Archives for January 2014

Blind like me

Hand-And-ShadesIn 1961, journalist John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me, an account of his experiences as a black man in the Deep South. What made the book unusual was that Griffin was actually white, but with the help of a dermatologist, he was able to darken his skin and pass as a black man.

Not surprisingly, he encountered the same intolerance and hatred that all black people endured in the Deep South in the 1950s. It was such a powerful book that it was made into a movie by the same name and starred James Whitmore.

What brings this book to mind is the fact that for the past three weeks, I have – like Griffin – entered a foreign reality. I didn’t change my skin color. Instead, I found out in some small degree what it is like to have a disability.

A sucker punch

A few weeks ago, my right eye spontaneously hemorrhaged and I was rendered blind in that eye. Ten days later, I suffered a detached retina in the left eye. The result of these events was that I could not see well enough to drive, read or do much of anything.

For three weeks, I was basically shut down because of my inability to see. I had to rely on friends to drive me to doctor appointments, to buy groceries for me and even to visit my aging mother, who is in a rehab hospital.

It was a terrifying experience. I felt helpless, dependent and vulnerable. I felt shut away from the world and was frightened that my eyesight was permanently compromised.

Unlike people who live with disabilities day in and day out, I knew there was hope for me to recover. And for the most part, I have. A surgeon restored my eyesight in both eyes and gave me a black eye as a souvenir from the surgery.

Like Griffin, I found out for a brief period what it was like to walk in the shoes of someone who has many more obstacles to overcome than I do. (As an aside, for several years, Griffin was blind from an accident while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He eventually recovered his eyesight.)

The pain of limitation

I realize that many in the disability community will look with disdain at my meager experience with disability. They might even call me to task for comparing my three weeks of near-blindness to anything that a permanently disabled person might endure.

And they will have a point. I don’t claim to understand fully what it’s like to be legally blind. I only got a taste of it and found out that disability is limiting, painful and lonely.

I’m guessing that many people go through periods in which they can identify with people who have disabilities. Surgeries, strokes, and other afflictions can cause temporary or even permanent physical and mental limitations.

I’m wondering if anyone reading this blog has had a similar experience and what you learned from it. Please let me hear from you if you did.

Darwin’s big turnaround

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

It’s funny how people change their minds about a prejudice when it hits close to home.

My parents didn’t care much for journalists until I became one. Former Vice President Dick Cheney wasn’t a champion of gay rights until his daughter “came out” and married her partner. And biologist Charles Darwin thought people with intellectual disabilities were evolutionary mistakes until his youngest son was born with Down Syndrome.

Unfortunately, love doesn’t always trump bias. There are plenty of stories of parents who reject their children because of some perceived flaw or transgression.

Darwin’s story

I am particularly fascinated with the story of Charles Darwin, whose theories and writings have been of interest to me since I was a child. Darwin was a controversial figure in mid-19th century England, when he published On the Origin of Species. The book proposed that evolution is the result of natural selection – or survival of the fittest – among the species.

Darwin was also a believer in the eugenics movement, which was conceived by his cousin Francis Galton in 1883. Eugenicists believed that people with disabilities and those of certain races and ethnic backgrounds were inferior and defective. Through selective marriage practices, these so-called hereditary disorders could be eliminated.

In the meantime, according to the eugenicists, these defective people should be institutionalized, sterilized, deported or restricted from entering the country.

The ultimate irony

It was the ultimate irony, then, when Darwin’s wife gave birth to their tenth child, a boy named after Charles Darwin, and he had Down Syndrome. By all accounts, Darwin adored this child and grieved intensely when the infant died after only 18 months.

In a memorial to his son, Darwin wrote that young Charles “had a remarkably sweet, placid and joyful disposition… He was particularly fond of standing on one of my hands and being tossed in the air. He would lie for a long time placidly on my lap looking with a steady and pleased expression at my face.”

Darwin apparently made no attempt to institutionalize his little boy or to cast him aside in any way. Instead, he learned from his youngest son that people with intellectual disabilities are not evolutionary mistakes but individuals capable of giving and receiving love and of bringing joy to those around them.

It was a big turnaround for Darwin, whose theories unfortunately bestowed lasting social stigma on people with disabilities.