Disability and the Light Before Us

This is not evangelical light; it’s not Manichean. Let’s say its both waves and particles and leave it at that. We’re certain of the waves and particles. And we know diurnal life gets you out of bed. 
Oh but if you have a disability can you trust the light? Does it illuminate? Does it beckon or rob you of your last shred of dignity? 

When I was in college a professor who became my friend recommended I read Ralph Ellison’s magnificent novel “Invisible Man”and that incomparable book gave me language for something I already understood implicitly: light ain’t necessarily your pal. The narrator declares: 

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Light will not illuminate a man of color and worse, it makes him impossible to see. Like a member of the French underground, he’s retreated to a covert under the city where he strings lightbulbs in his solitude, illuminating his lonely, isolated guerilla existence. 

Like Ellison’s narrator the disabled are also invisible—people refuse to see them; they’re surrounded by mirrors of distorting glass so that when they are seen they appear even more ruined. But mostly, and this is the main point, they’re not seen for who they are and are therefore entirely missing from the light.

So walking about as a cripple you are forced to think about this. In what way, under what circumstances will light be transformed? This is one of the hardest questions of all.

One morning when I was a relatively new guide dog user, still learning I could trust my canine pal in traffic, I had an experience of light that I couldn’t have foreseen. I was walking with my yellow Labrador “Corky” in Manhattan. I saw how the world bent toward us, Corky and me—how a softening of what had been hard in my spirit corresponded exactly to something outside. It wasn’t just that I felt better with a dog. It wasn’t my new optimism about going places (though surely these were potent within me) it was a receptiveness in the very air. The day before us was not just open but welcoming. Sunlight loved us. 

We were walking up Fifth Avenue. Our walking was loose but also fast. Corky was having her usual fun locating the bodies of pedestrians, seeing how to work around them without breaking our stride. And daylight was so hospitable, well, a tumbling happened inside me. It felt like an old lock was opening, some knit up place was giving way. I was untroubled. That was it. And then I was joyous. We were better than just a man or just a dog. Better than a contraption or contrivance. The light outside us and the light inside had met. We stopped. On the steps of a church I said to Corky: “I think we’re the light, my dear.” 

After this when people asked the name of my dog I’d say “Meister Eckhart”. It was my little joke about joy and spirit. If we were, to borrow writer Caroline Knapp’s wonderful term, a “pack of two” we were a pack of two with “chi”—“And how,” I said to Corky,” do we explain this without sounding trippy?” The answer of course was just keep walking.