(Guest Post from the Spouse)
July was Disability Pride Month. It came as a surprise to me, even though I am one of those that some would call “disabled.” There are those who find “handicapped” offensive. I’m not certain why that is. I find the term “disabled” more offensive—well not offensive, just inaccurate because some of us who would appear to be disabled are not really. But I get ahead of myself.
My “disability” is because my right leg is ten inches shorter than my left. I wear a brace with a pogo-stick-like bottom to compensate for the difference in length. A shoe is attached to a footplate at the proper height for my right foot. Two steel uprights hold the footplate and are topped by a leather cuff that encircles my calf. The whole contraption weighs about eight pounds. It’s a little bit unwieldy, but it allows me to stand upright and walk like a normal person, albeit with a limp. Walking without it is possible (I used to do it a lot when I was a kid), but not as comfortable as it once was, and besides, I look funny bobbing up and down as I walk.
Because the brace is plain for all to see, little kids are curious about it. Mostly they stare, and their mothers whisper to them that it’s not polite to stare. The most inquisitive just come right out and ask, “What happened to your leg?” I prefer the direct approach of the kids. My routine answer is, “I was born with one leg shorter than the other.” And then I ask questions back. Depending on the age of the kid, “Which leg is shorter?” and/or “Are your legs the same length?” They look down at themselves, realize that they have two legs of the same length and, having their curiosity satisfied, they go on to more interesting topics like whether they have a dog.
In summer I have the advantage of having a vacation home in a community with a lovely Olympic-size swimming pool that I attend regularly. It is swarming with kids. Some of them ask me about my leg; others just stare. Most of the kids attend a summer camp nearby, so, even though I was unaware that July was Disability Pride Month, I thought I’d ask the camp director if she’d like me to talk to the kids about people with disabilities. Her eagerness in accepting my offer caught me somewhat by surprise, but her enthusiasm did not seem phony. So on one Friday morning in July, I went to the camp to talk to the kids. We had decided that I would talk to the older kids (8-12) for 30 minutes, and the younger ones (4-7) about 15 minutes.
I was nervous and didn’t know quite how to get started. In the first session (with the older kids), I started telling them what I told you: that I don’t much like the term “disabled” (because I didn’t really feel disabled). In response to the question that I knew they had (“What happened to your leg?”), I told them that I usually told younger kids that I was born with one leg shorter than the other, but that was a simplification. After a short anatomy lesson about legs (femur, tibia, fibula), I told them that I was born without a femur, and that being born immediately after the end of WWII, I was taken to Washington, D.C. where the Veterans’ Administration was building braces for wounded soldiers, and they built a brace for me, too. The floodgates having been opened, the questions and comments poured in. “My grandfather was born in 1946, too!” “Can you drive a car?” “I know she can ‘cuz I’ve seen her at the pool!” (An opportunity to tell them about FDR and his custom-built car.) “What do you do when you take a shower?” “How much does your brace weigh?” I took it off and passed it around. “Wow, it’s heavy!” “How do you fasten the shoe on?” “Can you change your shoes?” “Does it hurt?” “Won’t your leg ever grow longer?” “Is your foot ‘normal’?” (Display foot.) From one of the tween-age girls: “Have you had to have clothes specially made for you?” An unexpectedly mature question: “How has your family been affected by your disability?” “How do you walk without it?” (Demonstrate bobbing up-and-down walk.)
I told them that my left leg had become very strong in compensation for the weakness in my right leg, and they were amazed that I had been a high jumper in junior high school. There ensued a discussion of other types of compensation: blind people who had very acute hearing, for example.
Forty-five minutes passed in a second.
Then the younger kids came. They were similarly curious, courteous, and ever so slightly more rambunctious. After a bit I was talking about how people would stare at me and my Korean child (“My Dad is from Korea!”), and how we didn’t much like it. I guess I included talk of my child again and maybe again. “Is your child a boy or a girl?” someone asked since I hadn’t said. I turned questioningly to the camp Director who nodded encouragingly. “My child does not identify as either a boy or a girl,” I said. “That is known as non-binary.” “I’m non-binary,” said a kid enthusiastically, “and I prefer the pronoun ‘they’.” New floodgates opened. One little boy in the back allowed as how he didn’t much like being a boy. The kids seemed to accept without question that this was something some kids felt. No big deal. Just like my “disability.”
Kids wave at me at the pool now. Sometimes they come up and ask, “How’s your leg today?” “About the same,” I say. “Great,” they respond.
Kids are cool.