Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Helen Keller in the Bell Tower

I saw a guy in a wheelchair working the cash register at Target. He had the official red shirt and everything. I didn’t know what to make of it. I wondered if the poor sap had been “rehabilitated.”

When cripples need a job, we enter the system of vocational rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is a cute word. It implies that we have been corrected, restored. We are recovering cripples, I guess. I was a challenging case for the rehabilitation system when I was an adolescent because my sole career goal was to be a poet. So vocational exploration events like career fairs and bring-a-cripple-to- work days just depressed me. No poets had booths at career fairs. It’s too bad my rehab counselor never arranged for me to spend a workday with a poet. Hanging around all day in a cramped and musty room in a residential hotel observing a poet smoking cigarettes to the nub, drinking whiskey and bitterly spewing conspiracy theories might have been enough to scare me straight.

Asking your rehab counselor to pay for your schooling is like asking your parents to pay for your schooling. They’re job is to douse all your idealistic notions and insist that you do something practical, something that pays the bills. The practical career options open to me in those days were pretty much to be a social worker or to be a social worker or if all else failed I could be a social worker.

Some cripples are beyond the reach of the rehabilitation system. They cannot be restored. Take Quasimodo. Back in the days when he was looking for a job they didn’t even have store greeters. Of course it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It’s a myth that any old cripple can get a job as a store greeter. The only cripples that need apply are the ones that make shoppers feel warm inside. You can’t have bulging eyes and a hump. Can you imagine walking into Walmart and Quasimodo gets all up in your face and welcomes you?

So even if Quasimodo had a rehab counselor, it probably would have been determined that his most practical career option was to climb up into the bell tower.

Helen Keller would’ve made a lousy store greeter, too. I mean, how can a blind woman even know when customers are entering the store, unless you make them all wear a cowbell or something? And she’s deaf on top of it? Forget it! It’s way too impractical. Helen Keller’s rehab counselor probably would have sent her up into the bell tower as well. It makes sense. First off, she was already deaf so that’s a plus. And for job preparation training, all she would need would be a few climbing lessons.

I really wanted to ask the wheelchair guy working the cash register if he had been rehabilitated. Was this the job he wanted, or was this the practical default?

But I never saw him at Target again so maybe he lapsed in his rehab. Maybe he succumbed to the seductive attraction of the impractical.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Four Out of Five Cripples Prefer a Kick in the Crotch

Like I’ve said, I went to a state-operated boarding school for cripples that I call the Sam Houston Institute of Technology (SHIT).

Here’s an amazing fact: SHIT still exists.

Here’s an even more amazing fact: There are still a whole bunch of places like it going strong all around the country. They're often called “developmental” centers or “training” centers. But these places are like fly paper for cripples. If we land there, we’re probably stuck there until we die.

Here’s an amazinger fact than that: Some people fight hard to keep those places open, to the point where it takes contentious lawsuits to shut them down.

And here’s the amazingest fact of all: The defenders of these places ALWAYS say they’re standing up for our freedom of choice. Cripples ought to be able to live forever without parole, if we so choose, in a place where you have about as much autonomy, privacy, creative stimuli and ability to take risks as you do in a hospital ward.

When I hear people make this “choice” defense, I find myself wishing hard that there was a nearby pit full of yak turds. Because I would grab them by the back of their suspenders and hurl them into it.

Choice and preference implies a menu of options. But if you force feed somebody nothing but boiled moose bladders for long enough, sooner or later they’ll learn to love boiled moose bladders. A key survival mechanism for the most powerless cripples is the ability to develop many acquired tastes.

And when you live in those “developmental” places long enough, it has a groundhog effect. If you venture out, it’s been so long since you’ve seen sunlight that even your own shadow spooks you and you dash back in and hide.

I could conduct a survey where I offer cripples a choice between a) being locked in a meat freezer for three days wearing only a Speedo or b) a kick in the crotch. Four out of five cripples will say they prefer a kick in the crotch. Hell, five out of five cripples will say they prefer a kick in the crotch. So then I’m not only justified but I’m sanctified when I go around kicking cripples in the crotch. I’m honoring their choice.

