The novel Accidents of Natureby Harriet McBryde Johnson depicts the summer camp experiences of Jean, a senior who attends public high school in a small Southern town and who has cerebral palsy. Set in 1970 and partly autobiographical, this novel geared toward a young adult audience uncovers the need for a disability rights movement. Accidents of Nature could instigate a paradigm shift in how teenage readers look at bodies and consider the concepts of "normal" and "different" regarding mobility and speech. Johnson, an activist and lawyer who was born with a congenital neuromuscular disease, also published a memoir, Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from A Life (2005).
The friendships Jean makes at the cross-disability Camp Courage and the new ideas she learns from her activist friend Sara change Jean's outlook. Sara urges resistance by the self-named "Crip Camp" residents against philanthropists and the "able-bodied" counselors, who mean well yet are patronizing. The daughter of two college professors, Sara reads books such as Erving Goffman's Stigma: Notes on the management of Spoiled Identityand C. B. MacPherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. In one of her consciousness-raising sessions with cabinmates, Sara analyzes "'how we manageour stigma. . . . Like, should we identify with our group or with the Norms? We can say, basically, to hell with the normal world and flaunt our differences like carnival freaks. Or we can accept Norm values'" (112-113).
Until this point in her life, Jean has endeavored to assimilate into what others defined as the normal world, but now, Jean suffers painful and joyful moments in the process of rethinking her identity. Jean's experience among other teens with disabilities is empowering, providing a sense of collective identity through finding persons with whom she shares some experiences. Jean accepts the nickname "Spazzo" and benefits from viewing herself in conjunction with teenagers managing diverse disabilities such as autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, thalidomide syndrome, and quadriplegia.
Mobility issues are central to the narrative. Jean's body works against her wishes, but she finds some peace floating in the water and watching her fellow campers disrobe to swim and bathe. Jean feels the desire for romance, and she wants to have an "elegant" and "stately" body like the camp counselors (150-151), but she also needs to love the body she has. After Sara leads the campers in ridiculing song choices by a visiting community choir — "The Impossible Dream" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" — Jean realizes that "walking is something you can mock" (71). Being in a wheelchair and unable to walk had felt to Jean like her greatest failure.
The novel's climax involves a talent show in which Jean's cabin presents a skit about a "Telethon to Stamp Out Normalcy" (179). The skit transforms people who are considered "crippled" into the dominant force and undermines the notion of a normal or standard body. As part of the novel's effort to redefine or even eliminate the concept of normalcy, the line that Jean speaks in the skit is one that upset her so much when she was on a telethon: "'That girl needs speech therapy!'" (183). Hearing the hateful words repurposed to challenge the society that marginalizes her is akin to an "exorcism" for Jean (184).
Jean's cerebral palsy is unlikely to improve; she will not become more mobile or verbally articulate. Ultimately, Jean senses, "I'll never be 'just like a normal girl.' What I will be is beyond my imagining" (223). The book questions the notion of normalcy and depicts a diverse range of people. As Jean "yearn[s] for a Bible story about a cripple who isn't cured" (74), so do young adults need fiction depicting bodies of all types, and Harriet McBryde Johnson's Accidents of Naturewill compel interest from readers of any age.
Other recent fiction for younger readers featuring characters with cerebral palsy includes Lois Metzger's Barry's Sister(1992) and the sequel Ellen's Case(1997), both for readers of approximately age twelve and up, and Elizabeth Helfman's On Being Sarah(1993) and Ben Mikaelsen's Petey(1998), for readers age nine and up. For teachers, librarians, and family members wanting recommendations of additional literature depicting young persons with different abilities, a valuable resource is Marilyn Ward's Voices from the Margins: An Annotated Bibliography of Fiction on Disabilities and Differences for Young People(Greenwood Press, 2002). Ward's well-indexed reference text describes books published through 2001 that meet criteria including accuracy, literary quality, realistic portrayals, integral settings, and reasonable story resolution. As Ward observes, literature about disabilities and differences can broaden readers' attitudes toward themselves and others, increase awareness, and heighten achievement (x).