Sunday, June 17, 2012


By Ben Mattlin
Now that my father is nearly 85 years old, we seem to have a lot more in common than we ever did before.

That's not just because I'm now a father myself.  It's because Dad, who's still in remarkably good health, has had to slow down, which has caused him to understand at last what my life is like as a physically disabled person.

I am a lifelong wheelchair user, thanks to a genetic neurological muscle weakness.  It hasn't stopped me--I'm also a Harvard graduate, husband, father, and moderately busy financial journalist.  But having a disability can at times force me to go slow.  It often makes me plan logistics ahead of time, quashing any impulse toward spontaneity.  And it's given me a particular perspective on life's multifaceted values.

The overlap in my worldview and my Dad's became clear in a recent conversation.  He was grumbling that he shouldn't have to "think young" or pretend to have more energy than he does--that he's entitled to move slowly, spend long afternoons in a rocking chair, need a seat on a crowded bus or even doze off in the theater.  "Sloth," he joked, "is no longer a sin at my age.  It is a well-earned privilege."

My father has a keen wit, to be sure, but for me these sentiments have important repercussions.  I've often pushed myself too hard, felt afraid to use my disability as an excuse--in short, I've acted like what disability activists call a "super crip," trying to be better than average just to prove I shouldn't be counted out. 

Many other minority groups and women have said they have to work twice as hard to be treated as equals.  It's basically the same thing. 

Remember when George Bush Senior went skydiving in his 70s to prove his virility?  How often do we hear about an awe-inspiring quadriplegic or amputee who climbed a mountain or went hang-gliding, or performed some such Herculean stunt?  Maybe they're just naturally outdoorsy, but surely they also want to demonstrate that they've still got it, are still in the game--that there's no difference between them and everybody else. 

Is it really necessary to put these extra physical challenges up against the so-called physically challenged?  Frankly, I think I'm as good or bad as anyone else just as I am, without having to prove it.

I concede that these brave acts do inspire--but some of us are too busy just doing the heroic business of surviving.  Do we really need to do something superhuman to feel good about ourselves and gain the admiration of others?  Don't we deserve the same degree of respect as anyone else?  Frankly, I often feel that the everyday survivors are the true inspirations anyway.

Later, in another conversation, Dad said, "I hate it when people tell me, 'Oh, you're not old!'"  He laughed at the patent absurdity of it.  "I'm almost 85!"

This funny comment struck a chord with me, too.  It called to mind the many times I've heard things like, "We're all disabled in some way."  Comments that are meant to be kind and accepting, I suppose.  So how come all I want to say back is, "Oh, come on!"?

It's as if the words "old" and "disabled" were unspeakably dirty concepts.  There should be nothing shameful about aging or about having a disability.  We shouldn't have to minimize or sugarcoat them.  In fact, I think we should be proud of them.

I asked my father about this.  He denied meaning anything so profound, but I don't think I'm projecting to say he feels a tad insulted, or at least patronized, by such remarks.  And I wonder if he hasn't actually taught me a great deal over the years about accepting differences after all, even if those differences are simply a matter of age.
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