Disability and Otherness

At the Circus!

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.

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4 thoughts on “Disability and Otherness

  1. I do not think disabilities are seen as freakish by most educated people, but perhaps maybe only when we are younger and not educated. I do think people get uncomfortable…and part of this is from the paradox of doing too much or too little. If you try to help some people with a disability, they get frustrated because you are singling them out, yet if you do not help, you are ignorant or cruel. At least, this is what I have seen. Not everyone is the same, and I cannot imagine since I do not have a disability. I do get angry about people ignoring your disability and rudely pushing you out of the way or being cruel. People need to be educated. Still, I do believe that God gives us gifts in many forms..and tend to believe more towards your first description of compassion. But I know it is difficult, and it makes me angry sometimes that someone as compassionate and kind as you must go through so much pain.

    As for India, the caste system is still very strong there, so there are many ways to have your social class lowered. My bigger concern would be your safety. I am excited, but I hope you will be careful. From having a best friend from there, I do hear often about the poverty and cruelty..but like America, where the news makes me want to cry, not everyone is bad.

    • Lovely post, Sienna! I think most people try to be thoughtful. And yes, one can easily get in a no-person’s land with offering aid. This is unfortunate, and gets spoken to often in the disability community. At the same time, being disabled puts one into another kind of neither space, where needing aid is a problem, and accepting aid is another problem. Then, there is all the residual rage that pops up at the most inopportune moments….. Sure is challenging being human!

  2. I think that the “fit In” thing is part of human herd behavior- to herds standing out can make one vulnerable to predators so it is to be avoided ( totally subconsciously). What I have discovered is the liberation of individuality/differentiation – not relying on the group for survival. Even though I look the same and don’t have any discernible difference I always felt like people must see something or maybe that stemmed from my own sense of self? Thus with my daughter I can celebrate her difference with true joy tempered only by the reactions of those who have no idea how much more to life there is than homogenization.
    Anyway- ironically, my daughter was rejected from circus camp due to her need for more attention than they could give her ( they were running a circus boot camp- isn’t camp supposed to be fun?).

    • Yes,we are definitely herd animals…….. We also manage often to care for one another. And I do think we are often able to sense something in the other – some non-verbal clue of difference. Maybe those non-obvious clues also impact our sense of self – or the responses of others do.

      Circus camp can be very demanding. Circus Smirkus, here, accommodates some kids, and is unable to accommodate others. I am often amazed at their capacity to include. At the same time, camp is a challenging and dangerous place. I think they would love to include everyone, should staffing allow. And that opens up the discussion of funding and inclusion……

      I am glad you are writing, and I find myself returning to your blog. I do not have time to read any of my favorite blogs as often as I would like. Between work, family, and fatigue, there can be surprisingly little time left for creativity, let alone reading.

      Stay in touch,

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