This happens not just to cripples but to powerless people in general. You get a choice between a) working at Walmart for shit pay and no benefits or b) starving to death in a cold alley. Four out of five will choose working at Walmart for shit pay and no benefits. Well, maybe three out of five. So we must defend their right to chose to work at Walmart for shit pay and no benefits.

When the champions of choice thrash wildly in the yak turds, pleading for me to throw them a rope, I will offer them a choice to a) stay in the pit or b) be flattened by a steamroller. Four out of five will say they prefer to stay in the pit. And I will honor their choice.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Doris Day and the Smell of Burning Rope

As I recall, the guy who came to the state-operated boarding school for cripples to lecture us on the evils of drug use was dressed like a clown.

He probably was really dressed more like a state trooper, but I remember a clown because that’s the emotional footprint he left on my teenage brain. (Some people say I still have a teenage brain.) I took him about as seriously as I took the itinerant dental hygienist who came to the cripple school once a year or so. She brought along a comically oversized, ceramic bicuspid with a smiley face painted on the side. She used a comically oversized toothbrush to demonstrate the proper brushing technique.

The dental hygiene presentation scared me straight way more than the don’t-do-drugs presentation. Because I knew that the hygienist would leave behind a shitload of her dreaded scarlet pills and that night, after brushing our teeth, each of the inmates would have to suck on one until it dissolved in our mouths. The point of the pill was to illustrate with stark clarity what a shitty job were doing brushing our teeth. Scarlet dye adhered to the areas that still needed brushing. I brushed and brushed until my gums eroded but, invariably, when I opened my mouth after the pill dissolved, I looked like I ate a case of cherry popsicles. So I brushed and brushed and brushed and brushed again but the dye still stubbornly lingered, it seemed like for a month. I looked like an All-Star dork.

But the don’t-do-drugs guy was so over the top, he just made me laugh. For his dramatic finale, he held a wafer high, like a priest offering communion. He lit the wafer with a cigarette lighter. This smoldering wafer, he said, simulates the smell of someone smoking marijuana. “Notice how it smells like burning rope, “ he said. If we ever smell that smell, he beseeched us, report it to a responsible adult immediately!

Jerry Eubanks couldn’t hold back any longer. He laughed out loud. Jerry Eubanks was my age, African American, rotund, legless. He swore he lost his legs while running from the police. He was running with a stolen television set, his story went. He tried to beat an oncoming train but he tripped and fell and the train ran over his legs. Jerry Eubanks was full of shit.

But he smelled the burning wafer and blurted, “That don’t smell nuthin’ like weed!” And everybody laughed. He was right. Even I had smelled pot before. Everybody who lived on our wing of the cripple school knew what pot smelled like. The houseparent who worked solo on the overnight shift watching over the cripples in our wing was named Doris Day (Smart Ass Cripple alias). She was African American, tiny and stern. On some nights, if any of us were still up when her shift began, she angrily ordered us to go to bed. With us all safely secluded in our rooms, Doris Day went into the Staff Only bathroom and locked the door. Shortly thereafter, the wing reeked of the smell of burning rope.

Someone must’ve eventually reported Doris Day’s pot smoking to a responsible adult. Because before too long she was gone.

The don’t–do-drugs clown/trooper made a common mistake. He underestimated the range of experiences of cripples livng in a boarding school. He should have lived among us for a few days. He might have learned something about drugs.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ain’t Nobody Takin' My Cripple Away

Some people says using the “r” word is now as offensive as using the “n” word. The people who believe this most are the people formerly known as mentally “r.” They want to be called intellectually disabled or more respectable stuff like that.

Fair enough. We’ll not use the word “r” here at Smart Ass Cripple. Consider the word stricken, in spite of its element of comic allure. I am not “r” so who am I to tell them what they have to call themselves? And I can kind of see their point. Some people referred to the “r” kids at the cripple elementary school I attended as “delayed.” That’s a helluvan identity to have to carry around. “Hello, I’m delayed.”

