A Perfect Life

I read an article recently that really set me off. The article itself isn’t really that important, but the reason for my anger is. It was the author’s attitude towards people with disabilities that made me want to pick up a pitchfork. Because, I feel like we really haven’t made much progress in this area in the last 100 years.

You know, before I had a disability, and before I had a child with a disability, I was a civil rights attorney and the bulk of the cases I handled involved kids with disabilities. And before I finished law school, I spent some time working for a disability advocacy agency that represented people with disabilities, primarily folks living in institutions but also folks living in the community. Which means I know a bit more than the average joe about how we, as a society, as a country, have treated people with disabilities over the past hundred years or so. Let me drop some knowledge on you.

Our country has a pretty fucking shameful history of acting like people with disabilities are sub-human. I think a lot of people know that the Nazis did some really bad shit to people with disabilities–awful experiments along with outright murders, just like they did to Jews, gay folks, and anyone else they saw as a threat to their perfect society. What people may not know is that right here in the US of A, we also used to routinely sterilize people with intellectual disabilities. Because we thought people with disabilities would have babies with disabilities (we really didn’t understand how disabilities happen). Our society saw people with disabilities as a threat, just as the Nazis did–that the more of them there were, the weaker we were, and we couldn’t have that.

That may seem like ancient history in the era of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but I feel like there’s still a sense in our society that if you’re not perfect, you’re a failure. I see it with The Boy all the time. He gets really upset that other kids are better at sports than him, or that he struggles to focus in class. I also see it in the way people treat my friends whose kids have disabilities. It’s with a sense of pity that their kids aren’t ever going to be at the top of their class.

And I feel like that pity, that view that it’s so sad that people have disabilities, that it’s such a shame they can’t do what others can do, is a branch of the same tree that produced Oliver Wendell Holmes’ sentiment that “three generations of imbeciles is enough.” (Yes, he actually said that. In a Supreme Court opinion signed off on by 8 of the 9 justices on the Court. Buck v. Bell, 1929.) It’s a world view that says everyone must be the same, everyone must be “perfect,” and if they aren’t, they are not our equals. They are The Other.

I know I haven’t written about the Cult of Perfect Motherhood in a while, but remember how one of the tenets of it is that you must strive for perfection at all times, otherwise you are a bad mother? But what does perfection look like? How do we measure it? Is it kids who get straight A’s? Is it a mom who never takes any down time? What if your kid’s disability prevents him or her from ever learning to read? Does that make you a failure as a mom? What if I have cancer and I get tired a lot, so I need more breaks than other moms? Does that make me a failure as a mom?

We have to let go of judging people’s achievements by the same standards. We are all different. Some of us live with limitations, but it doesn’t mean our lives have no meaning. It doesn’t mean we should be thought of with pity. We must begin to see people with disabilities as people just like everyone else, not as less-than. It’s 2014, for christ’s sake.

Homework: I’d like you all to read No Pity, by Joseph Shapiro. It’s a history of the disability rights movement, and I hope it will blow your minds and get you talking and thinking about people with disabilities in a different way. Let me know what you think of the book in the comments!