The Fragmented Body: musings on dis/ability

Lately I’ve taken to wandering among the shelves of literary journals at my campus library (now that I’ve finally figured out where the journals are kept…), and randomly browsing the latest issues. I do this for two reasons: the first is because the library catalogue refuses to tell me when new articles are published that could potentially help my stalled thesis writing, and the second is because I like to know what’s going on in the Canadian literary world. What are people writing about? Which new writers should I be reading? What’s being written in terms of critical theory? And, perhaps most important, where are all the new and fascinating articles about disability in literature? Who’s writing about the body??

Those last two questions are completely irrelevant to my thesis work (which is on biofiction in poetry), but my primary interest (in terms of literature) is representations of the body as being trapped in this binary of completely disabled or completely able. I get way too excited when someone writes an article about this or any aspect of disability studies and its intersection with literature (or film).

So anyway, last week I was perusing the “newly released” journals at the library, and opened the spring issue of Open Letter (not a favourite of mine lately, but they do admittedly offer a lot of goodies for English geeks) to find an article on Lacan (who I had just been reading the week before) and the “unified fragmentary” by Nicole Markotic. I copied the article and read it in fragments over the past week (my reading life has become very sad lately – it’s all autobiography theory and confessional poetry), finally finishing it today. The article was fascinating and fed my need for disability theory, for the time being, but what struck me was the discussion of bathrooms at the end of the article. Here, Markotic writes that while public washrooms for “normal” bodies are gender-specific, those for people with disabilities are unisex, “reflecting a common belief that gender (and by association, sexuality) is not important for disabled people” (Open Letter 14:8, 134). Although I have noticed these unisex bathrooms, I can’t say it ever really occurred to me that this was a message about sexuality. I tend to think of unisex bathrooms as fantastic because, every time I push open that door marked “Women,” I feel like I’m announcing that I have a vagina rather than a penis, which the world has no need to know. Clearly I am female, I have breasts, there’s no denying my gender, but I still think this is a stupid concept – that because I’m female I need a separate place to pee. But I digress. I intended on telling a story here, not theorizing about gendered bathrooms.

Public washrooms are an integral part of our society. Most people never think twice about them, but I’m not one of those people. I always know where the bathroom is (if there even is one) when I’m out at a cafe or a restaurant or even at the mall. Actually I sometimes wish there was a bathroom on the C-Train, but that’s more about my issue with germs than about having a pea-sized bladder. (We’re getting really personal today!) Two years ago, this bathroom hang-up of mine forced me to look closely at how our society labels and treats people with disabilities, specifically those with mobility impairments. Two years ago, my last year in Windsor, I decided to have a get-together for my 25th birthday. Facebook invites were sent, but no real plans had been made. Perhaps, I thought, we’ll all go to Milk, my favourite cafe downtown where I pretty much live when I’m at home. And then one of my friends, who happens to use a scooter to get around, RSVP’d in the “yes” column and my plans all went out the window. We had really only just met (although I’d met her before, years earlier when I volunteered for the frosh week English orientation and she happened to be in the group of first-year students I was leading in some literary activity), and I wanted to be friends with her for two very specific reasons: 1) she was in my creative writing class and I loved her poetry (very Gertrude Stein-infused), and 2) she was one of only a handful of English majors I knew who also had an obsession with history. Well and her sense of humour occasionally borders on the immature, like mine. So anyway, this friend, (I suppose I should give her a name here… Let’s just call her by her first initial:) C, said she’d come to my gathering, and suddenly I realized there was no way we could meet at Milk – there’s a step out front, the washrooms are insanely tiny, closet-sized, not at all wheelchair or scooter-accessible. And so began a city-wide search. In the middle of a partly frozen January, I was chasing down leads on accessible bars and cafes from one end of town to the other, getting bitchier and bitchier the longer my search took. At one bar, the most promising find because it had these nice, wide front doors, I asked the bar-tender if their washrooms were wheelchair-accessible. “Sure,” he said, directing me to the back. I weaved my way between empty tables that were positioned too close together to find the bathrooms, where stall after stall after stall was smaller than a standard clothes closet. Someone with any kind of mobility impairment would likely find it nearly impossible to pee in such a location. Forget squeezing a wheelchair through the bathroom’s door, I was having a hard enough time believing that even someone using crutches would fit into one of those stalls. Back out front, the bar-tender asked me (rather snidely) whether the bathrooms lived up to my requirements. No, I informed him, and then proceeded to give the best rant of my life about how ridiculous it is that in a city of 200,000 people, not one single cafe or bar or restaurant would have the common sense to make their establishment disability-friendly!

