It’s 7 a.m., and the tip of my nose rests in the valley between my kneecaps. Forward bends are my favorite because it takes little to no effort for me to perform them, and despite the yogic edict to the contrary, my body feels deep satisfaction in its ability to function in ways few bodies can. Sometimes I turn my head and rest my ear on my knees to sneak a peek at the person next to me as they struggle, willing themselves to bend, inch by arduous inch. I imagine a world where everyone but an unlucky few could comfortably fold themselves in half or compact themselves into human balls. Economy class would eliminate legroom because people could just bend in their seats. Cars would be so much smaller, more fuel-efficient; offices and apartments a fraction of their size. In that world, I would be normal, and the person next to me who couldn’t touch their nose to their knees would be disabled.
My disability is the reason I’m so flexible in the first place. I’m partially blind because I’m albino, and as a kid growing up in the Philippines, the desks in my classroom were too far away for me to read the board. So I plopped down on the floor to get closer. Somehow, the order that Spanish colonization brought to my Catholic school could not deter indigenous practicality, as my teachers realized it made no sense to keep me at a desk if I couldn’t see what they wrote. I spent day after day cross-legged, one elbow propped, writing with my notebook on the ground, my eyes inches away from the paper. I still take naps on the floor sometimes, at bus stations or airports when there’s no convenient place to sit, legs crossed and forehead on the ground, arms around my head to cover my ears. I wish everyone could experience this specific sensation of self-contained quiet.
When I think about my special ability, I’m reminded of the accountant in José Saramago’s novel Blindness—the one who was already blind from birth before the citizens of an unnamed city find their vision overtaken by a milky whiteness that makes them go blind themselves. In a matter of days, as more and more people go blind, the accountant ceases to be disabled, but rather becomes gifted with the special ability to navigate in a sightless world. It gave me visceral pleasure to read about him joining the villains who hoard food and take advantage of the suddenly hapless citizens of the city; so refreshing to read about a blind man who isn’t noble, as well as the suffering of the clueless masses who suddenly lose their sight. Of course, one heroine escapes blindness and saves the day, the novel’s ultimate message one of able-bodied triumph, even as I perversely rooted for the rapacious, talented accountant.
Because if fiction is a way of purging oneself of the desire to do in life what one vicariously reads about, then I confess to a certain need to expunge my frustration at the able-bodied. If there is one quality of theirs I most dislike, it’s the way they project disability as inevitable because of its physical nature, like it’s any different from the physical differences between races or genders, as though it isn’t the able-bodied and their societies that mold disability to their wishes, as negations of a socially constructed normalcy. As Saramago’s novel so vividly demonstrates, it is normalcy that creates disability. In a world where an inability to see is the norm, blind people are not disabled.
Though there’s already at least one community where the standard conception of normalcy isn’t generally accepted: deaf people who don’t think of deafness as disability but a condition and an identity, hearing a useful added talent at best — not unlike touching one’s nose to one’s knees — or a useless distraction at worst. Studies show many deaf people prefer to marry deaf partners in the hopes of having children who are deaf. There are documented cases of deaf couples using artificial insemination to specifically conceive deaf children, and even couples who have terminated hearing fetuses in hopes of parenting a deaf child in the future. Of course, there are jurisdictions where such actions are prevented by law, even when it’s legal to promote able-bodied fetuses over those that are deaf or have other disabilities. Here we see a demonstration of how normalcy is made, not born. Within the confines of a deaf family and subculture, hearing may not only be socially alienating, but also a barrier to emotional connection and linguistic understanding, or viewed as a useless distraction, like a nervous tic would be in the non-deaf world.
Alas, few other disabled groups have been able to form robust communities like deaf people, because they lack the compelling forces of common language and heredity to quell the pressures of ableist normalcy (though cochlear implants may soon eradicate deaf communities too). I sometimes fantasize about living in Ukerewe Island in Tanzania, home of the largest concentration of albinos in the world, to be with people who understand this aspect of my existence. Then I remember that apart from the danger of witch doctors using my body parts for medicine, I am also so much more than the disability that has been defined on my behalf.
So I take comfort by bending farther than most, even though my special ability is remarkable only because it exceeds perceived normalcy. What goes generally unremarked — except for platitudes of bravery that are their own forms of objectification — are the abilities we come to possess in order to cope with our perceived disabilities. Here we are merely expected to keep up, hide our deviations from normal, even when our abilities take more effort and will than many able-bodied talents and it is our very deviance that produces them, the deviance that moves our social system to disable us.