Introduction

"If you step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back". I remember muttering this rhyme to myself when I was a child learning how to walk. My physical therapist recommended I repeat a rhyme to help bring a smoother rhythm into my shaky gait. I liked this suggestion quite a bit, and while it does nothing to fulfill its promise, I continue to repeat rhymes to myself, even now as I walk. This activity provides comfort and does well to keep me calm in the midst of moving-others.

"If you step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back". This is hardly true, we know, but cracks can still be dangerous. Cracks in the sidewalks — weathered cracks and cracks between the paving blocks — trip me up, causing me to crash down to the ground. Painfully I fall into disability as I am introduced to and recognized as disability, again and for the first time, in the midst of others… moving-others. In this moment, the disabled body I trip into is not a comfortable one, but one with which my satisfaction wavers. This process of identification hurts. It fulfills the public's expectancy of and for disabled bodies as stumbling… unpredictable. I fall into the public's expectation of me as a living problem with the problem located within me. Under the social model1 disability emerges between the crack and I. However, disability is not typically understood as emerging between others and myself. The "walkie" -pedestrians who step over me when I have fallen confirm the individuality of disability2 . Such "walkies" notice me only to avoid me, much like cracks in the sidewalk. For I, living-disability, can provoke trips, causing others to dwell in disability. No, it is best to notice to avoid this liminal space.

"If you step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back". This is hardly true, we know, but cracks provoke trips, trips that bring me face-to-face with the ground of my disability. The words: "There is still some dosa left" inspired one hurried and excited nighttime walk. My hands were out of pockets, for balance, and I whispered a careful "heel-toe, heel-toe" count. I didn't want to trip on this walk. I approached the stoplights and slowed down. I heard laughter in the doorway of the house to my left and noticed someone moving — no falling — down the stairs. "You retard! You cripple!" were shouted after him. This was not my trip but my body was recalled as the device through which his friends interpreted this fall as laughable… out-of-the-ordinary. Standing in the cast of a streetlight, I looked on at them and they looked on at me. Somewhere in the in-between of our togetherness, the out-of-the-ordinary materialized, the unbelievable was noticed, and disability entered the mix through my body. Such recognition halted the laughter for a moment or two and then it continued, more up uproariously than before. Claims at recognition articulated as "Oh my God!" and, "Did you see her?" followed me as I walked on, humiliated and ashamed. For in that moment of recognition, disability materialized through my body as nothing more or less than a moving body out-of-control — a fulfillment of its expectation.

This paper explores the troubling task of identifying as, with and for disability through sidewalks and the stories they provoke. In the first section, 'The Task of Identification', I explain my current orientation to identifying as disabled as engaging in the task of taking one's place in disability. I then complicate this task of identifying as disability in the next section, 'The Trouble with Identification'. Here I describe my difficulty identifying as disabled when I was younger because for me, disability was already occupied with the understanding that it was nothing more or less than a "problem in need of a solution"3 . In this article's conclusion, 'Disabled Identification', I offer a "new imagination" of disability pride that does not exist only and always in the abandonment of shame4 . Rather the pride that I am proposing stays with us in troubling times, times when we may experience disability with shame. I suggest that orienting ourselves to the possibility pride and shame existing in tandem rather than in each otherís exclusion provides greater opportunity for people to identify as disabled with pride.

The Task of Identification

My current orientation to identification was animated by a conversation which unfolded at a panel called 'Confronting Systemic Discrimination' at the Decolonizing Our Minds conference at the University of Toronto, Canada which featured First Nations literary scholar Lee Maracle and disability studies scholar Rod Michalko. Maracle began the panel talking about how her classes are often filled with white students rather than First Nations students. Maracle did not seem to have a particular problem with white students wanting to learn in her classes, but she used this situation as an instance to call out to First Nations students to "take their place" in higher education. I interpreted Maracle's call as a powerful insistence, and while it did not address my whiteness, I understood her call to occupy a place to be an imperative of disabled people as well. Michalko was the last panelist and built on Maracle's call, contextualizing it within disability, questioning: "What if your place is always already occupied with a cultural imagination of disability?5 "

Michalko's questioning of the task of "taking one's place" was inspired by Linda Alcoff's work presented in her essay 'Toward a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment'. At the end of this essay, Alcoff shares a story of her past, which clearly describes the political weight of her cultural expectation, informed by the cultural imagination of her racial(ized) identity. She tells about her first serious relationship, which was with a white man. She interpreted their encounters to be "dominated by a powerful emotional and intellectual connection" 6 . Alcoff describes feeling "humiliated" when discovering that her partner has "pursued [her] because [she] was Latina"7 . She tried to imagine how he saw her by replaying her "gestures and actions, reflecting back even on the clothes [she] wore"8 . Alcoff writes, "I felt caught in that moment, finding myself occupying a position already occupied, incapable of mutual interaction"9 . Alcoff's story of being identified as Latina by another demonstrates that we never enter into an identity or an interaction without meeting a cultural imagination of ourselves.

