I have a confession: there are many days when I wish I was anything but a disability researcher. I think wistfully to my high school aspirations of becoming a pediatrician or psychologist, or my college plans to go into journalism, and I wonder when I veered off course. I ask myself constantly how and why I got to where I am. Recently, it’s become a daily ritual.
Disability is hard for me. My sister has disabilities – and not the recognized, easy to explain kind, if such a thing even exists. She has multiple sensory impairments, distinctive facial features, long limbs, and a strangely slow gait for no apparent reason; she is taller and stronger than I am. Katie knows some signs – fewer than 100, I’d say – and she lost what hearing she was born with during elementary school. She cannot communicate verbally except through a series of indecipherable grunts, cries, or yells. My young son has begun imitating her as a joke on occasion, and I find myself clueless as to how to respond.
Our childhood was messy, as is the case for families with an undiagnosed son or daughter. We never knew anything, certainly not a diagnosis. How did the seemingly mismatched collection of impairments and conditions – cleft lip, heart murmur, and hearing and visual impairments, among others – fit together? Why did she never learn to talk? What caused the ear infections that resulted in total hearing loss? What could we do with intense self-abuse once it began? Why was our school district refusing to help us? So many questions, hopes, anxieties, fears, and – as a sibling – the requirement that I shift as seamlessly as possible between my home disability world and the outside realm.
I lost interest in medicine, teaching, and psychology as a teenager because no one could help my sister. I never even considered speech therapy for that same reason. As I saw it at the time, the only thing this endless parade of specialists had ever done was get my hopes up and then disappear. I always wanted to help families of people with disabilities, yet I had been so fully and deeply disappointed by them in my own life that I flinched at the thought. I never considered that perhaps I could bring something new, help people in new ways within a more traditional role. I simply could not bear the thought of letting down other children and families the way that, for my family, was central to our ongoing emotional upheaval and Katie’s ultimate deterioration. None of those people were able to really reach my sister, yet all of them talked a good game while also getting paid. And there was no recourse, no accountability. Just wasted time and fruitless ventures, one after another. That is what I saw.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that my relationship with disability is marked by ambivalence. Indeed, the topic itself is far too intimate and fraught for me. I want to champion disability rights, to raise awareness about the experiences of individuals and their families, and yet, as a sibling, I know I could do better. As a parent, I am terrified – terrified, truly – by the thought of my child having a disability. I am ashamed to admit this. It goes against everything I want to say that I believe about equality and acceptance, about actively incorporating new types of diversity into the fold of contemporary humanity. About carving a better world. And yet, it sends me into a panic. Disability is both my life’s work, if I can make such a bold claim, and my Achilles heel. It fuels my creativity and animates my politics, yet I also live fear – too much, too illogical – from what I witnessed in my own home growing up.
The scholar in me can say with confidence that my sister was the product of an era that no longer exists. Disability rights were fairly new. CHARGE syndrome, which we now know Katie has, had only just been identified and she would not be diagnosed for years. My family was told not to teach her sign language for far too many years – an egregious legacy of the oralism movement that had a tragic impact on my sister. We were in ongoing litigation with our school district and state, both of which I grew to hate (a word I do not throw around, as I learned what it really meant quite early). The powers-that-be were despicable, yet it wasn’t entirely their fault. There was no one else we knew of like Katie in the area. Special ed meant Down syndrome, it meant the children then lumped under the R-word. It was a blurry umbrella that completely obscured anything extraneous, a bureaucratic designation above all else.