Needless to say, my gathering did not occur at that bar. The city-wide hunt continued, and just when I was at the point of canceling the whole affair, one of my friends suggested a cafe one block east of the university. A cafe that was buried in the basement of a church. Yeah, right, I thought, like that’s going to be accessible. But I trudged over there anyway, down the steps to the cafe, where I asked if perhaps they had an elevator or something. And to my amazement, they did. I almost hugged the girl working. The place was spacious, there was certainly more than enough room to maneuver a scooter between tables, plus they had bottomless cups of coffee for $2. This place became my personal heaven for the rest of my time in Windsor (says the caffeine addict). But, it turned out, their bathrooms are not wheelchair-accessible. This was disappointing, as was the fact that use of the elevator required an able-bodied person to go down to the cafe and tell someone the elevator was needed, so it’s really not the best set-up. But we were now about 2 days away from my birthday, so it was this place or nothing. We gathered in the basement cafe. And, as it turned out, C has a bladder the size of a small country.

That birthday was about more than bathrooms, though. Until then, I was still trapped in that either/or binary where bodies are either completely “normal” or else completely deviant. But while punch-drunk and high on sugar from 14 cups of coffee and a few muffins standing in for birthday cake, I asked what was “wrong” with C’s body (I’m fairly certain the question was phrased in a much more politically-correct manner, but I’m paraphrasing). She has cerebral palsy. Up until then, my knowledge of CP was limited to having read one young adult book (about a boy with CP whose father was planning to kill him “out of love” – Terry Trueman’s Stuck in Neutral) and to several months of “working” with an 8-year-old boy who had CP. I say “working” in quotation marks because I was not actually supposed to interact with him at all. At the time, I was in college and doing my end-of-year placement in a grade school, where I was supposed to work with some first-graders who were lagging behind but whose parents refused to let them get tested for learning disabilities. So, instead of getting the benefit of a trained professional, they got me, a 20-year-old with no clue how to teach them (I did, eventually, pick up some tips that paid off). But Sebastian immediately attached himself to me and let me teach him, whereas he generally threw a fit when his support worker tried to make him do school work. The school, of course, clued into this bond and suddenly I found myself with a new job: instead of getting a lunch break when I could actually scarf down some food, I was expected to accompany Sebastian to the “special needs” room, since he was segregated from the other kids at lunch. The first few days of this, his support worker came with us to show me what I was supposed to do – I was supposed to feed him. I suppose here it needs to be said that while Sebastian’s CP was moderately severe, impairing his fine motor skills, this kid wanted to learn, more than anything else. So when his support worker started leaving us alone, I let Sebastian feed himself. By the end of the lunch hour, there was food all over both of us, but he was learning how to do something for himself, and, judging by the enormous grin he had at the end of lunch, that independence was what he needed. He also hated to be carried or pushed around in his wheelchair when his walker was available, but his support worker was too impatient to let Sebastian walk. After lunch, Sebastian and I walked back to the classroom (unless his legs were too sore, which sometimes happened), even though it took 15 minutes for us to get from one room to the other. Inevitably, my push for independence got me in a world of trouble with the school’s principal, my boss, who evidently believed we should all coddle Sebastian rather than let him grow and experience life, and once again I was barred from working with him.

Anyway. Cerebral palsy has levels, but that’s true of all bodies and bodily conditions, not just disabilities. For me, fast-paced and long(ish)-distance bike rides are normal (I don’t train, like a Tour de France cyclist would), but this isn’t true for everyone. My sister, when we were kids, would turn cartwheels in the backyard and do a line of summersaults across the grass like they were second-nature, and I could never contort myself into the right position to do a single summersault. For me, that position is completely unnatural (and actually led to a lot of anxiety in gym class whenever we got the gymnastics portion of the curriculum, and I would inevitably devolve into a fit of tears at the mere thought of having to contort my body into that painfully curved position). For Sebastian, getting his hands to cooperate and bring food to his mouth was a difficult (and often frustrating) process, but for C, this isn’t even an issue. She has a set of leg braces to help her walk (very cool ones, I think), but she also has a scooter that allows her to fly past those slow-moving students on her way to class.

I could go on, but from the looks of it I’ve already written a term-paper-length post. So I’ll add one final thought before I go make dinner: In her article, Markotic talks about Meredith Quartermain’s book, Vancouver Walking, which “allows only for an ableist pedestrian” (132). Can the book be reframed, Markotic asks, to allow for a pedestrian “who wheels, rather than walks, through the city?” (132). I don’t have an answer, having not read Quartermain’s book (yet), but it’s a question I wonder rather often. For two years in Calgary, I think about this scenario every time I enter a bookstore or a cafe that is not wheelchair-accessible; every freezing winter day that I navigate the city’s +15 walkways and realize that, for the most part, you need a “normal” body to climb the stairs leading to the above-ground walkways; every time I see someone in a wheelchair who is unable to get on the bus because both of the bus’s designated wheelchair spaces are taken up by mothers with giant strollers. It’s something we should all think about more often, but unfortunately, we live in a very self-centered society.

And now, my photo of the day: because this post is about bodies, I offer you a photo of my toes. Last summer when I was home, I crossed over to Detroit for an afternoon with one of my friends, and decided to take a picture of my feet (as the women in my family are prone to doing) on a sidewalk plaque that bears the phonetic spelling of the city’s name, Day-Twah. Yes, it was originally a French settlement, and we pronounce things differently.

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