I Remember This: I See a Disabled Person

Cartoonized image of Ingrid Tischer's eyes in close-up.I remember this:

I am eight. I am waiting alone for the little bus inside the doors of my school, White Sulphur Springs Elementary, in the Catskills. I glimpse a small girl not  far away – tired, leaning against the wall like it was holding her up. Seeing her, I feel a sorrow for her. The sorrow is bigger than me, it blooms out of my stomach and swallows me whole like a monstrous flower.  In the next instant, I see that I’m looking at myself in the reflection of a display cabinet’s glass doors. I am angry at myself – first, for letting myself look like that  – then, for looking like that. Then I know that I will never be faster than seeing is. It can get even me. This means that while I’ll empathize with strangers who feel sorry for me in decades to come – having done it myself – I’ll want them to snap out of it, too – as I did.

I’ve been the only (identified) disabled student in my classes in five schools since first grade, I see children “like me” at this clinic and on tv once a year during a telethon that makes me cringe. That’s it. I have a pronounced lack of images to work with and an inability to decipher the ones I do see.


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I Remember This: I Am Thirteen and in the Recovery Room After Spinal Fusion Surgery

Cover of Mythology by Edith HamiltonYou are flat on your back under a glaring light. The bed is hard. It hurts. You don’t move because it doesn’t occur to you to do so, it’s so far beyond you. Each part of you that registers – reports in, so to speak – registers through pain. You body is mapped as a topography of pain. No face or distinguishing characteristics. You are a ground-colored shape dotted with points of glaring, popping pain. Where your head aches on the stone-stab mattress, where the gravel of the sheet is under your arms, where it rasps all along the tube that snakes down your throat, to an unidentifiable pressure on your front, low down.
Your back. Oh. Your back is a barely contained thorn patch in a mad stabber’s arsenal.
You’re not alone. There are voices, professional ones. But no one is talking to you.
There is a nurse above you, meeting your eyes. Her head blocks the light. “You’re awake,” she says. “You’re in the recovery room.”
You make a sound. It sounds dreadful. The first sound Frankenstein made on his slab. The thought of the monster brings back your past, all there was before this light, this slab, this pain. And the face in your reunion with memory itself is: Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.
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I Remember This: I Find Out I Don’t Have Cerebral Palsy. I Have Muscular Dystrophy. Probably.

By the time I was ten in early 1976, my father finally found a job he seemed likely to keep and we settled into our second tiny Connecticut town. I’d been to three public schools during fifth grade and was wearing the Milwaukee back-brace 23 hours a day. 
A color rendering of a large mid-century red brick building with a large rounded marquee over the entrance. It's placed on parkland.

The only picture of Newington Children’s Hospital I could find that resembles the building as I saw it in the 1970s after its renovation in 1968. This is a color rendering from eBay.

I’d started being seen in 1975 in the pediatric neurology clinic at Newington Children’s Hospital, up by Hartford. (It had been formerly known by the delightful names Newington Home and Hospital for Crippled Children, as well as The Newington Home for Incurables.) Dr. Russman and Dr. Drennan, my neurologist and orthopedist, respectively, questioned my diagnosis of cerebral palsy atypical but continued the familiar routine of x-rays and exams every 3 months to monitor my always-worsening scoliosis.  
After growing the tissue from two nerve and muscle biopsies taken from my upper arm and calf (an experience that included my first overnight in a hospital, my first pre-procedure Valium, and hearing the words, “Skin stretcher, please,” uttered in connection to my own personal calf), they scheduled an appointment for the verdict. I was interested in a detached way; I was comfortable with not really being one thing or the other, medically. 

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I Remember This: What Getting My First Milwaukee Backbrace Was Like

I don’t ordinarily post memoir pieces but I have written a lot of first-person material as writing exercises. I’m posting one such piece now to share a little bit about being a very young disabled child.

