Last time I was here, I directed you to one of disability advocacy expert Kathie Snow’s articles. The article is called “Annie in Disabilityland,” and is about a fictional girl named Annie who is found to have multiple disabilities including ADD/ADHD and PDD (Pervasive Developmental Delays). If you read the article, you know what happened to Annie after that. If you didn’t, I encourage you to go back and read it.
Annie’s fictional story shows how harmful it can be when parents and loved ones don’t trust themselves to listen to and support a person with a disability. It shows how harmful it is when everything in life revolves around disability. It’s a sad story, even though it has a happy ending. But Annie’s story gave me an idea. What if the world were the opposite? Can it be, someday?
Let’s play make-believe, so to speak. I’m going to do a similar story to Kathie’s. My protagonist is named Regina, after one of my favorite Once Upon a Time characters and because it’s a strong name for a strong girl.
Regina in Everybrooke
Once upon a time a girl named Regina was born into a loving family who thought she was perfect–and she was. She had her mama’s eyes and her daddy’s nose. She had ten fingers, ten toes, and a healthy cry. Her parents had wonderful dreams for her and planned to ensure she grew up smart, strong, and good.
Then the doctors told Regina’s parents she had a disability. At first her parents were frightened and saddened. Did this mean their dreams for their daughter wouldn’t come true? Would she be able to learn, and run and play with other children? How would she grow up? Would she be okay?
The doctors understood, but they were kind and encouraging. You see, this family and these doctors lived in Everybrooke. Not every community was like it, but many were, and many more were becoming so. “Raising Regina may be hard sometimes,” they told her parents. “Your dreams may change. But your daughter is going to be just fine. We’ll help you. We’re here when you need us, but never forget, Regina needs you most. You are the ones who will teach her who she is and will be.”
So Regina’s parents took her home and got her started in life like any parent with any baby. Regina grew up with her parents and eventually, siblings. Some things she could do well, and others she struggled with or didn’t like to do. For example, she never quite learned to tie shoes, but Mama and Daddy said that was okay. Everybrooke had a huge shoe store, and lots of people wore shoes without laces. Sometimes someone called a “therapist” helped Regina learn certain things. But mostly she learned by playing with Mama, Daddy, and her brothers and sisters, like every kid.
When Regina went to kindergarten, she was amazed at what she found. Her classroom was bright and cheerful, and filled with all kinds of kids. Some had black or tan or white skin. Some kids were from different countries and spoke with accents. Some wore different clothing or prayed at different times of day as part of their religion. Regina knew the word “disability,” because some of her classmates had those, too. But nobody at Everybrooke Elementary seemed to notice much. All the desks were different heights, and some were made for wheelchairs. The playground had different kinds of equipment so everyone could play. There were no high curbs; they all sloped down to make stepping off easier. Regina’s teacher let all the kids work together on assignments so that if someone had trouble with one subject but was strong in another, he or she could be the helped and the helper. Sometimes kids teased Regina, and sometimes she saw other kids get teased, or did it herself. But every time someone did that, he or she got into trouble, and saw how silly it was to make fun of someone for being different.
So Regina continued to grow up in Everybrooke, moving from classroom to classroom with all kinds of friends and teachers. She was invited to birthday parties and eventually, asked on dates. If she couldn’t do something or go somewhere, the people around her were able to help her think of alternatives. Along with the other kids in her class, Regina split time between academics and extracurricular activities. At home, Mom and her sisters helped her learn about cooking, laundry, and handling money. When stirring a pot made Regina’s arms hurt, they suggested she sit down to do it or use an electric mixer. When she couldn’t fold laundry exactly like her sister could, Mom suggested garment bags. Mom and Dad talked often about what Regina would do after high school. They asked what she wanted to do and listened to what she said.
One day Regina told her parents she wanted to see what life was like outside Everybrooke. Some of her school friends were going on a senior trip to a different city several hours away. Though Mom and Dad were nervous, they agreed to let Regina go because friends and teachers they trusted would be on a trip. Mom and Dad knew the teachers were used to meeting everyone’s needs and encouraging students to work as a team when possible. So Regina got on a bus equipped with handrails, seatbelts, and other things everyone might need, and went on the senior trip.
