Though early childhood polio left me with a conspicuous disability, I didn’t even hear the word, “discrimination,” until I was in my twenties and keenly following the civil rights movement.
This is ironic, given my own life experiences.
When I started kindergarten, my mother had only recently stored away my second brace, along with my half-size arm-cuff crutches. I still wore high-top baby shoes and a device to help hold up my drop foot. Paralysis was permanent, and falls were frequent. I had not yet attained the two-inch limp that would dominate my adulthood. I developed a step-step-SKIP which substituted for running.
A bully at school found me enticing; he held me against a wall in the playground with his big stomach, emphasizing my vulnerability. Then he named me “Hop-Along-Cassidy,” after the 1950’s TV cowboy; other school kids took this up for a couple of years. I hated it, but retorting only encouraged them.
Children would imitate my limp, behind my back or obviously, saying, “You walk like this.” “Duh,” I thought. I just wanted to be like other kids. Another violation was grabbing my sweater, a book, my lunchbox, and running off with them, shouting, “You can’t catch me!”
At age eleven, I was in San Francisco visiting my much older adult sister. We were downtown, having been to Woolworth’s for a Coke. She bent down to me and said, “I gave that lady a dirty look. She was staring at you,” (due to my walk). I appreciated this, but, I had no idea people were staring at me; I had attributed the taunts I’d endured in childhood to “mean kids.” My friends accommodated my disability—referred to as a “handicap” until disability rights advocates asserted the preference of “person with a disability.” (For myself, I don’t care which word is used; my paralysis, weakness and ungainly limp may be pathetic, but I am not.)
As a young woman I saw that many boys were not necessarily looking for a girlfriend or mate who didn’t have strong matching legs. The feeling of separation hurt me; I saw myself as capable, intelligent and equal, and that this odd leg should be a characteristic that was overlooked (hard for a young man to do).
When I was an art major registering for classes at San Jose State University in 1966, walking to every department for each class enrollment was required. The big campus was fatiguing for me. A woman administrator quietly said to me, “Didn’t anyone tell you that you can choose your classes and we’ll handle it for you?” This is my first memory of any offer of public disability accommodation. In grammar school I had been forced to “run” the bases in kickball, with my home room teacher coming to my rescue. In high school, one of my gym teachers chided me for not playing basketball “like the other girl in school who had polio.”
But discrimination? I had probably been doing as much disability discrimination as anyone else, in not wanting to pal around with other disabled people because it would draw more attention to my lameness. An Emperor Has No Clothes avoidance of reality.
In my second college stint, an accounting teacher looked at me, telling the class, “If you apply to the big eight accounting firms, they don’t want anyone who is ‘different,’ like anyone who is non-white.” This was in 1976. Sonoma State University, however, had a Disabled Students Services office, which I thought novel. There, I learned about handicapped parking, later termed disabled parking; my second experience of encountering awareness about needs of people with disabilities.
In my mid-thirties, I assisted at a seminar. The workshop had a ropes course which I would not be allowed to observe, due to my physical vulnerability, which disappointed me. Assistants were required to daily debrief regarding any issues we had with each other. Repeatedly, kind, intelligent people told me that they assumed I felt sorry for myself, was depressed, was angry—partly because of the ropes course disappointment, but this was also what the general public apparently thought about people with disabilities. Shocked, I realized that not only did people have a consideration about my body, but they also had assumptions about my personality.
In the 1990’s, stalwart and brave disability rights activists, most of them disabled themselves, pushed to get legislation clarified, and also created the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guaranteed our rights to accessibility to buildings, education, medical care and employment.
Paradoxically, after handicapped/disabled parking became ubiquitous, I was often approached when parking my car in midlife by well-intentioned people, shouting, “You can’t park here! This is for disabled people!” They would tell me in our subsequent exchange that I didn’t look old enough to be disabled. (Another bias: “Old people are disabled; young people are not. Disability doesn’t care about age.)
I didn’t want to use a scooter at large tax conferences in my forties; I thought they were for old, fat, lazy people. I was discriminating toward people who may have had severe physical conditions that led them to become obese. This was foolish and my own old fear of being labeled as disabled. Now I’m a scooter user; I accepted my need for assistance; I can go farther, have more fun, and I don’t care anymore what others may think about my use of assistive devices.
We “crips” still have a ways to go to reach real equality (though admittedly not as far as people of color). I know that people cannot help what they think, but people with disabilities are the same inside as everybody else: we want to live enjoyable lives expressing our individual dreams and personalities, shaped only partially by our disabilities. Young people give me hope; they are often first to open the door for me at Starbucks. Let’s hope they continue opening doors for all the other aspects of detrimental discrimination in years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, FRANCINE FALK-ALLEN
Born in Los Angeles and having lived nearly all of her life in northern California, Francine Falk-Allen had polio in 1951 at age 3, was hospitalized for six months, and lived most of her life as a handicapped person trying to be a “normie.” Despite her partially-paralyzed leg and severe limp, Francine has traveled the world. She also appeared in the Nobel Prize/PBS documentary, “The War Against Microbes,” as the only representative of a disease now eradicated by a vaccine.
Her first book Not a Poster Child: Living Well with a Disability—A Memoir, won gold and silver awards and was on several best books lists in 2018 and 2019. Her latest book is called, Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability