by Cheryl Wade
From the Editor: Cheryl Wade is a writer and a certified rehabilitation counselor. She lives in Midland, Michigan, with her guide dog Selene and her tabby cat Sam-Sam.
As people with disabilities, many of us grew up listening to friends and family members marveling at us: we went to school, we actually worked, we had computers. Some of us might have come away with the feeling that we were pretty special. After all, we have led busy lives from wheelchairs, with hearing aids or—in my case—without any vision. We dated, married, earned degrees, perhaps had children and bought homes. How did we do that, for crying out loud!
People asked me how I cooked meatloaf or stir-fry when I couldn’t see what I was doing. The idea of having to see what I was doing seemed preposterous to me. Seeing what I am doing is not a requisite for doing, or being, or creating. It seemed an insult to have people tell me that, because I could not see, I could not do.
My personal specialness has dogged me for much of my life. I believe that, growing up as a “blind kid,” I was inculcated with my own sense of it. Someone told my mother I had a “photographic memory,” that I could remember anything people said to me. I could sing on key, was learning tap dance in school, and could write my childish opinion on anything that suited my fancy. I must be a prodigy—maybe even a genius! My maternal grandma often reminded me how blessed I was because I couldn’t see all the bad things in the world. (Funny; I still knew all about them and was enthralled with them.)
This produced some behaviors that truly were in tension with each other. I would sing and dance and spell my head off to receive a little gift from my grandma. I wondered why I didn’t have the energy or organizational skills to write a sonata or a poetic legend—after all, I might be a genius! When I visited my parents’ friends, I developed an uncanny ability to ask if I could have things the people allowed me to play with—usually dolls—and I often ended up taking them home. My parents would scold me for this behavior, but it still was fun, and I knew I was so cute!
I was in special education because I needed to learn Braille and typing. I had occupational therapy—which students in regular education didn’t have—presumably to teach me how to use my sense of touch to make simple crafts and sign my name. I disliked OT because it was not “normal,” and the only other kids who were given OT were the “crippled kids” in my school special-education department. Crippled kids also were not quite “normal” because they, too, were in special education. I wondered why: they didn’t need to learn Braille, and presumably they could do the same work any neighborhood kid in the regular classroom could.
Another situation at school fueled my specialness. The “room for the blind” included children with all degrees of cognition, intelligence, and ability. One of my classmates was a boy who was a year younger than I but beat me in math every time. Another child expressed no verbal communication in class, screamed, spat out her food in the cafeteria, and once laid on the floor in the hall. I tripped over her. Another child spent a good deal of his time echoing things the other students said and imitating commercials he’d heard on television. How could I be in school with these kids? I hoped no one would consider me like them!
These experiences in school made me desperate to be “special” in a “good” way, especially after a neighborhood kid asked my friend if I was “retarded.” I must, I somehow must, prove that I was not retarded! I had to distinguish myself from some of these classmates, and I constantly (theoretically) looked over my shoulder to make sure, double sure, I was “normal.” I had lousy cane skills; did that mean I might be retarded? No, probably not. After all, I could read Braille and use a keyboard like a whiz.
All this need to prove my OK-ness caused me to worry constantly about my clothes, my jewelry, even the perfume I wore. I wanted a really short miniskirt, feeling it might make me popular. But in the end I ditched the thing because I felt so uncomfortable showing half my thigh. My neighbor had three daughters, and my mom altered all the clothes those girls gave me. I had a seemingly endless wardrobe. Maybe my classmates would think I had money!
I discovered that trying to be cool didn’t make me cool or uncool. I had several good friends, and we liked each other and had fun together in junior high. But once again, while in high school I struggled to feel equal despite being unable to drive and living outside my local school district. (My district paid a larger district to admit me so that I could learn Braille and have a teacher-consultant.) I cried on Saturday afternoons if I weren’t shopping at the mall, ice skating, or watching a movie with someone.
The issue came up yet again when, in my fifties, I lurked around blindness-related websites to get an idea of whether to leave my newspaper job and earn a master’s degree in disability studies. One blind man, a longtime advocate for blind people in Michigan, opined about the need for more available services in areas such as employment.
“Our people have a lot of baggage,” he told me.
I agreed that we needed to have people see our employability. But the free-market side of me winced. So, people who are having some kind of hard time in the world should have more access to costly yet free specialized services because of what they’ve been through? I wasn’t sure about all that! When are these services helpful; when are they just more and more support that we might well provide for ourselves instead? And how, statistically, might we prove that we have “a lot of baggage,” as compared to others who have, maybe, only “some baggage?” Why was the baggage of my blindness worse than that of my friend, who was a single dad with two jobs and four kids and who lived fifteen miles outside town?
Now that I’m in my sixties and retooling myself as some sort of an “older worker,” I get stuck in pity parties. Why aren’t there lots of people, here in my adopted hometown, reading my LinkedIn page and hiring me? I should get way more respect! I’m—uh oh, there’s that word—special! I have two degrees, am a writer, and know a lot of cool stuff. What’s a girl to do?
In a way, this discussion is a bunch of navel gazing. We either are “good” special—we can sing and dance and play the harmonica—or we are bad special: odd and burdened and somehow to be pitied.
My Christian faith helped me put these thoughts into perspective. There really was a God who loved me, who made me “special,” not because I could or could not see, but because I was a unique person with unique gifts. I could trust God to help me live day by day, dealing with one joy or crisis or piece of silliness after the other. I can trust other people to walk through their unique lives and interact, perhaps with me.
But going back to the temporal, I believe it’s a good idea for parents to keep their disabled children from being unnecessarily doted on or catered to. It’s important that, if their blind son gets presents and privilege from Auntie or Grandpa, the daughter without a disability should be recognized in the same way for her uniqueness. It’s also important to treat children as much alike as possible when it comes to household chores, homework, and fair play with others. And it’s a good idea to help your child with a disability to find workarounds for tasks that are difficult or impossible to do.
We all might live with our particular brands of specialness, but we don’t have to let it hurt or segregate or spoil us. We can choose to heal from it, in it, through it.