Sunday, July 4, 2010

"Miracle Boy" Grows Up" (an excerpt & commentary)

A long story in the New York Times today (July 4, 2010) about an Iraqi war soldier who became disabled in combat and is learning to reinvent his life. Okay, that's an oversimplification of a complex, touching article. But at some level it is without a doubt a disability tale--and that's where I come in.

Usually, stories of heroic overcomers turn my stomach. First of all, they are clich├ęs. Also, sometimes it seems that anyone who actually lives a life with a disability is treated as heroic, inspirational, miraculous, and so forth. Perhaps we are, but I like to think that's more because of coping with a world that isn't made for us, doesn't get us or welcome us. We're not amazing simply because of having a disability.

There IS a difference.

Still, injured veterans' stories are pretty incredible. (Injured anyone's, for that matter.) The fact is, disabled veterans have always been a huge, if unintentional, impetus to disability rights. Prosthetics and even motorized wheelchairs were invented specifically in reaction to the sudden swell in the disability population caused by wars.

All of which is a lead-in to this excerpt from my book-in-progress:

    Mr. Snuffles, as I secretly call him, has a musty workshop on the second floor of a walk-up on the Upper East Side. Dad has to carry me bodily up the stairs.

     Once there, Dad lies me down on a vinyl-topped examination table, where I have nothing to do but stare at an assortment of fliers posted on the wall. "Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum" one of the signs informs me.

     I wonder what it's doing in a prosthetics and orthotics facility!

     Decades later I learn that the earliest recorded example of a prosthesis is an iron leg made for one Queen Vishpla, an Indian warrior in 3000 BC, who was amputated in battle yet returned to fight again with her new hardware, according to an ancient Sanskrit text.

    Why isn't something like that, emboldening info about the historical importance of assistive technology, posted here?

     … I have a new motorized wheelchair—my first—which is too heavy to get up the school steps, but at home I love to zoom around, especially fun in my building's labyrinthine basement.

     Gary and I play there after school, staying clear of the housekeepers who do laundry and the maintenance workers who have an office down there as we explore the myriad dark passages and commodious storage lockers, pretending we're on a mystery investigation. It's taken me a while to get an electric wheelchair. They've been mass-produced since 1956, when Everest and Jennings rolled the first one out of its California factories, improving upon designs putatively sketched by George Westinghouse in the late-nineteenth century and British engineers during the First World War, then perfected in the early 50s by a Canadian inventor named George Klein, primarily for World War II vets—demonstrating again the connection between war and disability progress.

     The first E & J power chairs were notoriously slow, but in the early-70s they become the vehicle of choice for active quadriplegics—brandished by Ed Roberts and his trendsetting crew in Berkeley. The only reason I didn't have one before is Dr. Spiro, my neurologist, feared it'd make me lazy, make me not use my arms and build arm strength. Now we know I can't build up my muscles, so he finally wrote the prescription.

     The first day I get the motorized wheelchair home I chase Alec around our apartment. I'm not a good driver yet and keep crashing, leaving tell-tale gray scratches on the white walls.

(More later.)

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