…is an attractive woman, perhaps a smidgen above middle-aged. An aura of authority and intelligence is around her, her voice is crisp, clear, firm. She is a strong woman and it shows.
She is also one of the early leaders of the disability rights movement. She affected change on a level that grew to be global – this solitary woman who uses a wheelchair, this teacher who wouldn’t quit. She drove “access” clear on through until it has become a common word.
Judy Heumann is an amazing woman, a remarkable woman, a mighty woman.
And when I went to hear her speak some years ago at UC Berkeley, I could not stop crying.
I just couldn’t.
I was trying, God knows I was. I was pinching my legs, trying so hard to keep it under wraps because I wanted to make a good impression, I wanted to be awesome and… I couldn’t stop crying.
This is why:
Because Judy Heumann gets this struggle, the whole entire struggle of disability and the disability rights movement on the deepest level that is possible. She gets it. She knows what discrimination is like, what it feels like, how it weasels its way through to your marrow and explodes like a burning cancer. She knows how it is to have people say, “no”, say you are a mistake, say you shouldn’t have been born, she knows how it feels to be outside looking in, uninvited or to have access denied on a regular basis as it’s just not convenient or because someone forgot – yet again. She knows these things, by sheer dint of her experience and her contact with so many others with disabilities, through her decades of advocacy and fighting for equal rights.
Surrounded in the room as I was with others who have a connection, with others who know what this is about, this life with disability, this double edged sword of unique experience and unique discrimination, unique life with unique oppression – I couldn’t keep it together. The relief in being with others who know, who get it, was simply overwhelming.
This I think is true no matter how you slice your cake.
If you are gay, if you a minority, if you are a parent of a child with a disability – whatever it is, point being; if you have struggled uphill, against the current, alone, carrying your canoe on your head, you almost faint with the delicious relief of being able to roll with the tide. Meeting people who understand what it’s all about can make inner delight just blow up and dissolve in dollops of rainbows from which dancing unicorns spring forth. I mean, IT DOES NOT GET BETTER THAN THAT. Because you have been alone for so long and tried so hard and cried so much and there were those times in which you just howled because you thought your heart was being ripped because you just couldn’t take this shit anymore.
People who get it: these are for me the comforts and connections of disability.
It’s the people like Judy Heumann, who fight so hard, who represent so much, who speak so clearly. It’s the people like the woman who I met at Kaiser, who had a tattoo of the 21st chromosome on her hand and I knew she was in my club, was a mother of a person with a little extra and got it. It’s the people who I met at NDSC who read this blog and smiled at us in the hallway, it’s the people who supported us in reaching for our dreams as we left the Bay Area for the Pan American Highway.
These are the comforts and connections.
These are the people who are walking with me and share for a while the carrying of the canoe – people who will hold my hand – and I, theirs – as we walk upriver against the current.
And hopefully one day, we will be successful in our re-routing of the river. We will all be floating easily downstream, laughing together as we paddle our canoes with a current that supports us all.
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