The Trouble with Identification

Imaginative expectations for disability and for what it means to be disabled vary from culture to culture, and from time to time. In my culture, and in my time, as a white child with Cerebral Palsy born into disability to middle class, married, straight parents in rural Nova Scotia, Canada in the early 80s, I was born into the expectation that disability was located in "minds, bodies, senses and emotions", with both the problem and the desire to seek the best possible solution located in the individual10 . We may sometimes, or all the time, experience our disabilities as problems. We may seek solutions, explanations, cures, and comforts to make our lives more sustainable and enjoyable. Problems demand we move from one paving block to the next without tripping on the crack, without going back, and never dwelling in the in-between. But there is always more to the story of disability than its cultural expectation of "living problems" makes of us, for even when we desire solutions for the problems disabilities can cause us we can still regard disability as that which marks our "being-in-the-world"11.

I turn again to Michalko to further explore the moments of confrontation, during the process of coming into disability as an identity. When Michalko describes his experience of coming into blindness in his book The Difference That Disability Makes, he suggests that the events of being diagnosed with a disability as an explanation for a problem, and identifying as disabled do not necessarily occur in the same temporal moment. In other words, his words, his blindness became a "what" long before it became a "who"12 .

I have many stories of disability, sidewalk stories and others, tucked into my body that collectively bring sense to my "being-in-the-world" as disabled. Some of these stories, delivered from doctors, tell of the vague medical details of my CP and how I came to be disabled. Other stories, told by my grade-school teachers, construct me as kind of a genius as a way, to reconcile the perceived discrepancy between the deficit of my disability and my noticeable productivity in the classroom. These details are also vague and they certainly do not explain why I had trouble with math and difficulty spelling. Others stories from friends and peers describe me as undesirable because of my disability, desirable in spite of my disability, and (my favourite) desirable because of my disability. Together, these stories and others make up the narrative history of how disability became meaningful to me. As First Nations storyteller Thomas King says: "There is a part of me that will never move past these stories, a part of me that will be chained to these stories as long as I live"13 . My mom told me my first story of disability and in this storytelling, I was introduced to and identified as disability at once. My story of her story goes like this: When I was 5 years old I went to a friend's birthday party at the zoo. A group of girls were showing off their newly discovered skill of doing a cartwheel. As I began the dismount into this ellipse, I expected to complete it without trouble like the girls before me. Instead of gracefully spinning forward as was previously demonstrated by my friends, my wrists buckled under my weight, my legs refused to fly upwards, and I collapsed in a laughable heap on the grass in front of them. In this moment I understood my body as troubling but I did not have an idea of, and thusly did not have, a disability. Later that night, as my mom was helping me get ready for bed, I asked: "Mom, why can't I do a cartwheel?" expecting she would be able to untangle the entanglement that was my experience of my embodiment. She responded with the first telling of disability.

This story took me through the details of my difficult birth, emphasizing the love and the care of the family and community into which I was born. Although she tenderly explained how special I was, my five-year-old body got hot and flushed, as the only story I heard was the story of my difference. I now understand that oneís experience and their societal expectancy are intertwined however at this time I understood these two characters as separate. I felt that if I was careful not to identify as disabled through any mention of Cerebral Palsy or to associate with other disabled people or disability organizations, I could be sure that my lived experience of disability and expectancy of it as troubling, problematic and alienating remained estranged. This story of my birth of disability is the story of an introduction to and recognition of disability as an uninvited guest who was there to stay. Forever. On this day my disability materialized as a "what" not a "who"14 .

Disabled Identification

Disability pride can offer the hope and possibility of negotiating the troubling field between expectation and experience and create necessary contributions to the imagination of disability. However, my experience tells me that the task of "taking one's place" by identifying as disabled with pride does not always follow a one-way, disappearing path. The arrival at a sense of "being-in-the-world" as disabled with pride does not necessarily erase all markings of shame. Disability pride does not always write over the stories of shame — stories of frustration, pain and humiliation — with new ones full of satisfaction with one's way of being-in the world, as the popular imagination of the prideful person suggests. In troubling times, and ordinary times, walks can remain shaky regardless of the rhymes we whisper. My bodily relations waver between pride and shame for these wavers — in these cracks — prompt me to wonder how disability pride might materialize anew.

