Like many, I struggle during the holiday season with depression. For weeks I have been quietly unhappy. I have no reason to be unhappy. I have a lovely little place to live. My neighbors are friendly and kind. I know most of the neighborhood dogs. There is a chocolate lab named Laker that reminds me of my old yellow lab Burt. Laker is dumb as a post just like Burt. Laker is also loyal in the extreme. I love my job. I have outstanding under graduate students and fascinating graduate students. I have the support of my peers at work. The university where I work is an outstanding university. I have a small but tight knit number of friends who live nearby. I go out on a regular basis and have shared many fine meals with friends. I have thought provoking discussions with my colleagues and students. And yet I am miserable. I chalk this up to the season of cheer. I work hard at convincing myself I should be cheery. This effort rarely works. I bury myself in work and books and ethical conundrums with no solutions. I have cleaned my house today to a high shine. I vacuum daily and polished my kitchen floor before sunrise. All this provides relief but not a cure to the misery in my soul.
I was awake most of the night lost in thought. My brain would not turn off. What is wrong with me? Why can't I be happy like everyone else? Why can't I be content? I gave up the pretense of sleep at 4AM. A gorgeous sunrise lifted my spirits a little.
Along with this lift in mood I made connection via a book I recently read, two short essays, and of all places a long thread on Facebook. Essentially the proverbial light bulb went off in my mind. I realized I have no home. I had a loving home as a child. I was blessed with ideal parents. The home I grew up in felt real. In fact I still have a deep connection to the house on Rich Bell Close. Yet the notion of home has slipped away from me as my body became increasingly dysfunctional. Another variable is that I never expected to live an adult life hence I did not think about the concept of home very much. Fast forward a few decades and here I sit a middle aged man and come to the harsh realization I have no place to go that makes me feel good. There is not at this time a physical or social environment that makes me relax and feel at ease. I have no sense of home. I do not care about the house where I raised my son. I do not care about the place I reside. I do not care about Hofstra or Columbia University where I spent my youth and early adult life. Worse, I have almost no connection with others. By connection I mean a deep bond that defies logic and enables one to share deep inner thoughts. What is wrong with me? Where have I failed? Why am I alone? Surely the fault lies within me. Maybe not. I made a connection that I think enlightens me and I suspect many others with an atypical body.
The connections I have made are as follows:
First I read Lenny Davis book The End of Normal in which he discusses biopolitics or biocultures defined as "the study of the scientificized and medicalized body in history, culture and politics". This resonated with me in that it sought to undermine something I know all too well--disability is socially constructed and as Robert Murphy liked to joke disability is a social disease. Second, I read a post at Musings of An Angry Womyn entitled "I have No Refuge". Link: http://www.angryblackwomyn.com/blog/i-have-no-refuge This short essay really struck a cord with me. Third, I read a post by Stephen Kuusisto at his consistently thought provoking blog Planet of the Blind entitled "Normal". Kuusisto referenced Davis book and railed against "the tyranny of industrial normal" and speculated we must insist on ending this pejorative construction. Link: http://www.stephenkuusisto.com/disability-news/normal-2 Fourth, my experience at the Christmas tree light ceremony in my small town in Central New York.
In reaction to Davis' book Kuusisto wrote:
I’ve been trying unsuccessfully for years to imagine the kind of society that cultural theorist Lennard J. Davis envisions in his book . Briefly: we know race, gender, and disability are social constructions—which means in the widest sense “normality” might be, conceivably, on the ropes. A boxing analogy is appropriate. We’ve been punching Old Normal for a long time. The maddening thing is how “Normal” keeps smiling, taunting us, snarling through his tombstone perfect American teeth. And if you think his teeth are infuriating, well, his odor is worse. He smells like “Brut” and bacon.
There is no hiding for me. I see, eat, hear, taste, smell injustice every waking minute. I live the struggle to keep people with disabilities from unnecessary institutionalization, to keep us from being killed, either by neglect or legislation, to ensure that we are thought of in the building of public spaces, in the Governor's budget, or in time of disaster.
I have no refuge from fear, exclusion, discrimination, bothering. I cannot shut down. I cannot get away. I'm forever open to it.
