No Pity: part 2

No Pity: part 2

I’m still thinking about my meeting with the young boy last week at my daughter’s after school program. I wanted to follow it up with an apropos book recommendation while we’re on the subject of disability and pity, or the aversion to it.

Once again, I was given some required reading for my disability fellowship. Once again, I put it off–too much disability in real life made reading about it less than desirable. And also once again, I was glad I did. Here’s what I read and what I thought about it:

No Pity: People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement is a chronicle of the Disability Movement as told through the stories of individuals who lived it. “Nondisabled Americans do not understand disabled ones,” author and nondisabled journalist Joseph Shapiro begins the book, and for the next 400 pages we are taken on a journey that posits and answers the difficult question of what disabled people really want from society and why we nondisabled people should want that too. Through personal histories of the folks who have led our country through an enormous political shift that parallels the civil rights movement as a whole, Shapiro attempts to answer that question with a shot across the bow that his title delivers: no pity.

Revealed in these stories is the difficulty for nondisabled—and sometimes disabled folks as well—to change how they think about disability and the individuals who have them, progressing as a society rather quickly from one who shuns, to then paternalistically supports (and pities), and then ultimately accepts and welcomes. In the detailed story-telling of people like Ed Roberts who is a post-polio quadriplegic who started out attending school by phone from an iron lung and eventually paved the way for independent living for many folks with disabilities, we begin to understand the significance of the progress that has been made. Shapiro does a wonderful job communicating how many of these changes were far too slow for the individuals relying on them, while culturally the changes were happening at seemingly lightening speed for our country as a whole. From the Gallaudet revolt in 1988 to the passage of the IDEA and ADA, Shapiro builds, brick-by-brick, the foundation of the house that the disability rights movement built. 

For me personally, the book was both empowering and confounding. On the one hand, I appreciate how having a “no pity” approach to raising my child with special needs allows me to envision and create a richer and more included life for him. Much progress has been made and there is so much to be grateful for. Yet I think that for those who have spent years advocating for disability rights, there is a lack of awareness that most people’s cultural attitudes about disability have not changed. I continue to meet parents of children with special needs who, despite advocating for their children’s needs for decades, continue to hold beliefs that their own children’s lives are not worth living. As a society, it is important for us to keep teaching lessons of awareness and acceptance even though so much progress has been made in policy. Deep, widespread and lasting cultural change takes time.

Reading the book, I see how far we have come. Reflecting on last week’s meeting in the after-school room, I see how far we have to go. Let’s get to it.

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No Pity, part 1

I bring along my son, who attends a special education school many miles away, when I pick up my daughter at her neighborhood school’s after-school program.

Since he started attending the far-far-away school a year ago, the ties that bind him to our neighborhood are snapping, one by one. Granted, they were never strong, as he’s always been in a self-contained special ed classroom. But hanging out in the after-school room while his sister wraps up an activity and gets her stuff together is often the only five minutes he gets on any given weekday to hang out with a typically developing child besides his younger sister or her friends, who are not his friends.

Yesterday, he and I were approached by a young boy, probably just his age, who looked at my son, turned to me, and asked, “Can he talk?” Assuring him that he could, I facilitated a little introduction. Stimulated by the bustle of the activity in the room, my son had a hard time making eye contact and speaking in a voice loud and clear enough to be understood by the boy. “Why does he talk like that?” the boy asked. Slowly and gently I replied “Well, because his brain works a little differently than yours or mine.” Piggybacking on my egregious error of talking about my son as if he wasn’t there, the boy replied, “I feel sorry for him.”

“You shouldn’t,” I told him. I corrected myself. “You don’t have to. He’s happy.”

A teacher overheard us, told the boy to go back to what he was doing. My daughter appeared, ready to go home. There was just too much commotion in the room and too much chaos in my head to know the right thing to say, so I let it drop.

Pity is just an indicator of not being aware of someone’s strengths, which in turn is an indicator that there isn’t much opportunity to get to know someone in the first place. Inclusion, inclusion…how long do I have to wait?