I return now to where I began, in sidewalk stories, to discover what new stories the togetherness of the crip community, and the togetherness of pride and shame might release into the world — our world — for us. I tell these sidewalk stories — stories of alienation, discrimination, humiliation, and exclusion — not only for the satisfaction of uttering them into a community — although this is satisfying for me, giddy with the newness of being in a community of disabled people and our allies. I tell these stories because when they are not released into the world they dwell in my body, festering in shame. In my stories and in their telling, pride and shame materialize together. I land into a community that does not alleviate the unbearable shame of being laughed at on a street corner on a nighttime walk. Here, pride rubs shame, pride comforts shame. Thomas King tells us: "The truth about stories is that that's all we are"15 . These sidewalk stories make up some of my disability truths and I tell them so as to put us in touch with the rub of expectation and experience. Much like my night on the street corner cast under the veil of a street light, my disability enters the mix, again and again, ever-challenging the expectation carved out for me, and for us. Disability experience appears, through my body, and rubs its expectation. And in this togetherness — in the midst of conflict — is where disability, my disability, materializes as meaningful. Here, neither my embodied experience of disability and my scholarly imagination of it nor its expectation receives the last, definitive word of this story. "If you step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back". This is hardly true we know, but cracks can still be dangerous. We may only notice cracks, like disability, to avoid them, most of the time. We ignore cracks as we move quickly from one space to the next, swiftly moving from the problem of disability to its solution, from living with pride to living with shame. Cracks can also be wondrous, conjoining two parts separated. So I say, from the body of disability studies and the body of my own experience, let us resist the imperative to move swiftly from one paving stone to the next; let us trip up in the cracks and dwell in the liminal spaces of disability. These trips may be painful and these in-between spaces may be uncomfortable, but we will find that we are not alone in these trips. We know things grow in the cracks, flowers and the like. Also, we will learn from more stories of pride and shame, like the ones I have shared above of "being-at-home" in an always-shifting home on the streets. These are my stories, of my experiences of an entanglement of pride and shame. They are not an indication of you and yours. My embodied experience wavers with joy, humour, pain, embarrassment, frustration, pride, and shame. While wavering bodily relations may be inconsistent with the constitution of a prideful being in its popular materialization as state of being in opposition to shame, my intimate knowledge of my body's ambiguities tells me that complete satisfaction with my embodiment is both unattainable and undesirable. Therefore the disability pride I am proposing remains with us in troubling times.

"The truth about stories is that that's all we are". These are my stories and they are my truths. The meaning of disability, my disability, materializes in between my cultureís expectancy for me as a disabled personó a moving body out-of-controló and my experience of disability. This is a call, or orientation, to a place where a pride can exists in togetherness with shame rather than in its abandonment; a space necessary for the release of stories, like these, which do not constitute wavering bodies of pride as "excludable types"16 . Disability appears in the midst of others as an indication of our togetherness. This is also where, together, we can make a pride materialize that is accessible to us all, a windy disability pride that provokes and embraces the never-steady stories we tell.

Works Cited

  • Allcoff, Linda, "Toward a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment" RACE (1999): 267-283.
  • Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Clare, Eli, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999.
  • Thomas King, The Truth About Stories. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, 2.
  • Michalko, Rod. "Confronting Systemic Oppressions". University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, February 21, 2009.
  • Michalko, Rod and Tanya Titchkosky, Rethinking Normalcy: A Disability Studies Reader Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2009.
  • Oliver Mike, "The Social Model In Context" Understanding Disability From Theory to Practice. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
  • Sartre, Jean Paul, Being and Nothingness. London: Routledge, 1958.
  • Titchkosky, Tanya, Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life Of Embodiment. Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 2007.
  • Union of Physically Impaired People Against Segregation. Fundamental Principles of Disability, 1976.

Endnotes

  1. The social model was developed through a reaction to the understanding that disability is "a problem in need of solution, with both the problem and the solution located in the individual" (Mike Oliver, "The Social Model In Context" Understanding Disability From Theory to Practice (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), 31); a pathology which dominated understandings of disability and personal and political relations with disabled people throughout the 20th century. In contrast, the social model suggests that "it is society which disables physically impaired people" (Union of Physically Impaired People Against Segregation, Fundamental Principles of Disability, 1976). Oliver tells us that the social model "does not deny the problem of disability but locates it squarely within society" (Oliver, "The Social Model," 32). As such, the social model locates the problem of disability in oppressive and discriminatory structural, attitudinal, and environmental barriers.


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  2. Eli Clare, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1999).


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  3. Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky, Rethinking Normalcy: A Disability Studies Reader (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 2009), 5.


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  4. Tanya Titchkosky, Reading and Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment (Toronto; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 2007).


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  5. Rod Michalko, "Confronting Systemic Oppressions" (University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, February 21, 2009).


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  6. Linda Allcoff, "Toward a Phenomenology of Racial Embodiment" RACE (1999), 281.


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  7. Allcoff, "Toward a Phenomenology," 281.


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  8. Allcoff, "Toward a Phenomenology," 281.


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  9. Allcoff, "Toward a Phenomenology," 281.


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  10. Titchkosky & Michalko, 2009.


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  11. Jean- Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. (London: Routledge, 1958).


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  12. Rod Michalko, The Difference Disability Makes. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), 118.


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  13. Thomas King, The truth About Stories. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 2.


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  14. Michalko, The Difference Disability Makes, 118.


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  15. King, The Truth About Stories, 2.


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  16. Titchkosky, Reading and Writing Disability, 149.


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Copyright (c) 2010 Eliza Chandler



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