This Is Not About Knitting
May 1, 2007
Thanks to our excellent pal, Emma, I know that today is Blogging Against Disabilism Day. I’m not sure I have anything useful to say on this topic, but it’s one that’s near to my heart, so here goes.
Although I do not have personal experience of a physical disability, I have a nugget of special, certain knowledge about people who do. It is this: they are dealing with their physical problems pretty well. They are so knowledgeable about and accustomed to the work-arounds and strategies that get them over obstacles, that they do not think about it that much. What they have no control over is the attitudes of other people. There are the people who infantilize and patronize, the people who think they are ignoring the disability when in fact they are ignoring the person, the people who can’t control their facial expressions, and the people who ask intrusive questions, to name a few. The ignorance or disregard of other people can make life hard, harder than it already is or needs to be.
I know this because two people with severe physical difficulties were among the most influential companions of my childhood and youth. Both were athletic and intense young men. One, my mother’s younger brother John, only 16 years older than me, was in a car accident at age 20 that paralyzed him below the waist. He was in the Marines at the time. The other was my teacher Mr. Sanderhoff, who had had polio as a child. He, too, had no use of his legs, but like Uncle John, was physically strong enough to do almost anything.
Apart from their similar-in-effect physical problems and the fact that I was crazy about them, there could not be two more different men. Uncle John was an accident-prone hellcat. More fun than anything. He spent most of his waking hours smoking Kools and driving around in the souped-up, hand-controlled UncleJohnmobile du jour, which was always the then-state of the art, be it the V8s of the 60s or the custom Chevy vans of the 70s and beyond. He was strong enough to throw himself out of his wheelchair into the driver’s seat of his Thunderbird, reach out and grab his chair, fold it up and sling it in the back seat, and wrest it out again when he reached his destination. He hated being helped, so he structured his life so that he never went anywhere with stairs (this was the days before Universal Access was even a goal) or travelled by air, he hosted all large family gatherings at his own decidedly bacheloresque abode, and he dropped by to chat by pulling into the driveway and blasting his horn so that Mom could run down with 2 Pepsis and gossip through the window. He did everything, including getting in trouble, accidents, and fights, being Den Dad to my brother’s Cub Scout troop, and hauling me and my girlfriends to North High football games every Friday night (the last endeavor requiring a stoicism that has not been seen since ancient times).
I wish my pictures of him were not packed up right now (siblings: feel free to email me a picture from your own Uncle John shrines). When he knew you were taking his picture, he made a face or did something stupid. When he didn’t know, as when holding a baby or dog, he looked like Saint John of East Omaha, in a white t-shirt and straw cowboy hat. He disdained electric wheelchairs, which were not then what they are today. Wheeling under his own power (and being an ex-Marine) gave him arms like saplings. He was a great dancer when drunk, although on occasion he misjudged a wheelie and fell over backwards; this taught him to tuck in his head. He’s been gone for more than 10 years now. (An accident. Of course an accident.)
Mr. Sanderhoff, roughly the same age, was a very different man. A dreamy school teacher. (Swoonworthy, if you like the bookish type with floppy blond bangs, and I know you do.) His student-teaching stint was the second half of my fourth grade year. Before he started, Mrs. Tyler solemnly told us that this man (eek! man teacher!) had been told that he probably could or should not be a classroom teacher because of his handicap. She asked whether we thought we could be understanding of a teacher who used crutches, whether we could be considerate and kind and not ask embarrassing questions. We nodded, in awe of our brave selves. (I’m sure that being me, I piped up with something braggy about Uncle John.) Oh yes, we could. We would pay it no mind whatsoever. Not. A. Problem.
As great as Mrs. Tyler was, it must be said that she was an aged lady (in her 40s I’m sure–as old as THAT). Mr Sanderhoff was much livelier. He travelled faster over the gravel of the playground, with crutches, than a pack of 4th graders. He flung his legs, heavy with clicking braces, around like so much luggage. When he was in charge, our treat was not extra reading out loud, but extra baseball. He seemed to think that if he kept me slouching out in right field for long enough, I would catch something. (He was wrong.) He was interested in poetry, the New Math, the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the Cold War (he told us that if the Soviets attacked, we needn’t worry about it, because Omaha would disappear in the first moments of a nuclear confrontation).
Mr. Sanderhoff spoke of these things less when we were 4th graders than when he returned to our school 2 years later as a full-fledged 6th grade teacher (yes, I got him). He seemed to want to shock us a little, or get us used to his disability. To lecture, he’d crutch over to his desk, prop his arms and hitch himself up onto the desk, and throw his crutches aside with a clatter. If they fell over, he didn’t stop talking or even look at them; he just picked them up, any way he could and not seeming to care if it was clumsy. We did get used to it, almost immediately, in fact. A child’s curiosity, once satisfied, moves on to the next mystery. Children have a lot to contend with, so why shouldn’t adults? Mr. Sanderhoff’s message seemed to be that the enterprise of life is full of difficulties, which should not deter one from important things like scaring children half to death about nuclear war and getting them to question their parents’ views of Richard Nixon.
At the time I made no connection between these two daily presences in my life, and certainly did not consider them heroic. They were who they were. What they had in common, I think, was anger and disgust with others’ pity or low expectations. A distinct chip on the shoulder, which was often overcome by joie de vivre.
Today I sometimes find myself in the position of wishing I could ‘present my credentials’ to the people with disabilities that I encounter in my life. To say, hey, I’m one of the people who sort of gets it– we can have a normal conversation. I won’t annoy you by being weird, because I’ve had these experiences, at an early enough age to form my thinking.
I am trying to give my own kids these kinds of experiences. The opportunities for learning and understanding are plentiful. But it would be easier if Uncle John and Mr. Sanderhoff were around, flinging equipment.
Go read some of the stuff here.
Tomorrow I have a backlog of repetitive stress-related knitting to clear out.