Although polio left me noticeably disabled in early childhood, I didn’t even hear the word “discrimination” until I was in my twenties and eager to follow the civil rights movement.
That is ironic given my own life experiences.
When I started school, my mother had recently stowed my second orthosis along with my half-size arm warmers. I was still wearing high-top baby shoes and a device to hold my foot drop. The paralysis was permanent and there were frequent falls. I hadn’t yet reached the two-inch limp that would dominate my adulthood. I developed a step-step SKIP that replaces running.
A tyrant at school found me tempting; he pressed me with his big belly against a wall in the playground and emphasized my vulnerability. Then he called me “Hop-Along-Cassidy” after the television cowboy of the 1950s; other school children picked this up for a couple of years. I hated it, but the reply only encouraged her.
Children mimicked my limp, behind my back or obviously, by saying, “You walk like this.” “Aha,” I thought. I just wanted to be like other kids. Another offense was grabbing my sweater, book, lunch box and running away with them yelling, “You can’t catch me!”
At the age of eleven, I went to see my much older sister in San Francisco. We were downtown after having a cola at Woolworth’s. She leaned down to me and said, “I gave this lady a dirty look. She stared at you ”(because of my walk). I appreciated that, but I had no idea that people were staring at me; I attributed the ridicule I suffered in my childhood to “common children.” My friends accommodated my disability – which was referred to as “disability” until disability lawyers upheld the preference of “people with a disability”. (I don’t care what word is used; my paralysis, weakness, and awkward limping may be pathetic, but I am not.)
As a young woman, I’ve seen that a lot of guys aren’t necessarily looking for a girlfriend or partner who doesn’t have strong, matching legs. The feeling of separation hurt me; I saw myself as able, intelligent, and equal, and that that strange leg should be a trait that was overlooked (hard for a young man to do).
When I enrolled for courses at San Jose State University as an art student in 1966, I had to go to every department for every course enrollment. The big campus was tiring for me. An administrative clerk said to me in a low voice, “Didn’t anyone tell you that you could choose your classes and we would do it for you?” This is my first memory of an offer of public disabled accommodation. In high school I was forced to “run” the bases in kickball, with my class teacher coming to my aid. In high school, one of my PE teachers reprimanded me for not playing basketball “like the other girl in school who had polio.”
But discrimination? I had probably done as much disability discrimination as anyone else because I didn’t want to fool around with other disabled people because it would draw more attention to my lameness. An emperor has no clothes avoiding reality.
On my sophomore stint in college, an accounting teacher looked at me and said to the class, “If you apply to the eight major accounting firms, you don’t want someone who is ‘different’ like everyone who doesn’t know.” That was in 1976. However, Sonoma State University had an office for disabled students, which I thought was novel. There I found out about parking for the disabled, later called parking for the disabled; my second experience in raising awareness of the needs of people with disabilities.
In my mid-thirties I assisted at a seminar. The workshop had a high ropes course that I was not allowed to visit due to my physical vulnerability, which disappointed me. The assistants had to go over any problems we had with each other on a daily basis. Kind, intelligent people kept telling me that they assumed I felt sorry for myself, was depressed, angry – partly because of the disappointment in the high ropes course, but also because of the general public’s opinion about people with disabilities. I was shocked to find that people were considerate not only for my body, but also for my personality.
In the 1990s, staunch and courageous disability rights activists, most of whom were themselves disabled, pushed for legislative clarification and also created the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guaranteed our right to access to buildings, education, medical care and employment.
Paradoxically, after handicapped parking became ubiquitous, I was often approached by well-meaning people when I was parking my car, saying, “You can’t park here! This is for disabled people! ”They told 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 meetings in my forties; I thought they were for old, fat, lazy people. I discriminated against people who may have had severe physical ailments that led them to become obese. That was stupid and my own old fear of being labeled disabled. Now I’m a scooter user; I accepted my need for help; I can go further, have more fun, and no longer care what other people think of my use of tools.
We “Crips” still have a way to go to achieve real equality (although admittedly not as far as People of Color). I know that people cannot help what they think, but internally people with disabilities are the same as everyone else: We want to lead a comfortable life that expresses our individual dreams and personalities that are only partially shaped by our disabilities . Young people give me hope; at Starbucks, they’re often the first to open the door for me. Let us hope that they will continue to open doors to all other aspects of adverse discrimination in the years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, FRANCINE FALK-ALLEN
Francine Falk-Allen was born in Los Angeles and lived in Northern California for most of her life. In 1951, Francine Falk-Allen fell ill with polio at the age of 3, was hospitalized for six months and spent most of her life as a disabled person trying to be a “normie”. ”Despite her partially paralyzed leg and hers Francine has traveled the world with a severe limp. She also appeared in the Nobel Prize / PBS documentary “The War Against Microbes” as the sole representative of a disease that has now been 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 multiple best book lists in 2018 and 2019. Her latest book is called Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability