Nostalgia is almost impossible for people with disabilities. “Oh for the good old days of the iron lung!” “The asylum was grand, especially the little cookies.” My childhood played out before the Americans with Disabilities Act and it was a horror show. I still harbor rancor for a famous professor at the University of Iowa who said if I was blind I shouldn’t be in his class. That happened in 1984. When I complained to the chair of the English department he said I was a “whiner.” You can see why I distrust sentimental longings for the past.
What would disabled nostalgia look like? In my first memoir “Planet of the Blind” I describe an 18th century rural freak show in which a group of French villagers force blind people to play musical instruments they’ve never encountered. They were made to wear oversized paper spectacles. See the hilarious stumbling blind!
Maybe disability nostalgia would be the school for the colored blind in West Virginia; maybe it resides in the vast American electro-shock industry.
If you fast forward you come to today. The Rotenberg school is still in business zapping autistic children to make them behave. Flashback: what sorts of beatings occurred at the schools for colored blind and deaf? Forward again: did you know that only on in four disabled students who start college actually graduates? How can this be in an era of civil rights and good technology? Smells like institutional ableism around the campus fountain.
I liked the film “Crip Camp” because it seemed to me to be the first instance of crippled nostalgia and by god we need to remember the good things. But the film broke my heart because it reminded me of how 80 per cent of the disabled remain unemployed in the US, a number that’s consistent around the world.
Here’s an assertion: today’s disability activists and artists will make nostalgia possible. OK. It’s a wish.