I’ve begun thinking about my upcoming trip to India. I am told that disability issues are very difficult in India.There are few accommodations supporting accessibility, and the mere presence of a disability usually reduces one’s social standing.I am also informed should one be disabled, it is best not to speak of it.I am not sure this is all that different from living in the U.S.. Perhaps it is a matter of degree. (I do appreciate elevators!)
Following a wobbly line of reasoning, my thoughts come to the idea of the wounded healer. In many First Nations cultures, the spirits are believed to initiate some prospective shamans and healers via severe childhood (or adult) illness or disability. If the child is lucky enough to survive the illness, he or she may be perceived to be chosen by the spirits. Indeed, the Abenaki Nation of Vermont currently have a disabled person as their primary shaman.
Severe childhood illnesses have lasting, often life-long, impacts on children. The trials and challenges associated with subtle or obvious disabilities are thought to teach the prospective healer compassion, and an appreciation for the mystery and miracle of life, as well as bring her/him closer to the spirits.
This notion of wounded healer flies in the face of popular belief. Our dominant cultural mythology insists that true healers do not become ill or injured, or if they do, they recover completely. This accompanies a second belief: disability is a failure on the part of the patient or healer, rather than a gift of the spirits.
Perhaps these beliefs arise from our much studied North American preference for sameness. The very idea of a melting pot culture suggests homogenization. Disability marks one as other, as different, (even freakish) reinforcing social stigmas and trends that isolate persons who are ill or disabled. It can be literally impossible for persons who are disabled to “fit in”!
Oddly, there has been, anecdotally, a long history in North America of the circus being open, even welcoming, to disabled persons. Perhaps this is not so odd, given the marginal status of circus performers. Circus was, and is, a charismatic trope, filled with oppositions and paradoxes, drawing us in, and repelling us at the same time. This powerful ambiguous gaze is not unlike that associated with disability.
Following the distanced gaze, my thoughts turn briefly to the U.S. culture wars. There is, at least on the loud political fringes, a growing desire to do away with the other. Persons of color, illegal (and legal) immigrants, Muslims, artists, and persons with disabilities are all different, and thus, suspect, and not worthy of support.
Of course, it is not at all evident who is to be the model of sameness. Living here, in Vermont, the nation’s least ethnically diverse state, Caucasian is clearly the norm. Racism, classism, and discrimination based on disability are all present, although people here work hard to limit their impacts. Here, First Nations people have long passes as Caucasian, rather than face discrimination based on ethnicity. Only in relatively recent times have First Nations people in Vermont stepped forward as native peoples.
Vermonters , on average, want to include marginalized others in the life of the workplace and the community. We also struggle over how to fund and implement inclusion. Predictably, many people are hesitant to back their desire for inclusiveness with their pocketbooks.
Disabled , and other marginalized peoples in India are, I am told, increasingly demanding recognition and inclusion. They raise their voices as people of color, different sexual orientations, and disability have done here. Inclusion is still a dream. Time will tell whether we, as a society and a people, can tolerate, let alone embrace, difference.