Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I'm OK; you're OK

During my walk this morning I heard a soft cooing sound. It was the call of two birds chatting to each other from their perch on different trees. The only way I can find to reproduce the sound is by making a mid- to high-pitched gulp. Try it and you’ll maybe see what I mean.

For all the world, it sounded like the birds were whispering sweet nothings, like lovers do when they’re in each other’s arms and really don’t have much to say. One of the birds took flight a short distance to another tree, just long enough for me to see that it had a black body with a burnished, almost golden-brown, spread of wings, made more golden as the feathers glinted in the sun.

A short while later I heard the distinctive sound that I’ve come to associate with the cawing of a crow. When I spotted the bird in a nearby tree, I noticed that it looked very much like a crow, quite large and black, except for a grey hood, collar and underbody. It was keeping company with a small flock of its own kind. I stood still and watched them for a while and noticed that one of the birds was balancing on one leg as it perched on a branch. On closer inspection, I could see that it had only one claw.

This reminded of something I’d seen the other day from my bedroom window. Another of these crow-like birds was hopping around on a balcony of the house next door. I watched it merrily pecking away at crumbs, tilting its head sideways so as to slide the length of its beak along the flat surface of the balcony to scoop them up. “Odd,” I thought to myself. “Why doesn’t it pick up the crumbs with the tip of its beak as I’d seen other birds do?” Indeed, I don’t remember ever seeing a bird pick up food in this way.

Then I noticed that the bird had only one leg. “Ah,” thought I, “it must pick up stuff the way it does because of its disability.”

It eventually flew off, and almost immediately another “crow” alighted on the balcony and proceeded to pick up the crumbs in exactly the same way the first bird did—yet it had two fine legs. So much for my theory, which I would have concluded to be established fact if I hadn’t been proved to be so obviously wrong.

I continued my walk and mused along the way about how silly I am to consider anyone or anything abnormal just because they appear to be so. Most people don’t know that I had polio when I was a little boy and, as a result, have a deformed left leg. It definitely affects how I do things, but it hasn’t stopped me living my life. And I would be very upset if someone told me I was abnormal—or disabled, for that matter.

Yet we do this all the time when we use the term “disabled” to describe anyone who doesn’t fit what we consider to be some “norm.” According to that norm, I am disabled, yet I have never for a moment considered myself to be so. This is largely, I suspect, because my disability is not immediately obvious, with the result that I rarely have to explain it to others; and that’s just fine by me.

It must irk people who have more obvious disabilities no end when they’re treated differently, especially when they’re assumed to be incapable of doing thus and so. My friend Yvonne Singer, who has had severe cerebral palsy since birth, who is quadriplegic and has significant difficulty communicating with speech, has graduated with a Masters in Psychology and now is a professor for online courses at Middlesex County College in New Jersey. But she had a dickens of a job getting hired, not at Middlesex County College, where John Gutowski, the Dean of the School of Psychology, recognized her ability and gave her a chance, but at the hundreds of other schools where Yvonne applied and got nowhere.

All she’s ever wanted is a chance, but for so much of her life she’s had to deal with people who wanted to put her on the shelf.

You’re OK, Yvonne, and I’m OK, too. We’re both very normal, and beautiful, just like my birds.

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