Shifting the Narrative

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 14, 2022 # Lifestyle

Allen RuckerAccording to a blistering op-ed piece in a recent New York Times, the time has passed for the Baby Boom generation and their elders to get off the political and cultural stage and let the next generation take the realm. Anyone born after 1965 has a completely different perspective on American life. They have no recollection of the 1950’s which many of their predecessors, left and right, would like to go back to. If you were white, heterosexual, and middle class, it was a much simpler time. If you were of any other racial group or sexual persuasion, it was awful. That’s something those who want to return to the era when men were men and women made dinner conveniently forget. It was not a topic that showed up on The Ozzie and Harriet Show.

But having a long cultural memory does have its rewards. It reminds you of the evolution of change. When Bill Clinton, George Bush, and I were growing up in the 50’s, disabled people of all varieties were shunned, mocked, and ignored. Helen Keller jokes were in vogue. I grew up in a middle-sized town in Oklahoma, and our next-door neighbors had a son disabled with CP. No one talked to him, even on those rare occasions where he was seen in public. He did not attend public school. High school kids would make fun of him to his face. In his twenties, he disappeared into an institution in Kansas and was forgotten about. It was a harsh, lonely existence.

I’m sure anyone from that era has a similar story. Disabled people were not seen, heard, and certainly not circulating in polite company. To say it was a disadvantage to be disabled was a gross understatement. It was a certain path to complete social alienation and disdain.

Since those dark ages of three generations ago, we have arrived at the stage of social evolution, broadly speaking, where the acceptance of people with disabilities in the culture at large is not an absolute given but clearly a constant and often urgent topic. The board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest in the country, just passed a measure to make ALS-English bilingual education the standard for early intervention with deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Some parents of deaf children opposed this move, thinking it was government overreach. However, it plays out, it is a clear indication that the disabled are being taken increasingly seriously, an upward trend since the ADA passed in 1990.

Stage One of this ongoing revolution is access and inclusion. We are not at that finish line by a long shot. Stage Two is a more recent phenomenon. It is the declaration by some successful disabled people that having a disability is in fact, an advantage in their life. It’s not a subtraction – it’s an addition.

Listen to the words of actress/wheelchair-user Ali Stroker (and this was before she became the first disabled actor to win the Tony Award a couple of years ago). Her disability, paralysis via a car accident, has forced her “to be creative, think outside the box, and solve problems my entire life – and not just my career.”

All of us in this or similar conditions potentially have this skill. Most of us who are active alert confront problems daily, and many of us become experts in solving them. Surviving this kind of adversity, and the scar tissue that comes with it, builds resilience. Resilience allows you to cope with rejection and disappointment. Resilience creates the Ali Stroker’s of this world.

Another performer who touts the advantage of being disabled is a deaf actor/model/dancer, Nyle DiMarco. “It’s an asset rather than a limitation,” he says about his deafness. “Being my true self…is the way to thrive and to overcome the limitations and prejudices that surround us.” He goes on, “Being deaf assigned me a battle.” And that battle spurred his success.

For someone who grew up way back then, this is a huge narrative shift. Does this mean that someday people will envy you because of your disability? “Man, I wish I were in a wheelchair or deaf. Then I’d be a lion in the ring. I could win an Oscar or heck, maybe run for the governor of Texas.” Or maybe not. But at least you have weathered a tough storm in life and know you can weather others. No matter where you are headed, you got that going for you.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.