I grew up in a small town of about 6000 people in rural Ontario. There were a few of us with disabilities in the area, but a small enough number that it was possible for those of us within that group to be at least vaguely familiar with each other. One I remember very clearly was a young man I’ll call Ted*.
Ted and I were not friends, in fact we had never met, but he was very much the nemesis of my childhood, by no fault of his own. At some point his parents had met my parents, where they heard all about his story and from that gleaned grand visions for my future. Ted used crutches, had plans for his future, and was a poster child for a disability organization. I was a rebellious, struggling stubborn kid in a power wheelchair. We were not close in age, and we had different disabilities. I was nothing like Ted, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be.
My parents just wanted what was best for their child, and with very few stories to draw from I can see why Ted’s story gave them hope. Eventually I carved out my own pretty awesome story, but there’s still something to be learned from Ted’s impact on my parents.
When I did interact with other children with disabilities, it was usually at summer camp. There, for a brief but blissful period of time all labels seemed to disappear. Of course there was still discrimination between kids, but there was also comradery in those shared experiences that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Brothers and sisters who knew what it was like to constantly be seen through the eyes of able-bodied people, and the loneliness that creates.
I moved away from that small town, and into larger urban areas where I met disabled adults who taught me important things about disability history. These were people who started disability organizations, and had protested for disability rights in their younger years. I was fortunate to have them as role models.
Not everyone is so lucky. Recently I saw a post on Facebook, in the picture a mom was sitting next to her physically disabled son in a public transit station, and she was crying. The post explains that she and her son were treated badly by fellow commuters while trying to use a public washroom. They felt her son was in the way and taking up space. It reminded me very much op my parents. What were she and her son to take from this experience? How would she use it to arm him for the world ahead?
The stories we share as disabled people might not be passed down through families, but they are still an important part of disability culture. Sharing stories of our leaders, the people who made it possible to where we are today, is an important part of how disabled people see themselves, as it is for the society that looks back at us.