"I don't want a handicapped child."
I read that line in a mother's story of her disabled child's birth and first few weeks, and it gave me that awful, wrenching feeling--you know, the one where your insides kind of shrivel up and your breath catches somewhere in the back of your throat, hinging on tears or gasps or other sounds of enervated shock.
It's easy to be angry.
After a while, you stop being angry. You stop feeling indignant rage whenever people say oppressive bullshit and you start to just feel tired. It's an aching, gnawing weariness that sort of nestles in your bones and grows deep roots around your heart, squeezing and holding it captive in their entangled curtain.
So when you read one frightened parent's outburst -- "I don't want a handicapped child." -- you just feel all the energy drain out of your body. Your shoulders droop, you forget whatever rules you once memorized about posture, and you want to crumple in your seat or against the wall, wherever you are right now.
I'm reminded that I'm one of those children who wasn't supposed to be born.
I'm one of those children new parents are afraid to have.
That's not a reality that I like to think about much. Who would?
"I don't want a handicapped child."
I'm pretty sure that's what's meant when parents say, "I wish my child could be normal!" if you really get down to it.
It reminds me of the same kind of feeling I got when Judi Dench, playing J. Edgar Hoover's mother, said, "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son," in J. Edgar (2011).
So is being disabled the same as being dead? Or is it, as Jim Sinclair put it, that
Therefore, when parents say,
I wish my child did not have autism,
what they're really saying is,
I wish the autistic child I have did not exist, and I had a different (non-autistic) child instead.
Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.
"But don't you think those parents would want their [intellectually and developmentally disabled] daughter to be normal? Don't you think they'd give anything for her to be normal again?"
The sad fact is that if they're like most parents, they would pay almost any price for their daughter to look, speak, act, and think "normal."
We are not wanted, not as we are.
Though human existence is fraught with frailty, it is our debilities that become stigma -- visible marks of our deficiency, of our defect, of our worthlessness.
It's not so much that my voice doesn't matter as much as the voices of those who clamor that people like me shouldn't exist, that people like me are a burden on society and a devastating medical mystery destroying families, that murdering people like me is an act of mercy to spare us from suffering to live...
In these conversations, which pervade public discourse and dominant rhetorical constructions of disability and disabled bodies and minds, my voice doesn't exist.
How can victims speak?
When you say "I don't want a handicapped child!" what you really mean is not that you want us to live lives that are meaningful and happy for us as we are, but for us to disappear, replaced by perfect, recovered, cured people who were once broken and who now have been healed.
I am happy with the way that I am, and my happiness should never, never be considered lesser than that of someone whose physicality and mentality have been centered as normative and ideal at the expense of those of us whose bodies and minds have been disabled and marginalized.
When you say "I don't want a handicapped child!" what you really mean is that you are incapable of loving and accepting us as we are for all of who we are, and can only conceive of love as belonging to idealized children with brains and bodies that fit constructed notions of normal and healthy.
I want to be loved, along with all my frailties and debilities, not in spite of them or in the futile hopes they will one day disappear so I can earn the favor of the able-bodied and neurotypical.
When you say "I don't want a handicapped child!" I don't feel sympathy toward you, but my heart breaks for your child who will grow up with the constant message that people whose bodies and minds diverge from typical don't deserve to live.
I have been that child, conditioned to believe that the only appropriate response to disabled people is pity for the tragedies that have rendered them confined to lesser bodies and minds, rather than outrage at the systems that have institutionalized and industrialized ableism against them.
I know, I know. I should be grateful that I can type this. I should be grateful that I wasn't aborted, that I'm fortunate enough to breathe the same air as people more worthy of life than me, that I wasn't locked in an institution.
I've been told all my life I should be grateful that I'm allowed to exist.
"Your dreams will be reduced down to breathing. And you will be grateful."
I've been told all my life that I am the problem.
"If you work hard enough, maybe no one will know."
The answer is always to put us away or force us to stop communicating and moving naturally, not to stop attitudes that allow abuse and bullying and violence.
"At least he never hit you."
Violence enacted on disabled bodies is never violence, never abuse.
It's for our own good. It's so we can learn to behave, so we can become disciplined, so we can get better. So "strangers you can love will move in behind our faces."
I tried to forget.
This knowledge that I'm one of the children whose births are dreaded and met with regret rather than joyous anxiety? I tried to bury it away and let it turn, however slowly, into a scar.
Then you said, "I don't want a handicapped child."
And I remember now.
How could I let myself forget?