Need a new parenting mantra? Try this: “Most things are possible when you assume problems can be solved.”
That is one of the nuggets Judith Heumann provides in her recent memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. I discovered Heumann while watching Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution this past summer with my teen daughters. The film is nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars.
In the film’s Camp Jened footage from 1971, Heumann is a young wheelchair user and camp counselor who has polio. But her skills as an activist are already apparent. How did she achieve such early self-possession?
In her memoir, the Crip Camp star explains the power of her parents and friends: “I never wished I didn’t have a disability. … I’m fairly certain my parents didn’t either. I never asked them, but if I had, I don’t think they would have said that our lives would have been better if I hadn’t had a disability. That was who they were.” She adds: “Some people say that what I did changed the world. But really, I simply refused to accept what I was told about who I could be. And I was willing to make a fuss about it.”
Part of her can-do mindset came from her childhood friends: “It didn’t occur to me then to think it unusual that I joined in all the kids’ games in my wheelchair. Because there was never a question of whether or not I would play, too — we all figured out a way for me to do whatever everyone was doing. … Now I know that this was the way it was because we were kids, and kids are problem solvers. But it taught me, at a very early age, that most things are possible when you assume problems can be solved.”
When a child with a disability becomes a parent
Another woman who appears in Crip Camp and has also written a memoir full of parenting wisdom is Denise Sherer Jacobson. The Question of David: A Disabled Mother’s Journey Through Adoption, Family, and Life chronicles the process Jacobson and her husband, Neil, both of whom have cerebral palsy, went through to become parents.
Similar to Heumann, Jacobson experienced unconditional acceptance from her parents as a child, which had a huge impact on her psychology. But her childhood was more alienating: “At four years old I already knew what I looked like in other people’s eyes: a pretty child who could hardly walk or talk, who had to be carried up and down stairs and fed and schlepped to doctors and therapists. I was viewed as a tragedy by well-meaning family and friends who pitied my mother and admired her devotion to me.”
Jacobson continues, however, in terms that parallel Heumann’s mindset: “I also knew, at four years old, that I wasn’t a tragedy at all. I’m sure it would have surprised them to know that it never occurred to me to wish I weren’t disabled.”
Significantly, Jacobson transfers this mindset to her role as a new parent of David, a baby boy who doctors suspect may also have cerebral palsy: “David would always know that, whether or not he had a disability, his life was of great value.” When someone doubts Neil and Denise’s parenting ability because of their cerebral palsy, Denise reflects: “People seem to get so caught up in what they can see that they ignore that which is invisible to them, the most important part of raising a child — the relationship between him and his parents.”
Teaching a new generation (and their parents)
A third person who appears in Crip Camp has inspired a new children’s book. All the Way to the Top: How One Girl’s Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything is designed for children ages 4 and up. Written by Annette Bay Pimental and illustrated by Nabi H. Ali, the book tells the story of Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy.
At age 8, Keelan-Chaffins famously participated in “The Capitol Crawl,” a protest that occurred on March 12, 1990. In that demonstration, dozens of people abandoned their wheelchairs and climbed with their hands and arms up the many steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The Americans with Disabilities Act finally became law a few months later.
The book illustrates through a child’s eyes the need for curb cuts, ramps and elevators with braille panels. While physical architecture is foregrounded, the book raises awareness of how our mental architecture is even more important regarding disability issues. The author declares: “While physical barriers pose challenges to people with disabilities, social attitudes can be even more frustrating. People may focus on a disability as a problem to be solved instead of paying attention to the person with the disability. Or people with disabilities may be treated with low expectations, as if having a disability means they are incapable. On the other hand, people with disabilities are sometimes treated as heroes simply for doing everyday things when they just want to live their lives.”
Redesigning mental architecture can be challenging, but all parents should constantly strive for a barrier-free, problems-can-be-solved environment for their children. As Heumann says of her childhood, “In my mind, there were no barriers to what I could learn or what I could achieve. All the barriers came from outside of me.”