Archive for Friday, November 8, 1996


November 8, 1996


She told me that up until five months ago she had been a physical therapist. In the ``them and us'' vocabulary of disability awareness, that usually translates as an ``us.''

She read one of my columns in a Colorado newspaper and called me. I'm a pretty good listener, and I'm usually quite sensitive to the adversity of others.

And let me be clear at this point about my views on the relativity of problems. It's simple math. Regardless of what slice of the cosmic pie graph might represent my problem, I'm the one having to deal with it. It's my whole pie. That disclaimer is important because I don't want you to think that I'm minimizing this woman's problem or discounting her pain. I'm just angry at her attitude.

Something went wrong with one of her hands. Her field of physical therapy apparently involves massage, so I assumed that the problem was job related. Surgery neither corrected the problem nor brought relief from the pain, and for the past five months this young woman has been sitting at home fighting depression and despair.

Suicide, she told me, seemed like the only answer. ``My husband and I have been over it and over it,'' she said earnestly, ``and there are no options.''

``Have you gotten a second opinion?'' I asked. ``Would you like a reference for one of my doctors? I have a friend in your area who has had extensive hand surgery. Would you like his name?''

``I'll have nothing to do with the AMA,'' she said flatly.

``It sounds to me,'' I ventured an hour later, ``like your emotional state has to do with a lot more than a bad hand.''

Ignoring me, she went on about having no support group; and, not only had this tragedy destroyed her career, she and her husband could no longer ski, hike and bike together. The family they had been about to start was out of the question now.

``Exactly why must you give up being a physical therapist?'' I asked. ``Even if giving massages is not possible, there are many different branches of your field.''

Again, I offered references to possible jobs in her area. Again she dismissed my comments

``Many of my severely disabled friends ski regularly,'' I told her, ``and a paraplegic friend recently had a beautiful baby. Why is it you think that your hand injury would keep you from having children?''

``How could I be a mother without the full use of my hand?'' she said as if I should have known the obvious. With every sentence, she was demeaning a few hundred thousand more disabled Americans who work hard at their jobs and their marriages, raise their children with love and dignity, and enjoy recreational activities of all sorts.

This young woman was one of the most bigoted individuals I'd spoken to in 20 years. She'd bought into every beautiful body equals beautiful person stereotype Madison Avenue has ever pitched. And when she started into the ``suicide''/``no options'' routine a third or fourth time, I just sort of lost it.

``Suicide is choice,'' I said. ``It's a bad choice and a lazy choice, but it's your choice. And don't use the threat of it to scare and manipulate others. Furthermore, you haven't even begun to explore your options yet. And if, in the end, your gimpy hand offends you that much, you can always cut the damn thing off and replace it with a hook.''

OK, so I won't be asked to volunteer on the local suicide hot line any time soon. Still, I know manure when I see it, and this young woman had been indoctrinated with a honey wagon full of it. I'm sorry she's hurting. Pain sucks. But her view of disability, and hence, the disabled, is nightmarishly hostile.

It didn't help, of course, that she was talking to a quadriplegic who has written more than 100 magazine articles and five novel length manuscripts ... and can only type with the ring finger of his left hand. I was married for 25 years and raised a wonderful daughter who is now married herself. Just try telling her that a disabled person can't be a good parent. Then duck.

Those of us with physical disabilities see the way we are stereotyped, we even see the loathing in some folks eyes from time to time, but I think we mostly shrug it off until we actually meet someone who isn't even embarrassed to admit out loud that, for them, physically disabled equals monster.

Life is like that.

We can make them let us in their businesses and insist that public rest rooms are built to serve all the public, but the disability bigots out there have to change their own minds and hearts. Still, I wonder why that lady never called me back ...

-- Kevin Robinson is a free-lance writer and photographer based in Lawrence. Write to him in care of the Detroit Free Press, P.O. Box 828, Detroit, Mich. 48231. Send e-mail to him at: kevinr

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