The times, they are a’changin’

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on March 27, 2018 # Health

I am more optimistic than most, I think, about a bright and ever-expanding future for people with paralysis and other disabilities. I’m not talking about those who will benefit from medical advancements in recovery therapies so much as those who will simply live with paralysis for a lifetime. Perhaps this rosy outlook is because I am getting up there in years and slowly losing my mind. Or maybe it’s because I have taken on optimism as almost a defensive posture in these clearly disturbing times. Or maybe that darn optimist, the writer and public intellectual, Steven Pinker, has wormed his way into my consciousness and won’t leave. Let’s start there.

Steven Pinker is a Harvard linguist and social observer who sees the world from neither the current anger and pessimism of the left – ultra-right fanaticism is on the rise – or the anger and pessimism of the right – elite cultural and economic lib-tards are destroying all that is good in America. He tries to take a much more reasoned, long-ranged view from the current tribal wars and in doing so, sees enormous historic progress. In his bestseller, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” he argued that human violence has decreased immeasurably over the few hundred years. Oversimplified, we no longer hang, crucify, disembowel, behead, or burn people at the stake, pro forma punishments only a millennial or two ago. Human slavery, an American institution only 150 years ago, is now virtually wiped out worldwide. We see an account of one beheading by ISIS in the news and are horrified, forgetting that upwards of 40,000 poor souls lost their heads during the early days of the French Revolution.

In his newest book, “Enlightenment Now,” Pinker continues to catalog the march of progress we often take for granted as we despair over the awfulness of the moment.

“Newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with the flick of a finger…pills that erase a painful infection…critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot [Russia aside], the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket….”

I’m sure you caught “pills that erase a painful infection” in that laundry list, because that’s where disability enters this picture. I’ve been paralyzed since 1996. I’ve had plenty of infections, some deadly, and all cured by antibiotics and various now-commonplace medical procedures. Before 1945, one bad infection would have done me in. I’m also treated with dignity and respect wherever I go in public. No one spits on me, shouts I am the curse of God, or thinks of me as an ipso facto second class. There is a hell of a lot left to do to make me and my 56 million disabled brethren part of the fabric of America, but it is now largely a battle against ignorance and entropy, not hatred and venality.

Ever hear of the “ugly laws” of the 1880’s? In Chicago, the law said that anyone who was “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgust object” was barred from public view. Before post World War I – only a hundred years ago – all the reigning stereotypes of the disabled were considered indisputable fact – we were sick, weak, unreliable, often morally degenerate if not dangerous, useless, only marginally human, and expendable. Reading this, you can’t imagine being seen like this, then thrown into an institutional snake pit to waste away. The reason you feel this way is a testament to the enormous progress that’s taken place.

I got a checkup last week and my internist announced that I was healthier than he had ever seen me. One, I am lucky as hell that I have been spared many of the deadly complications of paralysis that others live with. And barring some unseen catastrophe, I am insanely lucky that I live in a time where the combination of modern medicine and a commonsense, widely promulgated health regimen ensures that I will live as long, and damn near as well, as if I had never contracted the neuroimmune disorder, transverse myelitis. I have my problems, for sure, from painful spasms to nasty ulcers, but in the even limited scope of modern history, they don’t seem that monumental.

If that’s not enough positivity for one blog, an astounding 343,483 more people with disabilities joined the U.S. workforce in 2016, four times the rate of 2015.

Something, I would venture, is going on.

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.