Talk of the Quad: (Dis)ability
I was called a cripple for the first time during Field Day in fourth grade. I fell during a game of kickball and overheard a group of boys in my class laughing about “when Daisy the cripple lost our class the big game.” Not fully understanding the word that these budding kickball professionals had just used, I returned home and Googled the definition. It didn’t take long to find: “One who is disabled. A social cripple—or, socially deficient.”
I was born 11 weeks premature, and due to brain trauma I have a developmental disorder called Cerebral Palsy. I’m a spastic triplegic—use of my legs and left arm is limited because of stiffness and atrophy, and I have poor balance. If you’ve seen me walking around campus, you’ve probably noticed my affected walking pattern, which makes carrying a cup full of hot coffee a grueling experience. Shoutout to travel mugs and other lidded drink receptacles.
On that day in fourth grade I had just turned 10, and I had never thought of myself as “deficient” in any way; by that age I had already endured multiple muscle-lengthening, bone-rotating orthopedic surgeries, and I actually had quite a rockin’ self esteem. Being faced with my apparent social deficiency was a blow to my fragile prepubescent sense of self. I became increasingly introverted and anxious in unfamiliar social situations. When new people asked why I limp, I’d avert their gaze and mumble about a sprained ankle. I faked sick a lot and laughed along when my friends called things retarded. I spent a lot of time playing the Sims by myself and mentally playing out absurd scenarios where someone found a cure for Cerebral Palsy and I could be “normal.” Being labeled a cripple that day triggered a pretty significant period of my life marked by feelings of incompetence and confusion.
One word created a huge shift in my understanding of myself and the world around me. Maybe I’m conflating typical preteen angst with this one moment—but even today it is a word that stings to hear. Now at age 20, I’m a very different person than I was at 10 or 11. I’m comfortable with my body and understand my strengths and limitations. I look people in the eye when explaining why I walk the way I do. I happily advocate for myself and my needs and don’t mind asking for help. At any given time I’m stressing about 700 other things before I’m stressing about my disability; like any other Bowdoin student, I’m preoccupied with papers, meetings and regretful nights in Baxter basement. One of my favorite comedians/activists Maysoon Zayid said it best in her TedTalk: “I’ve got 99 problems…palsy is just one.”
That being said, there are inherent frustrations to being disabled on this campus. I never use the quad-facing stairway to leave Searles because there is no railing and I stress about getting knocked over when herds of people are trying to get in and out. I get nervous walking alone in the winter in case I fall on ice when no one is around. The idea of navigating Bowdoin with less mobility than I have now is daunting—we’re minimally wheelchair accessible.
Here at Bowdoin, we don’t talk about disability. As a community, we’re engaging in lots of thoughtful dialogue around issues of diversity and inclusion; however, disability issues are continually left out of the conversation. There are fantastic spaces here for students of color, queer students or students of different religious and socioeconomic backgrounds to discuss and share their experiences. Bowdoin lacks this space for students with disabilities, and as a result, moments of ableism go largely unaddressed.
I’ve heard friends call one another cripples after an injury. I’ve heard cripple used in 24 College, which I consider my space of comfort, safety and support on this campus. I’ve heard variations of the word retarded get thrown around without hesitation. When people don’t speak up, the damage of words goes unacknowledged, and ableism ultimately prevails.
As a community, we have progress to make when it comes to acknowledging and supporting the experiences of students with disabilities—whether cognitive, physical, emotional or learning-related. I’ve noticed a fear or hesitancy in people when it comes to talking about disability. With so many questions and uncertainties related to what’s right, wrong or offensive, just starting the conversation can feel like a challenge. If we open ourselves up to asking the tricky clarifying questions (Is it okay to ask someone about their disability? Is retarded the right word to use to describe someone with a mental disability? What qualifies as a disability?), we can learn about the issues together in a way that validates and prioritizes the experience of students with disabilities, while still educating others as to why, say, calling someone a cripple isn’t cool.
We need to talk about the power of words, we need to think about language, and we need to be open to asking the tricky questions that make useful conversations happen. Sometimes the best way to communicate something is just by saying it. So as I finish this piece, feeling a vulnerable power in having shared this part of my life, I hope we start talking about it.
If you are interested and want to get involved with tackling diability issues on campus, contact Daisy Wislar (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jacob Russell (email@example.com), or Sarah Bonnano (firstname.lastname@example.org).