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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.
I write “disabled” not as a description but as both an original and ongoing action within a social contract that pretends to be for the common good but must work to disable some of its members to preserve the illusion of its integrity. If we lived in a society that excluded anyone who didn’t meet a physical standard, then everyone would be at risk of being cast out of society, because anyone can be disabled at any time, whether through circumstance or the readjustment of standards. So it’s easier for a majority of people with roughly similar physical qualities to define themselves as normal and disable those who do not meet their standards. Once defined as such, those who are disabled can then be conditioned to be grateful for the beneficence of the normal, even as they are actually the ones who have disabled them in the first place.
For instance, even as I, a so-called mildly disabled person, would find it almost impossible to live in many areas of the United States, because I’m incapable of driving—the capitalist needs of the automotive industry have consistently outweighed the human need for effective public transport in many parts of the country, which would put many disabled people on equal footing with the able-bodied. Lack of public transport is a concrete example of how social systems and those who create them actually disable a significant proportion of people, rendering us dependent on others for our well-being when we don’t have to be.
In Enforcing Normalcy, disability scholar Lennard Davis demonstrates that normalcy, like whiteness, is a European industrial invention, as “normal” in its current usage did not come about until the mid-19th century. Davis writes, “[T]he very term that permeates our contemporary life — the normal — is a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment. It is part of a notion of progress, of industrialization, and of ideological consolidation of the power of the bourgeoisie.” For Davis, it’s no coincidence that normalcy came hand in hand with the rise of the middle class, the large proportion of people who live average lives, along with a widespread eugenics movement and the need to create the ideal, uniform, identical laborer to maximize efficiency and profit. Without this impetus toward normalcy, there is no need to classify people as disabled. Growing up in a country less directly affected by Western industrialization, I felt no shame in sitting on the floor to see, and those around me were not inclined to define my being according to a standard. Though there are words to describe physical conditions in Tagalog — blind, deaf, and so on — there is no precolonial word for disabled, no concept that sets people apart as permanent deviants from the physical norm.
Imagine if Saramago’s newly blind citizens survive long enough to have children, who themselves are born blind, and their children are also blind and so on. The world would eventually reorder itself to assume that people cannot see. People would rely on other senses to negotiate the world, and all written communication would be done in a tactile medium. In that world, sight would not be much more than an extra talent that can at times be put to good use but confers no huge advantage in a world that does not enable it.
The challenge is not to allow people to contribute according to their abilities as defined by an able-bodied world, but to expand the standards under which ability is judged and to foster environments where people are free to determine and develop their specific abilities. A number of completely blind people have developed the ability to fully navigate environments — even ride a bike — by clicking their mouths and judging their physical world based on the sounds they hear. But the spread of this blind-born navigation system has been stymied by the need for “normal” people, especially children at school, to be disrupted by the sounds of the blind.
Many disabled people are denied access to their potential abilities in this way, being taught as children that their mere presence constitutes disruption, the inefficiencies they create, even minimal ones, too inconvenient to maintain. After moving to the United States at age 15 and contending with many years of harsh judgment and false assumptions, I don’t dare sit on the floor to see a board or screen when I attend lectures and meetings as an educator and writer. Instead, I’ve trained myself to have an unusually strong working memory so I can absorb large chunks of oral information without seeing words on the board or screen. When the presentation involves fine visual detail, I ask for the slides afterward, matching them to the oral narrative I’ve absorbed. This is all to deflect the assumptions of incapacity once I’m defined as disabled, a refusal to allow for a model that assumes superior normalcy and cannot readily absorb differences in ability, in favor of my hidden reality where it’s possible for someone not to see and be capable of keen observation and insight.
After the folding comes the standing and the balancing. I raise and bend one leg to place the bottom of my foot against the side of my knee, place my palms together. More than two decades of practice and my tree remains unrooted, because being albino entails a messy path between the eyes and the optic nerve leading to the brain, which causes a condition called nystagmus, where my eyes jiggle constantly, searching for sight. Because of this, I cannot focus on one spot, a key strategy for effective one-legged balance.
Instead I stare at the wall and imagine a fixed spot that is actually impossible for my eye to see. On good days, I’ve worked hard enough to provide a decent approximation of stability. On bad days, I sway inexplicably, even topple altogether, and invade the invisible perimeter of the person next to me in the otherwise ordered fitness studio.
Where I’m from, the response would be silly laughter, but in the regimented world of the Western yoga class, it is unacceptable for me to deviate too far from the norm without correction, both explicit from the instructor and implicit from the glances of other students, at times so pointed that even I can notice them. My inability to balance has even prompted audible snickers, but a more common result is the teacher stopping for instructions or adjustments, to try to fix the unfixable, even though I am not broken. It’s at this moment that I must decide whether to merely be a “normal” person with bad balance or to reveal myself as disabled. My deviation from the norm teeters in this liminal space, between oh she has poor balance to oh she’s disabled, the difference between a quality and an inherent identity. The first gets you correction after correction until, you pray, you’re finally deemed hopeless. The second gets you pity from the teacher and other people looking away as though you’re contagious. In Western instructional fitness society, it’s psychologically punishing to devise your own valid normalcy, without the rest of the world insisting that their agreed-upon normal is superior to yours. You miss your hometown, where you can just sit on the floor in front of the board, where it’s alright to shout in Nanang Lita’s ear because she can’t hear you otherwise, where Isabel is known as the village crazy but people make sure to keep her fed, amusing themselves with her nonsensical stories.
In America, your imagination stares at an imaginary point with your imaginary normal eyes, as the reality the world has determined for you shakes uncontrollably. Your imaginary gaze remains determined and fixed even as your body sways, even when it shifts and you need to stand on two feet, even as you continue to imagine you’re only on one leg, your own normal. You know you can’t do anything else you’re capable of if you let the world define your normalcy, so when it tries to mark you as deviant, you fight back with your mind, your most flexible body part. You do this until the class ends and you’re told to sit on the floor, where you rest your forehead on the ground to find your own peace.
Intersectional author and journalist. mtalusan.com
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