Regina knew she was no longer in Everybrooke when she got off the bus. She started to step off a curb, expecting a flat surface. But it was raised instead, and many students fell, those with and without disabilities. No big deal, she thought. Mom and Dad had taught her that you got up when you fell, physically or otherwise, and her friends were here for her. They all laughed about it.
But soon things stopped being funny. Regina and the other students noticed something odd about this big new city. Of course it was flashy and fun, with opportunities around every corner. But Regina and some of her classmates garnered stares. Some people hissed hateful words at the students with disabilities. The students with different-colored skin or different accents, or the ones who followed different religions, seemed to get along fine. But the whole group felt the change, like hot, oppressive air. When a classmate asked for a Braille menu at a restaurant, the waitress looked confused and put out. When the students went to a movie or concert, classmates in wheelchairs had to sit apart, or wait at the hotel because the seating wasn’t “accessible.” Once, an impatient man shoved in front of one of Regina’s classmates, a boy who flapped his hands or clicked pens to stay calm. “Why didn’t his parents teach him to act normal?” the man exclaimed.
As part of their trip, the students toured a famous university. As with everywhere Regina had ever been, everybody seemed different. Yet, she didn’t encounter wheelchairs, pen clicking, almond-shaped eyes, or any of the other features she knew were part of some classmates. So she pulled aside an administrator.
“Excuse me,” she asked. “Where are the students with…disabilities?” She’d said it before in Everybrooke, but the word felt strange here, as if she were confessing to a crime.
“We don’t have many. We have a special program for a few students whose disabilities don’t keep them from attending.”
“So where are they?”
“They might be participating in voluntary work hours right now, or auditing classes.” The administrator spoke to Regina as if to a little kid. “That’s when you take a class, but not for credit.”
Regina boarded the bus home thoroughly confused. What was wrong with that university, and that community? Why were all the people with disabilities missing, or treated badly? Why did they seem to confuse people? Was disability something horrible, like a disease, and her parents just never told her? By the time she reached home, she was in tears.
“I’m not sure I want to leave Everybrooke,” she told Mom and Dad. “Not if that’s what’s waiting for me.”
Dad nodded, a somber look on his face. “You were blessed, Regina. You were born in a time when people were beginning to understand disability as a difference. We were blessed to have kind people around us, and live in a place where everyone is included no matter what. Most places try their best to do and be that. But some–well, some haven’t caught up yet.”
“But what if I get a job in one of those places? What if the people in charge say I can’t learn, or be with my friends, or…anything?”
“Then you stick up for yourself,” Mom said. “You be the strong, smart girl we know you are. Not every place is Everybrooke. But everywhere you go, there are understanding people who will help you and love you. We can help you find those people and places so you have your best life.”
Regina nodded and bit her lip. “So, I don’t have a disease? I’m not some weird alien.”
“No, precious girl. You are different, like your friend Sarah is different because she has black skin, or like Ross is different because he’s Jewish. Those differences are part of who they are, not a definition of it. It’s the same for you. Maybe you left Everybrooke so you could begin to learn that lesson.”
Of course, you and I don’t live in Everybrooke. I guess Everybrooke is kind of like Perfect in those old Walgreen’s ads. But imagine: if every curb had a cut, if every door was automatic, if every classroom was inclusive…just because it was accepted? Imagine if disability were celebrated and treasured, like skin color, religion, national origin, or any other difference. Imagine if, in the almond-shaped eyes of Down Syndrome, in the deft hands of sign language for the Deaf, and in the many manifestations of autism, we just saw uniqueness. Imagine if every child grew up to be an adult who was listened to, befriended, and supported–loved by family, friends, and yes, significant others.
I like that ending, don’t you?
*Please note that “disability” could be swapped out for any difference. Skin color, religion, sexual orientation, you name it, is still scorned, and that is wrong. The goal is to show what it would look like if we stopped treating disability in particular as a sickness, tragedy, or aberration, because this seems to happen to PWDs more than other groups. But the main point is, all differences are good.