Disability and identity: The ‘Other’ and Us

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Wong Soak Koon tries to comprehend how friends and family of the disabled are challenged in different ways.

I rarely begin with a personal anecdote, but allow me to do so here. In 1986, after I returned from Berkeley to Penang, I received a call from a Malaysian television station (cannot remember which channel and it really does not matter as channels 1, 2 and 3 were and are uniformly dull). A voice asked if I would like to appear in a programme on “successful” disabled people: “Dr, kami ingin jemput Dr sebagai ahli panel” (Dr, we would like to invite you to be a member of the panel). An alarm bell went off. Berkeley may have taught me something after all. “Success” and “disability” so glibly yoked together?

In my mind’s eye, I saw a panel of happily smiling “successful” people, with a spectrum of physical disabilities, spilling out their achievements and worse, praising various state initiatives for the handicapped. All answers would be customarily whetted by the television channel and the entire feel-good show pre-recorded. Being much younger and more fiery then, I may have said something very “tak berbudi bahasa” (rude) in my refusal which I shall not record here. I told the caller that I would come only if the entire thing was ‘live’, no whetting. Can you blame the poor caller for beating a fast retreat?

Society, in general, too easily homogenises the “disabled” as simply one big undifferentiated group best characterised as “different” from us. The kind of disability or degree of severity does not matter. Homogenising occurs in all instances where we see a group as “Other” whether in racial, gender or other terms resulting in stereotypes, a flattening out of humanising differences which are always there in any group, however different from us. If we allow ourselves to think more humanely, we would not permit any disability to overshadow all other human aspects of the disabled person.

Ynestra King - Photograph: ynestraking.wordpress.com
Ynestra King – Photograph: ynestraking.wordpress.com

My reflections on the layered reactions of the disabled self as it negotiates worldly engagements, as it “inserts” itself into the world, owe much to Ynestra King’s brilliantly insightful essay, “The Other Body: Reflections on Difference, Disability and Identity Politics”. King teases out the subtleties of the many subject postions a disabled person occupies, revealing the disabled person’s complex reactions to a self-in-the-world as well as exploring the responses of the able-bodied to the disabled. Among Ynestra King’s most perceptive and poignant statements are these: “The wish that the body should be irrelevant has been one of my most fervent lifelong wishes.The knowledge that it isn’t is my most intense lifelong experience”.

How well I can empathise with her. King contracted polio at seven and I did at two (in 1950) when a worldwide polio epidemic raged around the globe. At that time, the Salk Vaccine for poliomyelitis was yet to be perfected for clinical use.It must have been frightening for my barely literate mother and other family members to see the chubby two-year-old toddler (I see my infant self in old photos) having a life-threatening high fever and refusing to walk because of severe pain in the left limb. It was a trying time for everyone. Those who have a disabled person in the family, whatever the degree of severity of the disability, will understand.

In this piece, I try to comprehend how friends and family of the disabled are challenged too. The more sensitive among them would surely experience the trial and error of renegotiating emotions when encountering difference. Literature does deal with disabilty drawing from life and illuminating many unexamined corners of human experience. Thus, a fresh look at Tennessee Williams’ riveting play, “The Glass Menagerie”, reread with new nuancing after my reading of Ynestra King, concludes my reflections.

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Why does the disabled body engender unease, even fear? Because it calls up images of decay, of mortality in opposition to those perfect, ageless bodies tirelessly promoted via the mass media in the consumerist, capitalist society we inhabit. In fact, as Ynestra King points out, we are all, without exception, embedded in organic matter. However much in control of our faculties and our bodies we believe we are, all of us are creatures of time, subject to decay like any living organism. No one can have control over this inexorable process even with botox, gyms, stem cells and other avenues.

Furthermore, disablity can happen at any stage in life, even in youth, not only through disease but through accidents. Disability, therefore, unnerves because it erodes our sense of control; it challenges our egoistic self-management. As King perceptively sees it: “The ostrasisation, marginalisation and distorted response to disability are not simply issues of prejudice and denial of civil rights. They reflect attitudes towards bodily life, an unease in the human skin, an inability to cope with contingency, ambiguity, flux, finitude, and death.”

Image: Wikipedia
Image: Wikipedia

In Tennessee Williams play, “The Glass Menagerie” the disabled character, Laura Wingfield, is introduced this way: “A childhood illness has left her crippled, one leg slightly shorter than the other, and held in a brace.” In my focus on how Tennessee Williams’ presents disability, I tease out how he makes us see that disability is always inflected by other identity markers such as social class and gender. The poignancy of this play intensifies because Laura’s family is financially strapped. Her father had long deserted the family; the brother, Tom, has to put his own dream of being a poet on hold to work in a shoe factory. Thus, besides her shyness about her limp, Laura also endures the embarassment of not having money to pay when her mother asks her to go to the store and buy on credit. She tells her mom, “Mother, they make such faces when I do that”. Gender features predominantly too as her mother pushes her to try to be popular so that “gentlemen callers” would come by and marriage would be a way out.

The intensity of the play derives from Williams’ insight into the “disabilities” which afflict all members of the Wingfield family. The brother and mother have no obvious physical markers of “dysfunction” but they are “impaired” in their own ways. The mother is lost in dreamy reveries drawing comfort from memories of her youthful beauty and popularity among “gentlemen callers”. Tom, angry and stressed, unhappy in his job, takes it out on their mother whose “shallowness”, Williams is careful to remind us, can be born of desperation.