In turn, my ambivalence is not directed at my sister or others with her (or, really, any particular) diagnosis, but at the world in which these labels unfold. Katie’s world failed her. It did so by way of a dull, persistent combination of stigma, ignorance, ableism, protocol, and laziness. It failed her in its refusal to acknowledge the social and cultural underpinnings of disability experience, which is a fancy way of saying that context is critical in shaping what disability means, does, and how it looks. This is all the more poignant from where I write today, in Texas, a state widely regarded as failing its citizens with disabilities. For disability – and for families – place and time can be paramount
Disability structured the rhythms of my childhood and, today, my memories. We took our final family summer vacation the summer after I finished seventh grade. After that, Katie’s physical outbursts became to serious. The litigation with the school and state became too onerous. Money was drying up, my sister was falling apart, and I was conveniently able to slide out of the full-time family scene through things like summer camps and, later, part-time jobs. Katie’s self-abuse grew extreme. Banging her head on walls or the floor, throwing her body around while in a chair. Such a violence of the self. I stopped having friends over. I was not going to let them see my sister fall apart – into herself, away from any trace of hope – before us, because there’s no other way to explain what was happening. And, as much as I would love to coat this tale in more positive language, there is absolutely no question of what happened. My sister began life with capabilities that were stamped out over the years. She lost herself, was lost inside of herself in a world that cast her aside completely. She spent her childhood in solitary confinement. And she never got out.
This is the disability world that lives in the back of my mind. This is why I panic at the thought of my child being shy or crying at the sound of a paper towel dispenser – the innocuous quirks of growing that shouldn’t merit a second thought. This is why I find myself wondering all of a sudden if I have the emotional power to even consider a second child. Because I have been consumed by a fear, by an all-encompassing panic that sends me into a tailspin of memories and also anxieties about what lies ahead for Katie. Because I see her retreating again, pulling back into self-abuse that is interrupted only by hours staring mindlessly, stuck in a house with no community involvement, no friends, no connections – none of the things that keep me even slightly balanced. And, if I’m being honest, it terrifies me.
But the fact remains that, at some point, I decided to make meaning out of my experience through talking to other families, writing their stories, and sharing what I know. Perhaps it is the only way I can make sense of why things did not turn out differently for my sister, for us. “My work is about making sense of people who fall out of diagnostic common-sense,” I used to say. But that’s too overblown. I just want to help interpret how families like mine diverge from collective notions of the good life at the level of the body. Because, ever since Katie was born, I grappled with fundamental questions of how we value bodies, perception, function, and the senses. I remember trying to quantify sensory meaning – what would you give up if you had to? I dreamed that Katie would simply begin speaking one day. I made her play “speech therapy” with me, forcing her to sit at my child’s table in the kitchen, so sure I would be the one to finally prod some words out of her. I recall vividly trying to imagine what was going through Katie’s mind as she pounded her head against the dining room wall. Or afterward. Was it rage? Frustration? I now explain it to my young son: “Aunt Katie cannot talk, she can only talk to us through her body. And this is how she shows us she is upset.” Is that right? Is my explanation some sort of ableist violation in and of itself, or should I perhaps look more closely at how I attempt to explain my sister in the simplest terms?
And my son loves his Aunt Katie. He talks about her regularly, even though we live two states away, but he also jokes innocently – yet almost automatically – about her sounds and facial expressions, the way she narrows her eyes and flattens her mouth into a crooked not-quite-scowl. And I let him, reminding him only that Katie is different and different is okay. I have to stop myself from forbidding such jokes, since I know he is only trying to make sense of his only aunt and children learn through mimicking, through imitation. The last thing I want is to teach him not to speak of difference and diversity, whether disability or otherwise. One lesson we should all know by now is that codes of silence simply do not work. They destroy any possibilities for integration and understanding. And so I keep the dialog open.
I have been unable to write recently, I think because I have had so much trouble being honest with myself about disability in my life. It is too intimate, too close, and I struggle to break out of the scripts I’ve been working on for three decades now. Friends nod when I mention writers block, saying this is simply what happens with academics – the projects drag, they mess with our perspectives of the world – but for me it is much more than that. My research grows forth from my core, from the most hidden and intimate spaces of my being. It is not a fetishized interest or curiosity, but is arguably the most defining aspect of who I am. So, yes, there are days when I ruefully tell myself I should’ve just gone into marketing like everyone else. But that just isn’t me. It’s not my story. And it never was.