My friend Bill Peace is leaving town. When a good pal pulls up stakes one asks (or at least one should) “what’s friendship about?” There are of course all kinds of friendships—some are as simple as college roommates enjoying the same music. Nothing wrong with this. Easy friendships are fine.
But Bill and I are disabled and we grew up long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Bill calls us “pre-ADA cripples” and he’s right. Pre-ADA cripples share an intensity from having faced obstacles that aren’t routinely encountered today.
Bill Peace traveled New York in a wheelchair before curb cuts and accessible buses. Once in the late 1970’s or early ’80’s as he was crossing a street near Lincoln Center he discovered he couldn’t mount the far curb. A bus was bearing down on him. A stranger appeared and boosted him onto the sidewalk. Both men were deeply shaken. Bill said: “Hey, you wanna grab a beer?” His Good Samaritan agreed. In the pub Bill asked him what he did for a living. “I’m a dancer,” he said. “Are you any good?” Bill asked. The Samaritan was Mikhail Baryshnikov.
This is one of the many reasons I love Bill: he can tell an amusing story about himself. He was the only guy in Manhattan who didn’t know who Mikhail Baryshnikov was. But of course why should he have known? In those years Bill was fighting for his life—all disabled people were. If you believe the ADA is just a panacea remember as pre-ADA cripples do that going out used to be impossible. It isn’t easy now but back then forget it. Back then you needed Mikhail Baryshnikov and a boatload of luck.
Dr. Peace, for so I shall call him, earned his Ph.D. at Columbia where he was essentially the only cripple on campus. His advisor, Robert Murphy (who wrote the groundbreaking book The Body Silent) told him if he didn’t succeed in dramatic fashion no other disabled applicant would ever get into the university. If you’re a contemporary disabled college student you know a good deal about pressure—the disabled know they must be high achievers (“Super Crips”) but one can say in general the future of disability inclusion on college campuses doesn’t hang on your shoulders.
My friendship with Dr. Peace “kicked off” because of contrarianism. We met six years ago via the blogosphere when, unbeknownst to each other, we wrote simultaneously about Ashley X, a severely disabled infant rendered permanently tiny by surgery. We believed this procedure was unethical. We weren’t alone. But as disabled writers who spoke forcefully for the human rights of a disabled child we endured criticism. Some of the comments we received were utterly appalling. We were trolled by eugenics types. Our friendship began with our agreement that crippled lives are worth living.
One night about four years ago we went out to eat together in Mt. Kisco, New York, a rich suburban town north of New York. When we came out of the pub snow was falling. It was very dark. Sidewalks were on the verge of vanishing. Bill asked if I could push his chair. His traction wasn’t secure. I dropped my guide dog’s harness, held her long leash with one hand, and pushed Bill through the gathering snow, my yellow Labrador healing beside us. We thought about the drivers whisking by in their expensive SUVs. “What,” we wondered, “would they think, seeing us making our wobbly way through a storm?”
We continue to believe we have stories to write.