Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The invisibility of the disabled

The younger of the two anonymous woman in the obituary
Recently, a local newspaper journalist here replaced one of his two weekly obituaries - normally devoted to newly deceased and renowned citizens - with the obituary of an unknown, wheelchair-bound woman. At 62 years of age, she had perished in a house fire along with her mother. 

Mention of the tragedy on an evening news program inspired the journalist to investigate and publicize the woman's life. The result was a moving, but also distressing, portrait of a capable, intelligent, accomplished professional who had been totally ignored by her neighbors. 

Interviewed on TV, a neighbor said of the pair: "We didn't have much contact with them. They didn't want to have contact with anybody. The daughter was disabled and handicapped. The mother was elderly. A nice woman."

Assisted by two researchers, the journalist lifted the two women from their anonymity. 

It emerged that the younger woman had worked in special-education and had written several books on the subject. Regarding her supposed yen for isolation, she actually had a close friendship with a young man in his twenties who devoted much time to assisting her with her daily needs. Demonstrating empathy unusual at his stage in life, the young man would come every evening to help her get into bed. 

He also took her on brief outings occasionally and in October, 2012, on a cruise to several European port cities. She in turn was "like a mother" to him, he said, adding: "She was a happy person; always smiling... with a lot of strength and decisiveness."  

So much for their neighbor's theory.

To be fair though, it's a trap anyone can fall into. Sometimes I need to be mindful that my own presumptions don't lead me to ignore the disabled. While I was at the dentist's clinic several weeks ago, one of  the cognitively-disabled patients in the waiting room began to speak. Initially I dismissed the young woman's garbled words as white noise.  But eventually I realized she was addressing me, and asked her "What?" She repeated the statement and, focusing now, I easily deciphered it. "How old is she?", she asked me, clearly referring to my daughter C. 

How fortunate that I caught myself in time to respond to her perfectly appropriate question.

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