability”, i.e. non-abled, and that “invalid” becomes “in-valid”, or lacking in validity. I looked up the word “ableism” in several current usage dictionaries, and there it was; discrimination against persons with impairments, physical or mental. Now, granted, handicapped sidewalk ramps, stairway ramps, parking stickers etc. have become much more common than they were a decade ago, but ableism became a part of my life in ways that I never expected.
After my surgery, I was assured that I would, with time, be able to walk without the assistance of a cane or walking stick, and I do so at home, but I soon realized that my lack of balance due to the spinal surgery, was treacherous outdoors. I was suffused with a sense of shame, and felt 1000 years old (at least there is name for ageism!). I bought a folding cane, that I could use outdoors, and fold into my knapsack when I arrived at my destination.
I am an actor/singer, so my destination was often an audition, or a performance. I worked out ways of maintaining my balance for a short audition or go-see, but was so focused on not falling that my performance often suffered. In the cabarets where I sing, I’ve worked out ways of coming onstage, and blocking my songs so that I did not have to bring my cane onstage. Years passed in this way. It became apparent that I was always going to need the cane, or something to lean up against.
I got cast in roles that required me to be handicapped, but nobody thinks of Lady Macbeth with a cane, or Juliet for that matter (not that I’d be cast as Juliet even without a cane, but someone could be!) That is what ableism is…not being able to envision a person with an impairment in a role usually played by an able person.
When Ado Annie was played by a marvelous actor/singer in a wheelchair in the recent Broadway revival of Oklahoma, I rejoiced. She was portrayed as attractive, sexual ,and no explanation or apology was given for her wheelchair. She was just a person. My sense of shame at being imperfect abated just a little.
I did a monologue onstage, and used my cane as a prop. I came out on a stage to sing, using the cane to get on stage, and then placing it on the piano. No one seemed to turn a hair! I went for broke, and bought a non-folding cane with a silver snake as a head. I named her Medusa. She’s sturdy, and balance is better. The sense of shame is still there, though, especially meeting someone for the first time.
Though never an athlete, I’ve been a walker, a person who did Pilates and yoga, as well as, at one time, a runner. Physical competence is something I simply took for granted. I’ve been impatient when people in wheelchairs are helped onto busses, and when I’m walking behind someone with a cane. Now, I’m that person, and it’s going to take much more getting used to. I hate to be called “challenged” because it implies that I can win the physical challenge. I can’t. But, I can win the challenge over shame when someone asks if they can help me up some stairs, or to hail a taxi, and I can continue to try to make my peace with not being “able”. And, I can do what I’ve done with any “ism” that I’ve ever encountered, for myself or anyone else. I can protest it.
Happy New Year!