Disabilityland by Dr. Alan Brightman

I'm amazed thinking back to that seeming lifetime ago before I had a chromosomally challenged child of my own to love and care for how largely ignorant I was of special needs populations (who they were and what made them tick), be they physically and/or mentally challenged. I'm still sort of confused, actually, even having lived twelve years in the special needs community, if it's even appropriate anymore for me to say "mentally challenged". I do know what was mostly used as a pejorative term, anyway, the "R" word (duh!), is definitely out, as is (or at least it's on the way out) "handicapped," so do forgive if I unwittingly step in it and communicate some archaic, politically incorrect language in briefly describing this book, Disabilityland, by Dr. Alan Brightman.

And what a beautiful book, "DisabilityLand," is! From the inviting colorful cover -- featuring the artwork created by a "disabled" person courtesy of NIAD (National Institute of Art & Disabilities) -- to the very last page, this non-fiction work features anecdotes collected over the years and edited by longtime "disabled persons" advocate and expert, Dr. Alan Brightman. Brightman included inspirational, heart warming vignettes of everyday "disabled" life, demonstrating how bright and radically non-bleak -- how "abled" -- the "disabled" experience can be; but where the book seriously shines, for me, are the politically pointed sections. Dr. Brightman does, after all, have a social commentator's axe to grind, and it's an axe I'm happy to grind along with him and that would make even John Bunyan proud.

I'll gladly grind along with Dr. Brightman, because when it comes to illuminating our culture's climate of current and historical indifference and devaluation toward the "disabled" at large, Dr. Brightman's a vitally important mouthpiece who also validates my own personal experiences and outrage in dealing with a culture that likes to stare and gawk a lot at my daughter. The kids we encounter are mostly curious, which is completely understandable, but the so-called adults who act like my daughter is a leper? C'mon, People! Down syndrome and autism are not contagious. This is the same culture, if I heard it right, that was convinced when my daughter was born that she "wouldn't amount to much of anything" and probably (might have? maybe?) been better off being aborted. Hear that axe grinding? How'm I doing?

Here's one shocking example of Dr. Brightman brilliantly sharpening his own axe, sparks flying (I'll paraphrase).

The Setting of the Shocking Scenario: a "mental institution rec room".

Time: As Late as the 1980s.

Who's Involved?: A special needs population.

So What's The Problem?: The special needs population, gathered inside the "mental institution rec room" won't stop chewing up all the carpet. Seems the special needs patients get down on their hands and knees and chew on the carpet to entertain themselves.

What's the stupid mental institution's solution to this problem?: They decide to surgically extract all the teeth from the special needs population so that they will no longer chew up the precious carpet.

Problem solved!

Never mind, as Dr. Brightman points out, that the supposed "rec room" consisted of nothing but, well, carpet! No games or puzzles. No T.V. No books. No magazines. No ping pong table. No air hockey. No chairs. Nothing. Except carpet. Is it possible these "special folks" might have actually been bored out of their minds? Assuming, that is, they even had minds, ahem, to begin with; the staff at this facility cited by Dr. Brightman obviously didn't believe they had minds and could become bored -- or didn't care. Otherwise, maybe the room would have been supplied with appropriate recreational devices so that this poor neglected population wouldn't have to resort to chewing on the carpet. Chewing carpet beats staring blankly at the four walls.

Granted, the "extracting the teeth" anecdote is perhaps the most extreme example presented in DisabilityLand, but it sure grabs your attention right off the bat, rankles some feathers rather furiously, and makes you flip the pages faster whether or not ("or not" I can only presume) you have any personal connection to the unique and joyful (yes, joyful) worlds of special needs.

Brightman's book ultimately inspires as much as it infuriates. It's a book that offers hope and displays the perhaps heretofore unknown range of creative gifts the special needs population possesses.

And my kid has more chromosomes than your kid (assuming your kids are "normal") too.