What excites me about this play is Williams’ ability to see that each member of the family merits our compassion, not just the disabled Laura. Tennessee Williams shows how hard it can be for the able-bodied to know how to treat the disabled and also how harrowing it is for the disabled to explain themselves to the able-bodied. Should the able-bodied be like Amanda Wingfield, the mother, who is almost in denial, refusing to allow Laura to utter the word “cripple”? (“Nonsense! Laura, I have told you never, never to use that word”). Or should they be like Tom, Laura’s brother, for whom Laura’s disability constantly haunts, adding to an unbearable weight of responsibility? There is no easy answer.

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In my associations with others, I have often been reassured that they don’t even notice my disability, but as Ynestra King notes, is this transcendence of disability always reassuring? Is there not in Laura’s mother’s denial of her daughter’s state a callousness that leads to her enrolling Laura in the Rubicon Business College where Laura’s extreme shyness presages failure? But should others then put focus on the disability? This too can lead to unhappy results. Tennessee Williams reveals how difficult it is to strike a balance and how fluid all human interactions, whether between so-called normal people or between the disabled and able-bodied, can be.

It is surely no coincidence that Williams makes Amanda Wingfield a fan of women’s magazines which popularises what an attractive woman should be: “delicate cuplike breasts, slim tappering waists, creamy thighs, eyes like wood smoke in autumn, fingers that soothe and caress like strains of music, bodies as powerful as Etruscan statues.” She tries to earn money from getting subscribers for such magazines. No wonder then that she anatomises her daughter, seeing Laura in parts, not wholistically. She laments Laura’s flat chest yet refuses to see the leg in a brace or, worse, to see Laura’s fragile sensitivity.

Tennessee Williams’ insightful presentation of disability builds to a dramatic climax in the scene where Laura and the only “gentleman caller”, Jim, meet. Under pressure from the mother who nags him about marriage as a way out for Laura, Tom Wingfield finally invites a colleague, Jim, home for dinner. An intense memory of attraction on her part, relived anew, assails Laura – for Jim is the boy whose singing at a school performance had remained in her memory. Was she merely “invisible” to the then highly popular Jim? Space does not permit me to discuss this fascinating scene fully, but I shall show how brilliantly Tennessee Williams captures the ebb and flow of attraction and caution. This scene would certainly tax the acting skill of each actor when the play is staged.

Unwilling or unable to note Laura’s unease, the mother insists that Laura opens the door for Jim when this much anticipated “gentleman caller” comes for dinner. Awkward and self-conscious, Laura “suddenly stumbles” and she tries to sit “with her feet drawn under her”, a painful effort many disabled persons would understand who have themselves tried, in vain, to hide a disability from public gaze. The force of this play then comes from Williams’ delineation of how disability need not preclude sexual attraction.

With Jim’s words: “You know I have an idea I have seen you before”, the subtle chords and notes of emotions rivet our attention. To Laura’s shy recollection of how she hated coming to school late and then having to walk awkwardly to the back of the class (“Yes, it was hard for me getting upstairs. I had that brace on my leg – it clumped so loud!”), Jim replies, “I never heard any clumping.” What are we to make of Jim and this flow of emotions between him and Laura? Is there only sincerity in Jim?

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I would prefer to read Tennessee Williams’ effort as an incisive unmasking of the complexities in Jim’s feelings. There is sexual attraction as he gently tells Laura, “Has anyone told you that you are pretty?” When Laura, who warms to his reassurance, asks, “In what respects am I pretty?”, his answer, “in all respects – believe me!” is unfortunately deflated when he proceeds to anatomise her into parts: “Your eyes – your hair – are pretty. Your hands are pretty!” Jim’s boosting of Laura’s self-confidence, his insistence that she rids herself of an inferiority complex is brilliantly exposed by Tennessee Williams to be complex and not totally about Laura.

In this scene, Jim talks incessantly; Laura only interjects occasionally. Jim is really reassuring himself (he has not lived out the expectations of his high school success in his present job) in front of someone he sees as much weaker and so less likely to judge him. In my own experiences as a disabled person, I have often come across folk for whom the disabled person is like an unchallenging, acquiescent sounding board for their untested claims, claims which hide their own insecurity. Jim himself does glimpse his self-centred, overbearing air when he tells Laura, “ I guess you think I think a lot of myself.” He does.

We are not at all surprised when the sexual circuitry of attraction is broken after their awkward dance (Laura: “I have never danced in my life”; “O but I’d step on you”). Reality or logic or what else (hard to find a term) intrudes, and Jim states categorically: “ I can’t take down your number and say I’ll phone. I can’t call next week and ask for a date. I thought I had better explain the situation in case you misunderstood and I hurt your feelings.” He adds that he is engaged to be married shortly. The scene ends with the playwright focussing on Laura whose eyes carry “a look of almost infinite desolation”.

Yet Tennessee Williams also reserves deep sympathy for Tom, Laura’s brother, whose sad musings end the play. Abandoning the family just as his father had done, Tom leaves home as his mother raves: “Don’t think about us, a mother deserted, an unmarried sister who’s crippled and has no job!” In a spoken monologue revealing his inner unrest, Tom tells us: “I travelled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves….Oh Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be…” Laura remains a haunting memory of unresolved guilt, love, despair and, much more complicated, of barely admitted anger at her and, not least, at himself.

Rereading this play anew in this season of life is, for me, therapeutic and life-enhancing. Thanks too to Ynestra King’s wonderful essay on disability and identity which is well worth googling for and reflecting upon whether you are disabled or able-bodied.

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Dr. Patricia Anne Martinez
Dr. Patricia Anne Martinez

Thank you for writing this! About time and not just ‘one time’ but periodically needed to remind us.