Forever. Think about that word. I often think about forever. Nothing is forever--a very old and trite line. Well for me social injustice is worse not better. Social injustice might not last an eternity, forever, but ableism will not be eradicated in my lifetime. This is where I depart from Davis. He is a first rate theoretician and The End of Normal resonated in my mind. Great book but so what. It did not help me one iota. What is the good of theory if a norm free society does not exist. Reading Davis I was reminded of Thorsten Veblen, an economist by trade and sociologist at heart. I read his 1899 text Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen was a harsh and humorous critic of capitalism yet never was active in labor politics or social movements. Veblen thought he was merely an observer above the fray. Disability studies scholars such as Davis and other key figures in the field also work as observers above the fray. This is not a critique. We need theory. We need disability studies to be a vigorous field of academic inquiry. We need Davis and other theoreticians. I would suggest we need a lot more than theory. We need to be engaged. We people who work in what is called disability studies need to be socially and personally invested in creating social change. We in short should be leaders of a social and economic revolution. Lives are stake. If we do not become far more active in a boots on the ground style I fear we will all end up like Veblen. He died alone and impoverished in California. No human life should end that way.
I have no idea how to jump start a revolution. Disability is perpetually thought of as a medical problem. The social model of disability is virtually unknown in popular culture. Disability is rarely if ever framed as a civil rights issue. When I try to explain this to others they often reject it out right. Some even laugh at me. The ADA is an unfunded mandate. Disability rights is political correctness run amuck! No one burned a cross on your lawn! No disabled people have been lynched! This is correct. Instead we place people with a disability in institutions and their existence is quickly forgotten. Supposed kindness and care are killers. We continue to design buildings that are grossly inaccessible. Physicians refuse to treat people with a disability. People with a disability often die of physical and social neglect. Schools rely on resource rooms and segregated short buses. Airlines routinely discriminate against passengers with a disability. Wheelchairs are often broken by airlines and disrupt lives for months. Mass transportation remains a challenge to access.
People tell me I am too serious. I need to lighten up and get away and relax. Do something fun I am told. This is sound advice I have heard often. It is not easy to put into action and highlights the cultural divide between those with and those without a disability. When one has a disability throw normal out the window. Want to go out to dinner? Forget Friday and Saturday nights. Good luck dealing with other dinners, narrow aisles that cannot be navigated, and obviously annoyed staff who think you are taking up too much space. Need a bathroom? Dream on. What about going to a concert or sporting event? You must buy tickets through the box office. You leave messages and no one returns your call. At the Christmas tree lighting ceremony all the bipedal people that surrounded me appeared full of good cheer. I was across the street with my friends. I had no desire to be run into or have my view reduced to the backs of people. I also had no desire to be bumped, prodded, blessed or cursed by heavy duty Christians that abounded. Trying to depart was far from easy. People are in their own social vacuum and appear to think it is my job to laterally move around them. Wheelchairs do not move laterally. I get to the curb cut and no one moves. I am not invisible. How I wonder do people think I am going to get by. Excuse me rarely works. People are stunned I can speak. Most ignore my existence.
Go have fun. Sure, have fun in world not designed to be inclusive. Yes, lets try to eradicate the idea of normal. Good luck with that. Normal as Kuusisto noted is taunting us. I am well aware my existence is not valued. This message is far from subtle. On Facebook I described the Christmas tree ceremony and a fellow cripple who I respect suggested I should "be the change you want to see this world" and that I should "honor yourself" and to "be worthy of appreciation from others". These are nice sentiments devoid of reality. I value my existence. I like my body. I assert my civil rights. I teach. Since the day I was paralyzed I have tried to educate others. I advocate for myself and all those disenfranchised. Like other people with a disability I am the real and symbolic form of resistance. I am the blue wheelchair logo sign. But those blue logos lead to nowhere-- an observation my son made many times as a child. People do not want to know about injustice. People do not want to think about inconvenient truths that cloud American myths we hold near and dear. Being depressed seems like a logical response to a world that is hostile to the presence of the atypical body. It is not just me. Try being black. Try being an obese person. Try being deaf. Try being blind. Try being paralyzed. Try being a conjoined twin. Try being gay, transgender, lesbian or bi. Try being different from the norm. Try this and you will realize the end of normal is a pipe dream.