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 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: A Mother’s Day Card From Alice

Another Excerpt from: There's No Cure for Gretchen Lowe, a novelAlice’s schoolteacher handwriting greeted Gretchen when she flipped through the mail that evening. It was a floridly pious Mother’s Day card with a letter enclosed. Her mother must have sent it right after Gretchen had called about the board meeting fiasco. Oh Alice, Gretchen snorted pleasurably. I couldn’t have picked a better card myself.

Underneath the card’s summary appreciation for maternal sacrifices, physical and emotional, Alice had written, “Thought you might like to see the enclosed item right now. I think it confirms that we are related. I cannot take credit for why you are who you are but I did have a hand in it. Then again, you were always a rotten child. Not that I had anything to do with that. Love, Mom.
The letter was her mother’s same handwriting.  Cheered, Gretchen set to reading it. It was dated from May 1970 and addressed to a Desmond Wallace, Chair of Fundraising Operations for the National Cerebral Palsy Association. Oh dear.

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I’m Not Finished: Corn on the Cob, Greece, NY; Late July 1970

Photo of 2 blue and white dinner plates. Text: I'M NOT FINISHED, a personal encyclopedia gluttonica by Ingrid Tischer talesfromthecrip.org

Image courtesy eBay

The question of whether early gluttony for, say, corn on the cob is an innate or acquired trait is just the sort of debate that misses the point entirely. To paraphrase the elegant  MFK Fisher: When I write about gluttony, I am writing about a gluttony for joy, a gluttony for excellence, and — frequently — a gluttony for any foodstuff bathed with melted butter.

A beautiful ear of fresh bi-color corn still half in the husk

 

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And Now a Word From the FuckAbilityTM Research Council on the Series #Speechless

FuckAbility™ Research Council to Speechless: You Had Us At “Trash Ramp”

Matt Damon calls on Speechless producers to be more inclusive of nondisabled white male actors

Frankly, the Speechless pilot could end with Minnie Driver’s character pulling a Divine and it would simply convey the amount of shit people with disabilities and their families are expected to eat every day.

(Highway, Heaven) After a cruel, cruel summer that included When Khaleesi Met Romanticide and a profoundly fucked up little number called Don’t Breathe, the autumn winds are blowing our sad, tragic little skirts right up with Speechless.

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#CripTheVote: You Have Hillary Clinton to Blame for This Blog Post

For the first time in my 50 years on July 28, 2016, I heard my disabled childhood described through the civil rights lens by a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. She centered my childhood where I would have: on education and public schools.

It’s difficult to explain the magnitude of hearing my disability identity described in the language of equal rights and not special needs. As meaningful as it was to see a woman accepting the nomination, the tectonic shift I felt was in Clinton accepting me as I am: as a person who deserves respect and can serve the greater good. Not as a diagnosis who has nothing to give or a vote to cast. Certainly not as a target to mock whose vote is irrelevant. Because I have gained my right to an education, I gladly accept the responsibility that comes with answering these two questions:
What do I want to contribute to that is bigger than myself? What is it that I have to contribute?
In using the education that Hillary Clinton and other disability rights advocates fought for, I have a shot at becoming a role model who works together with others rather than being labeled an “inspiration” who is kept at a distance.
The story of childhood is the story of education. The access to and quality of education determines whether that story is one you want to retell over and over, or one that threatens to scare you into silence. The school-to-prison pipeline and the violence that students of color with disabilities experience in the name of “discipline” are the education issues that need urgent action today. I appreciate Clinton’s past work because I see potential in it for protecting the rights of more children and youth with disabilities.
B/w photo of a little boy and younger girl sitting. Both smile and the boy is giving the girl a mischievous sideways glance.

The author and her older brother. Hillary Clinton said, “Every kid with a disability has the right to go to school.” That was an idea – not the law – in 1967 when this photo was taken. Three years later, this little girl could not start first grade at the neighborhood school where her older brother went. The school had a pet rabbit named Pugsly. Inclusion: DENIED. An education: DENIED. A bunny to pet: DENIED.

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