Something occurred in one of my classes during my senior year that I just cannot seem to get out of my head. It plagues me for the lack of sensitivity and the ignorance displayed by the participants. Any time something similar happens, I am reminded of it and am made angry all over again. It is not that I am holding a grudge; the truth is, I am frustrated.
This particular class was Advanced Composition, in which we had to read several essays, none of which particularly held my interest until we read Nancy Mairs’ “On Being a Cripple.” Mairs is an author who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 29. Much of her writing, therefore, discusses the difficulties that come with being a woman with a disability. While I do not agree with terming oneself a “cripple” and am, in fact, adamantly against such labeling, I must cop to the respect I hold for Mairs for the concise reasoning behind her choice. I do not have the luxury of discussing it here, but I recommend that if you can get your hands on it, you definitely read this essay as well as her other essays and books.
I’m sure my professor had no intention of causing a controversy when he assigned this essay. He was not attempting to bring me out into the discussion; there were no ulterior motives in our reading this essay. However, controversy is exactly what occurred.
I remained silent for most of the discussion because, frankly, I just did not feel I could trust myself to remain neutral and unbiased in talking about an issue that hits so close to home with me. And, of course, I couldn’t. What was initially being discussed was Mairs’ use of the word “cripple” and why she chose that term to define herself. In an Advanced Composition class this type of discussion is to be expected. Despite my distaste at that term, I managed to keep
my mouth shut until another student, Angela, spoke up. Her statement was to the effect that anyone who uses words such as “disabled” or any other “less offensive” vocabulary has not come to “terms” with his or her condition. Balking at her blatant ignorance, I couldn’t help but put my two cents in. I raised my hand and made the statement that it was extremely unfair that she should say such a thing, seeing as how she doesn’t know what it’s like to be disabled and that I, in fact, have come to terms with being in a wheelchair.
I went on to explain why many people find the word “handicapped” offensive. That particular word originated during a time when the disabled were sent out into the streets to beg for their families and were therefore “handy with a cap”. I, for one, never intend to beg for anything and find the usage of that word incredibly insulting. However, Angela, a member of our university’s newspaper staff, made a profound statement: “That’s what they tell us to say.” I only looked at her, bewildered, all the while thinking, “No one ever called and asked me what label I would prefer.”
Before redirecting the class to another passage in the essay, my professor asked me what I would like to be called. I replied that I prefer being called Laura, but, as it is human nature to label one another, I will at least have the dignity of choosing my own.
I wish I could say that the entire discussion stopped there and the class was able to move on to a topic that was more closely related to the class and not nearly as likely to light a fire under my seat. No such luck, but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out what happened next