Most of them were not born with dwarfism. This is what I observed from a history of eminent dwarfs who enjoyed some degree of success outside of freak shows before the minority rights movements of the late 20th century. Most of them, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, experienced stunted growth as the result of an accident or an illness well after birth. Well after it would have been socially acceptable for their parents to give them up or hide them away. Such cases account for a very small minority of people with dwarfism, yet they dominated the scene of non-marginalized dwarfs for most of Western history. This got me thinking.
I conducted a crowd-sourcing experiment on Facebook, asking friends to name very famous people with severe physical disabilities. They had to be household names, nothing along the lines of “that little guy on Game of Thrones” or “that comic on that show from the Eighties who had a muscle problem.” The list of responses bore no surprises: Helen Keller, FDR, Beethoven, Frida Kahlo, Ray Charles, Christopher Reeve, Stephen Hawking, Michael J. Fox. All but two of them—Stevie Wonder and Oscar Pistorius—incurred their disability after infancy. Was this another sign of congenitally disabled people being hidden away? The vast majority (85%) of disabled people become disabled after birth. But the 15% whose conditions are congenital appear to be underrepresented in public.
Does society more readily accommodate those who lose certain abilities than those who never had them to begin with? Anthropologists know that for most of human history any injury or illness without a visible cause was presumed to be the result of black magic or a vengeful deity. From the European mythology of the changeling right up to the Nazi condemnation of genetic “monsters,” congenitally disabled people have been traditionally viewed as non-human and segregated accordingly. Vestiges of this remain in our general tendency to simply not consider congenitally disabled people as potential friends or partners or even peers, in contrast to the conviction that we should stick by our loved ones no matter what befalls them. Pop icon Dick Clark was warmly welcomed back to television as a co-host after his debilitating stroke, but I’ve yet to find a TV presenter in America who was born with a speech impairment like the one Clark developed. I don’t have the funding to empirically test my hypothesis, but you don’t have to delve too far into mainstream media to come up with stories, articles and interviews spotlighting someone who seemed to have it all until one fateful day when tragedy struck. And notice the comparable paucity of such resources on people who have always lived that way.
I squirm as I write this for fear of implying that those who become disabled have an easy time of it. Far from it. It would be utterly callous to ignore the often indescribable strain illness and injury can inflict on relationships, and the horrific social isolation that too many patients face. There’s a reason that “fair-weather friend” is a well-known term. And the human fascination with suffering can be more voyeuristic than empathic.
But no matter the motive, it is always accompanied by the unspoken understanding that no one would ever want to become disabled. This is, in essence, the most universal view of disability: Who on earth would want to lose an ability of any kind?
Even as a congenitally disabled person I understand this. I would never choose to erase my dwarfism from my life experience. But I do not like becoming more disabled than I already am. After tendon injuries and surgery to combat stenosis, I miss being able to ride a bike, to walk barefoot, to cook and type and sit on benches for long periods without pain. And if tomorrow I were to lose my ability to hear, see, or walk, I would be distraught, to put it mildly.
But in voicing this, it is crucial for me—and everyone listening to me—to recognize that my becoming deaf would be a profoundly different experience from that of my friend who has been Deaf since he can remember. Many Deaf people with cochlear implants have told of how overwhelmingly unpleasant hearing sound for the first time can be: One man has “discovered that, far from being adorable, the voices of his grandchildren were rather shrill and often best experienced with the implant turned off.” That Deaf Guy comic strip tells of the authors’ son pitying people who don’t know how to sign.
Similarly, those who have always needed a wheelchair to get around tend to see it as no worse than needing shoes to get around. Yes, it’s inconvenient in a world where ramps are all too rare, just as it would be inconvenient for those of us who are ambulatory if most public facilities didn’t accommodate the shoes on our feet. But that difficulty is imposed by a society that fails to accommodate certain minorities, not by the disability itself. Congenitally disabled bodies do not notice what they lack. As so many have said before me, How can you miss something you never had to begin with?
Researching all of this has brought me to the following conclusion: As individual humans, it is harder for us to deal with becoming disabled than with being born disabled. But as a society, the reverse is true – it is harder for us to accept someone who is born disabled than someone who has become disabled.
As a result, those who were born disabled and those who have become disabled often find themselves on opposite ends of the argument. A woman like Stella Young, who has never been able to walk, is rightly insulted when people tell her she is brave and inspiring just for getting up every morning. (Her TED Talk below is worth every minute.) But a woman like Christine Miserandino, who is slowly losing the ability to walk, is rightly seeking others’ encouragement and support as she struggles to do something she once took for granted. (Her oh-so-quotable Spoon Theory has already been linked on this blog before.)
Because the majority of disabled people are like Miserandino, not Young, the discourse on disability is dominated by sympathy, fear and lamentation. It is hard for us to remember that we shouldn’t pity a woman with cerebral palsy for her spasticity when so many people with multiple sclerosis openly mourn their loss of agility. Those who become injured or ill are entitled to their grief and no one should ever attempt to silence them. But everyone should think beyond their own experience before they publicly decry their condition as unbearable. Especially when it ends up joining the chorus of ableism led by non-disabled people.
One of the most read articles at The Atlantic this month is a piece by bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel who explains why he hopes to die before age 76:
[Living too long] renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
Emanuel is an amateur mountain-climber and a professional writer. He is entitled to feel upset at the idea of losing the abilities he currently holds most dear. And his other arguments about the drawbacks to longevity are as thought-provoking as physicians’ personal opinions on life-saving interventions. But his decision to openly denounce dependence and weakness as unproductive and undignified increases the lifespan of our culture’s ableism. How can we ever stop marginalizing disabled people if we continue to openly voice our fear of becoming like them?
The experiences of those who are born disabled and the experiences of those who become disabled are profoundly different and equally valid. Simply remembering that would change a lot.