I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


My maternal grandmother's family came to New York from Poland before WWII, an orthodox Jewish family who found a new home just before it was too late. One cousin, however, cousin Benjamin, was not allowed entry into the United States. Benjamin had a hunched back, and used a cane to walk. When I was little, I saw a picture of him in my grandmother's old photo album. Yes! Someone like me. I was excited to see that I was not the first in our family to have a different kind of body. He was wearing a suit and tie, a young lad with a dark beard. I asked what happened to him. I was told that he died young. Was he sick? Yes, they said, he was sick.

A decade later, "old enough" to handle the truth, I was informed that Cousin Benjamin had been murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust. Unacceptable as an American citizen, he was returned to Hilter. The disabled were among the first to be killed, as the most obviously undesirable kind of human (image found at A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust). I was appalled that my own country (surely in its intellectual and moral infancy) had made such a mistake. Yet it appears that this same practice continues today in Canada.

While Benjamin's story will always stand out in my mind, denial of the human right of mobility through migration (especially but not only to escape violence) is only one of many ways disabled folks are "dumped." William J. Peace writes:

"Wheelchair dumping is the antithesis of inclusion. Disability rights activists coined the term inclusion over the well-known concept mainstreaming. For nearly two decades disabled people have fought to be included, their existence valued. This effort has met stiff resistance -- especially in the court and educational system. Disability rights activists have fought for inclusion because it reflects the idea that all members of society are equal and capable. In theory this idea is accepted but rarely if ever put into practice. It's easier and cheaper to ignore the rights of disabled people and "dump" all those who don't fit in. In the past we had institutions to dump people into -- most of which were closed in the 1980s, thanks to Ronald Reagan. In their place we have a host of inaccessible facilities, like my local police station, or other government facilities, many of which contain "resource rooms". The vast majority of these rooms accomplish what institutions once did -- segregate those that are not wanted. It is easier for institutions such as public schools to "dump" all children with learning disabilities into a "resource room" than include them in classrooms with other children. If the parent or child balks, they can deem the child disruptive and the district can literally force the child out of the district and into "special programs". It is up to the parent to hire experts and prove their child is not a disruption to other students. To me, this is the legacy that Reagan should be known for because he took dumping to an extreme -- especially for those with mental illnesses who were dumped on urban street corners across the country." (from "The Outrage is Misplaced: Wheelchair Dumping", 2008) 

We also have the questions of abortion, which I was lucky enough to escape because technology did not detect the shape of my body in utero, institutionalization, which was recommended for me on the day I was born (also narrowly escaped), and sterilization (which was unsuccessfully pushed upon me at the age of 12 in 1990). Just as Cousin Benjamin was worth more dead (valued at zero) than alive (negative value), I was reminded of my "selfishness" in keeping organs that I should never use. Never mind my love for writing, my talent with languages, my artwork; none of this could make up for the undesirability of my body, a reproductive catastrophe. Now a linguistics professor, I am reminded yet again that my mind is not enough to make me human: I should not think to try to build a life in another country. These phenomena are not of a distant past at all.

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