Feeling Streepy

By Susan Fleming

The doctor looks like Portland. Dirty blonde braids like a hipster. Bracelets stacked up her arm. The kind you make at summer camp or during the afternoon break at an adulting workshop.

She’s crying. Sitting on the edge of my gurney. Down by the feet. Trying to get the words out. Where is her mother? It’s the only thing I can think. This poor girl, she needs a hug. Should I hug her? I’m pretty tired. Having just given birth.

I read once that you can’t simultaneously love people and feel sorry for them. So I’ve never been able to love her, even in memory.

Abilities.

Our abilities change all our lives. Ebbs and flows. Changes. We will all ebb and flow, a time for everything. Eyeglasses, hearing aids, extra support in our shoes. Wrinkle creams.

Do I wish Meryl Streep hadn’t singled out people with disabilities at the Golden Globes? A little.Do I wish she hadn’t given the speech? I’m not sure. Mostly no. She did say the word disability out loud on television. It’s something.

The list: gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity. In articles and social media posts, I keep reading the groups of people who get discriminated against, and they keep dropping disability. The marches and women’s marches and gay marches – are they accessible to people who use wheelchairs? Meryl Streep didn’t forget. She stood at the podium with a sore throat and tried to put the spotlight somewhere else.

She had to choose wisely. There were time constraints. That spotlight had to go on the example that she thought would most powerfully make her point. She chose the example of a person with a disability. And I think she did it because she knew her audience would support her in presenting this as one of the lowest things a person could do.

And for that to happen, it would have to be believed by her audience that having a disability is the worst thing that could happen to someone. The lowest of the low. To the extent that Hollywood would create stories in which a person who has a disability would no longer even wish to live.

A thoughtful, engaged person on Facebook recently wrote that the reason the comment about the reporter with the disability was so shocking is because making fun of people with disabilities is “the last taboo”.

Hmmm…

President Obama is a terrible bowler. How terrible? He told Jay Leno in 2009 that he is so bad that when he bowls it must look like the Special Olympics. (Google: Obama bowling comment Special Olympics) It brought the house down. He sat pleased and comfortable in his chair. (Until the next day when he apologized.)

Chicken and egg. The Department of Labor says that in 2015 only 17.5 percent of people with disabilities were employed. People with disabilities have drive, they have talents. They lack predecessors. They lack buzz. If we keep talking about people with disabilities as if they need pity, are employers likely to see them as the new associate for their company?

My local newspaper wrote a story that, as far as I could tell, was about high school athletes who say hi to students with disabilities in the hallway. On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, a young man who works at Starbucks and who has a disability came on the show with his boss. The story was that the young man was a very good worker. Do I wish they hadn’t been on the show? Yes and no. Did I appreciate Ellen urging companies around the country to employ people with disabilities? It was pretty hard not to.

But I worry that the crying doctor with the hipster bracelets is out there watching Meryl Streep, and Ellen, and that these speeches and stories are only making her cry harder. Maybe she has her own baby now, and she’s teaching a new generation, also, to weep at people with differences.

The other day I was at a school program with other parents of children who experience disability. Someone was trying to think of a famous person who uses a wheelchair. No one could think of one.

But I did think of one. I thought of the former Olympian who shot his girlfriend. I obviously kept my mouth shut. And of course this is a horrible crime. But it made me think how this was the rare story of a person with a disability who doesn’t fit the narrative. Neither an object of pity nor an inspiration.

I’m not at all saying we need more murderers, but we do need some new stories. Some main characters. With plots that don’t fit a tiny cliched mold. People with disabilities are complex, dynamic people living complex, dynamic lives.

There is nothing interesting about Stephen Hawking’s disability anymore. It’s old news. His continuing discoveries are news. He is more brilliant than all of us put together. I have never once felt sorry for Stephen Hawking, though he might have reason to feel sorry for we average types.

On the last snow day there were children sliding down the slope in our yard. I watched a while through the front window, and then realized that two of them had disabilities and three of them had siblings with disabilities. They sledded and slid, calling to each other, encouraging each other. Red-cheeked. They laughed and laughed.

People together and laughing: that’s an old story. It’s a good story.

The investigative reporter who was mocked at the candidate’s press conference was named Serge Kovaleski. He works for the New York Times and has a Pulitzer Prize. In her speech Meryl Streep said that, compared to the person mocking him, he was outranked and outprivileged, with little capacity to fight back.

But the reporter with the disability has substantial capacities. I wonder how those capacities could fit into the story. What would that speech sound like?

We need some new stories and we need some new speeches. Let’s stop crying over the old ones.

Violence incites violence, Meryl’s speech said. I certainly agree and would add that pity incites pity. And that painting people with disabilities out to be people whose lives aren’t worth living incites society to think that the lives of people with disabilities are not worth living.

The doctors crying at the foot of your bed incites new parents to cry. Family and friends, relatives. A crying doctor can be the stone that starts the ripple. But it can also be the stone that sinks to the bottom, into the muck. Walk on it.

I wonder where that young doctor is now. She’s older now, of course. I worry that she’s still out there, sitting at the foot of people’s gurneys with snot bubbles in her nose, sobbing out words no one can understand. I’m afraid that she, and big-hearted people who really, really mean well – are going to cry all over this city.

It’s our third day in the hospital. We are waiting for the pediatrician on call, the last hoop before we can take our baby home. My heart sinks when the doctor enters our room. He is old. A white guy. Craggy skin. Hair in a thick gray swoop. He starts to talk and I hear his East Coast accent. My heart sinks. I brace myself to hear the word “angel”.

Still, we need him to sign the discharge papers.

He strides over to my baby girl and talks to her. He says she is beautiful. He asks us many things about ourselves. He is not in a hurry. He seems happy to be here with our family.

Finally he says he won’t tell us what our child will do or won’t do. That he’s been a pediatrician so long. “We finally figured out we were always wrong,” he says with a chuckle.

“I’ll tell you this. Your daughter will grow up, graduate from high school, go to at least some college, get a job and move out.” He looks at us over the top of his grandpa glasses: “And that’s more than you can say for a lot of people.”

(A few people came to mind.)

He said, “Take her home and treat her the way you treat your other child.” And then he said, with the truest happy face. “I’m excited for you.”

That’s the speech I’ve committed to memory.