Because my memories go back to the age of three and no farther, it seems as if I came into existence as I was (just barely) walking with my mother, and occasionally my father, through the long hallways of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital around 1969.
In the confusion about what was wrong with me — cerebral palsy atypical was their best guess and a misdiagnosis until I was 11 — it must have been a strange relief to the neurologists and orthopedists to come upon scoliosis, a particular problem, discrete and treatable.
Color photo of a Milwaukee back-brace.

Milwaukee back-brace used to treat scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History.

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There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe: I Could Be Taken From You

There's No Cure for Gretchen Lowe
Gretchen Lowe, age 35 at the 90’s midpoint, was not dying, as she was at pains to point out more frequently than she would have wished. She had muscular dystrophy, a distinction often lost on those who equated strength with muscle mass, consciousness with cognition, and worth with productivity. A growing chorus assumed this would be her preference, death before disability, rather than the indignity of grappling with that terminal condition from which the chorus-members, themselves imperfect, suffered: life that is both enviable and bleak, and always, always unfair in distribution of the same.
Like so many of her friends, Gretchen had swapped one coast for the other after college and she left DC, a city of increasingly impossible winters, lawyers, and three years of an uninteresting technical proofreader job, and moved to San Francisco, a city of manageable weather, bike messengers instead of lawyers, and apparently no editorial jobs. Five years in, she was the administrative director of a small free clinic for women and had cycled through four shared flats before the Recluse, her boyfriend, gave up his Pacific Heights studio and moved in, more or less, to Gretchen’s two-bedroom flat on a quiet street in Cole Valley.
Like ancient Rome, San Francisco was a city of hills and, with few exceptions, honored its dead by housing them firmly and in perpetuity outside its official boundaries. Gretchen lived and worked firmly within those boundaries, mostly because taking public transportation to and from work everyday took what limited energy she had. She did have an increasingly hard time breathing and walking, her grip was undeniably poor, her fingers lacking in dexterity, but she had an even harder time imagining herself dead, or wanting to be dead.
But she had no master plan, no Disability for Dummies to be her guide, just a lifetime of experience in a body that was weak, breathless, and clumsy, and getting more so year by year. So Gretchen did what was practical and what made life – her life, none other’s – worth living. She kept to the flatter parts of town, used the bathroom before she left home and work, and thought more about her next meal than eternity. In this last concern she had the unwavering support of her family; Gretchen did know how to find a decent restaurant.
She needed this particular skill on this particular evening because her mother, Alice, had flown in. Festive feelings aside, Gretchen had serious misgivings to broach, misgivings that were about a clinical research opportunity that divided them called “Genetic Reparative Therapy.”
When Alice had first excitedly called her daughter months before about GRT, Gretchen couldn’t bring herself to say a hard, “No.” She herself didn’t know exactly why she was flat-out rejecting this “cure” — or why she couldn’t tell Alice no. She’d certainly done it before.
It wasn’t until she burst into tears after half-watching an old Sally Field movie about a mother not leaving her daughter that the feelings coalesced within her as a single as-yet-unspoken fear: “I could be taken from you and you would never get me back.”
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There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe: Whoever Wrote the Regs Was a Frigging Genius

When the new Beetles came out, Gretchen had kicked around the idea of ditching all of the cab business and getting a car. Since cars came with lots of options but none that made the car driveable by her, she and the Recluse realized the car would have to be modified. Gretchen heard that lots of disabled people got financial help for such things through Voc-Rehab.


Look. You work. You’re not really eligible to be disabled. Air-quotes.


One sleepy post-lunch hour in her clinic office, she gave in to an impulse and looked up the number. When no one picked up at the main number, she worked her way through the extensions until a deep, annoyed voice said hello. That one call into the San Francisco office of Voc-Rehab pretty much cured any hope she had of even minimal financial assistance. The call also showed how employment was a universal solvent on the human stain of disability, at least where government agencies were concerned.

The counselor had more to say, nasally, on the overall lack of money available and went on to say that he himself was legally blind and had been waiting five years for a computer he could use. To do his job. Voc-rehabbing people who were legally blind, for example. So complaining to him was not really something he would be real open to hearing. If she didn’t mind.