So I will comply. But I have to admit that I’m doing so with a great deal of consternation. The banishment of the “r” word was the result of a massive re-branding campaign. There were public service announcements and billboards. I believe I even saw a Don’t Use the “R” Word blimp. And there was no overt opposition. No one dared put up a billboard that said “Screw You ‘R’ People!”

So bravo for them. I’m glad they were able to pull it off. But I sure hope it doesn’t give anybody any big fancy ideas about spearheading a similar mobilization against the word cripple. God help me if I have to call myself Smart Ass Differently-Abled Person or Smart Ass Individual Who Happens to Have a Disability or, horror of horrors, Smart Ass Handi-capable Man. If that happens, somebody please shoot me in the head.

It’s not that I don’t get pissed off about how some people use the word cripple, especially journalists. They talk about the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant or the crippled Greek economy. They use crippled as a synonym for fucked up. I guess they look up fucked up in the thesaurus and the first word that pops up is crippled.

That’s fucked up. But I’d rather hammer away relentlessly at the word cripple like a coked-up blacksmith until cripple is forged into something new. Maybe being crippled will become synonymous with being awesomely cool. From that day forward, when people visit the Sistine Chapel, they’ll look up at all the Michelangelo stuff and say, “Man, that is sooooooooo crippled.”

If anybody starts a Don’t Use the “C” Word campaign, I’m afraid I’ll have no choice but to be on the other side. It may be me against the world, but I can’t imagine giving up without a fight. I will engage them in a contentious battle of dueling blimps. I’ll write a protest song: Ain’t Nobody Takin' My Cripple Away.

If they want to take away my "c" word, they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


The horror stories have been going around for years. I’m sure you’ve heard them. The New York Times was ranting about it a few weeks back.

It all starts with unscrupulous lawyers. They recruit cripples to be plaintiffs in lawsuits suing small businesses for being inaccessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Maybe the business has no ramp or too steep of a ramp or a counter or shelf that’s too high. Then the case gets settled. The lawyers collect fees and then they pay the cripple a fee for their time. The Times says a couple lawyers have filed more than 300 suits in the last three years in New York alone. And some cripples have built a cottage industry out of being repeat plaintiffs.

When I read about my fellow cripples teaming up with unscrupulous lawyers to behave in this manner, it really pisses me off. Why can’t I find an unscrupulous lawyer to team up with me? I mean, I live in Chicago, dammit. You can’t swing a dead cat by the tail around here without hitting an unscrupulous lawyer.

Maybe the hard part is finding a lawyer who’s both unscrupulous and not very smart. Because lawyers who think they’re going to get filthy rich by just filing ADA lawsuits can’t be very smart. The first rule of successful gold digging is to dig where there is gold. They’d do much better working for the other side.

But surely there’s an unscrupulous lawyer out there who’s a perfect match for me. All I need is one. We’ll be the dream team. I’m anxious to fight discrimination because, sadly, I’m one of those Act-of-God cripples. I was born this way. I wasn’t fortunate enough to be hit by a bus or maimed by a faulty corkscrew. There’s no one I can sue. So the only way I can get restitution is by suing for discrimination.

When I read about my fellow cripples teaming up with unscrupulous lawyers, it causes me to reflect. I’ve discovered there’s one thing I really don’t like about myself. I don’t sue enough. The ADA was signed 22 years ago and I pass establishments every day that I can’t access because there are steps on the front or whatever. And what do I do about it? Squat! Jack Squat! Fortunately, this is a character flaw that is well within my power to change. All it will take is some will power and an unscrupulous lawyer.

I know my litigiousness will fire up the critics. This makes a mockery of the spirit of the ADA, they’ll say. When Congress passed a law granting cripples the right to go out and sue for discrimination, the last thing Congress intended was for cripples to go out and sue for discrimination.

They miss the good old days, when cripples stayed home and sat on their scruples.