The parent essay or memoir on discovering one’s child is not typical in some fashion is at once among the most common disability-related genre and one of the most difficult to do well. Of necessity, the essay has to move through ableist ideas about normality, encounter the challenges of having a disabled child, and then come out the other side of that encounter with … wisdom? Hopefully, wisdom. Often, such pieces just turn into gripe sessions about how hard it is to parent. Often, such pieces end up stigmatizing even when they plead for acceptance. Writing about radical transformations of one’s epistemology of the normal is hard to do well!
What would happen if we all created SuperBabies? Would we make a SuperRace? Fleets of SuperAdults so smart and wise and strong and nontoxic that they would never get cancer? (But they would of course discover its cure.) By age fifteen, they would teach their teachers. They would outrun all world records. They would eradicate every harmful chemical or they would somehow render all chemicals harmless to SuperBodies. They would, each one, win prestigious awards in their fields, twisting the bell curve into a radiant point of light from which would emanate their stellar, star-like performance. They would never know rejection. They would not know depression. They would not cry, or if they did cry, they would shed tears of existential meaning and fulfillment, reflecting on their infinite successes…
We want a SuperRace because we want to eradicate absolutely everything that terrifies us. We want SuperHumans so we can transcend that thing we are: human. But a SuperHuman would lack that crack in everything through which, as Leonard Cohen sang, the light gets in. There’s something in our suffering that we need. We’ve known this for millennia, and we make it clear in the stories we keep telling. The Buddha gave up his palace and meditated beneath a tree for a week. Jesus of Nazareth said yes to a cross. Our ache is our unfortunate, undeniable doorway. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, says the copper lady with the torch. When we walk into our pain, we sometimes find ourselves on the other side, freed of what we once thought we needed to feel free.
Culturally, we fear disability and try to push it away. The evidence is in both the personal and the public. [my emphasis]
Women around me worry about getting pregnant by X age or else they risk having a child with chromosomal anomalies. On a podcast, a bestselling author says that holding onto anger and resentment will give you cancer. Kids with amputations are turned into poster children, and we raise money to try to prevent bodies like theirs from existing. “Don’t worry,” a pediatrician said after examining my second child just hours after I’d birthed her. “Lightning didn’t strike twice.” Let me reiterate: he called my daughter lightning. “How did this happen to you?” strangers ask the amputee, the blind man, anybody with a different body, and the interviewee will tell you: It often feels like a coded way of asking How can this not happen to me? When I was in elementary school, the kids in wheelchairs learned in a separate wing of the building. We—the able-bodied kids—never saw them. Hollywood storylines typically assign suicidal tendencies to quadriplegic people (see bestselling novel turned blockbuster hit, Me Before You) despite the fact that the vast majority of people with spinal cord injuries report good qualities of life.
This response to disability is so pronounced in our culture that Princeton ethicist Peter Singer can still keep his job when he argues that children born with disabilities can ethically be killed before a certain age. Even babies with hemophilia. Why? Because, he says, they suffer and cause suffering: [T]he total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.
As always when I share a piece like this, my advice is to READ THE WHOLE THING.