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Dr. Nutone Reveals His Secret Identity

There's No Cure for Gretchen Lowe
“Now I must confess. I must tell you my secret. I’m not a medical doctor. I’m a doctor of philosophy. But greater even that, I am a humble man. A proud Utilitarian.
“In the great tradition of the Enlightenment – a paradoxical name if you have come to believe like I have that the light of reason is too often used like a policeman’s flashlight pointed right at your eyes – I embraced utilitarianism, or as it is known in the common parlance as, “If it feels good, do it,” or “Something that feels so right could never be wrong.”
“I believed – no, I knew – that happiness was the most important thing because it was the true foundation for goodness. A good quality of life makes you happy, and measuring the quality of a life couldn’t be easier – is there an absence of a reason to be sad?
“I loved the effort and rigor of proving that happiness was what was easy, comfortable, familiar. I felt a responsibility to help end the suffering of people who will never know happiness because their lives are inherently difficult, uncomfortable, and filled with change, all of it really bad and pretty much a downer for everyone around them.
“I realized this when I was recovering from a difficult, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar mountain-climbing accident I had had right after I divorced my second wife because she wasn’t enough of a challenge for me and I was bored. After my injuries healed and I was a real person again, I had everything, a book-lined apartment, a light teaching load, and a beautiful dog and cat.
“It was a way I had never felt before. The simplest things were filled with enjoyment. Max and Emma were everything to me. Their lives, my life with theirs, demonstrated the nature of happiness. Taking care of them, guarding their happiness, was making me a good person. It all made perfect sense.
“I began to wonder why Max and Emma were considered lesser beings than my colleagues in the department, particularly the older ones and the guy with the hearing aid. I began to resent the condescending questions about my ‘pets.’
“One day at a faculty senate meeting, I had my awakening. Max and Emma’s consciousnesses were equal to that of my human colleagues. In some cases superior. They had, after all, achieved for themselves lives we might envy in their ease and comfort. What they lacked was respect from others. What they lacked were their rights.
“I wrote a book denouncing the human monopoly on consciousness, worth, and legal standing. I worked night and day to prove that ease, comfort, and familiarity are the hallmarks of a high quality of life. When my book hit the university bookstore’s bestseller list, I had the department eating out of my hand. What did I get at home for my pains? I’ll tell you. I got a dog I found eating my cat’s shit. He’d developed quite a taste for it. And she was no better, I swear she was filling that litter box like a buffet steam table just to spite me. It’s called copraphage, and apparently it’s quite common. This was not consciousness I could champion.
“I became bitter for a time. All of my hard work, pain, and venturing into the unknown to express the central utilitarian values of comfort, ease, familiarity, that the quality of life is equivalent to the quality of consciousness, had gone for nothing.
“I received a letter around that time from the doctor who treated me after my mountain-climbing accident. In reviewing his records after a lawsuit was filed against him, he found a small tumor in my brain x-ray he had missed before. Needless to say, he was quite concerned. This could really jeopardize his chances in the pending lawsuit. Negligence, how appropriate. I returned to see him and he removed the tumor immediately.
“This episode raised two interesting points. First, the tumor was not actually connected in any way to my accident. It could have gone undetected for years until its bulging dimensions caused me to black out, go into seizures, or compose full-length operas in the time it takes to heat a Lean Cuisine. So you might surmise that this ostensibly bad bit of experience – losing my grip on Capitan and becoming quadriplegic for nearly three days – was actually to my advantage. I had thought my only luck had been when the neurologist, a bottom-half sort who thought ‘futile care policies’ were something vassals brewed up for useless serfs, showed up for one more pin-prick exam before they pulled the plug as my eye-blinks were ordering them to do. I would have fallen off the bed in shock when I felt that jab in my left thigh if I’d, you know, been able to move.
“But as Doc Missedthetumor observed, it’s a good thing these neurologists rush from patient to patient or my wishes would have respected me right into the grave.
 “An even stranger occurrence followed, though. I was awake during the surgery to remove the tumor, as is the normal procedure. They were doing a sort of color commentary to keep me posted on what was happening, probably going into too much technical detail because they thought the ‘Doctor’ before my name meant I was one of them. Just after the lead surgeon announced a clean excision, I lost all interest in the nature of consciousness. I couldn’t have cared less about the rights of animals, or people, or the distinction between sensation versus perception. If you told me, ‘The end justifies the means,’ I would have said, ‘Whatever.’ I started noticing how my personal experience was horning in on my objective arguments. I was filled with a desire to read Nietzsche, which wasn’t odd except that what I wanted was to read a few pages and then fight in public places about what I’d read. One day, I thought, ‘Well, that’s just the way it is,’ and it hit me. I wasn’t a philosopher anymore. I had become merely philosophical.
 “Needless to say I was useless as a teacher. After a couple of years, my department head noticed the negative student evaluations – though they thought I’d make a great undergrad and had tremendous potential if I’d only apply myself – and called me in. I came clean. Confessed I had a condition that disabled me as a philosopher. It felt so good to finally be open about it. Hobbs was kind, asked me how I was doing, told me he’d suspected something was wrong but felt it was a private matter best left unremarked.
“When I assured him I had stopped struggling and was learning to live with my limitation, his demeanor changed. He became more officious and said he needed to reflect upon the situation. We would speak soon. At first I was nervous but my now-habitual philosophical attitude was in control. I simply thought, ‘Whatever will be, will be,’ instead of grinding each word Hobbs had spoken into a fine powder in search of his first principles. Because I’d forgotten Hobbs didn’t really have any first principles.
 “We never spoke again. The university sent me a letter of separation, stating that because I was unable to perform the essential tasks of my position, I was relieved of all teaching duties and publishing expectations. Because I had tenure they couldn’t dismiss me; they recognized I had a discipline-related disability that was beyond my control. I was welcome at all social events and meetings, but they could not reasonably accommodate me and my take-it-as-it-comes reactions.
“The real issue, of course, was liability. The department was small and already had few students. Parents didn’t like their kids majoring in philosophy. If word got out that I wasn’t harping on distinctions between being and Being, or my bioethics class was questioning its own preconceptions about ‘happiness’ or ‘personhood,’ rather than debating how many days a disabled infant’s parents have to decide whether to end the child’s life, those parents might start to ask why they were pouring money into a philosophy education and getting nothing more than sociology.
 “Naturally, I sued the university. Naturally, I lost, it being a disability case. I was left with no career, a shit-eating dog, a crap-happy cat, and an apartment I could barely afford after the lawsuit. At first it didn’t get to me. Something will work out, I said. My book was still selling. I thought it was the most ridiculous piece of trash ever written, but I had to eat, as I put it so philosophically.
“But the lawsuit taught me something valuable: how enjoyable it was to bother someone else. Even though I lost, I had been something of a disturbance, and that pleased me. I had to make a fresh start, reinvent myself again. So I took every penny I had, hired the most cutthroat attorney I knew (a former student of mine, actually) and sued the bejesus out of Doc Missedthetumor.
“This time I won. Well, settled big. Personal injury always has an edge on individual rights. Doc Missedthetumor quit medicine and opened a one-hour photo where his film-reading skills were finally in an appropriate environment. Doc claims to be a much happier man now, after me dragging him through the mud. He told me this by saying I ruined his life. He even threatened me, a true sign of our bond. He warned me that the tumor could grow back, that it may already be pressing on another lobe and distorting my thinking in some new and possibly unsavory way. He opened my eyes to what I’ve come to call Transcendental Misanthropy. I keep his letter to me as a testimonial, in case I ever need to file a restraining order.”
[To Be Continued]

There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe is an unpublished coming-of-middle-age crip lit novel. Within the broader realm of literature featuring characters with disabilities — #DisLit and memoir — #CripLit presents an understanding of disability using the lens of the social model. It eschews disability as a narrative device and shortcut for conveying sentimentality, heroism, and disaster to readers.