Paul Glastris on the disability rights movement

In recent decades, some of Washingtons most contentious policy battles have revolved around identity politics, the notion that members of marginalized groups can be true to themselves and advance their interests only by embracing and asserting that which makes them differentbe it their race, gender, or sexual orientation. But as the disability rights movement gained force in the late 1980s, Paul Glastris offered a dissenting opinion. Recounting a traumatic electrical accident he experienced as a teenager, Glastris made the case that some identities are best denied.

My memory of the days that followed the accident consists of short, vivid scenes accompanied by whatever I was thinking at the time. There is the fireman with a pair of scissors, cutting my blue jeans from the ankles up, while assuring me that everything was going to be all right. (I cant believe this guys ruining my favorite pair of pants.) There is my mother standing in a hospital hallway as Im wheeled past her on a gurney, her face showing suppressed emotion. (Trying for a bit of reassuring humor, I blurt out: Well, Mom, looks like I messed myself up pretty good this time.)

Most of all I remember the towel the surgeon had draped across my eyes. I would drop in and out of consciousness, reemerging each time to find the damned towel blocking my view. I sensed the surgeon was a kind and understanding man, but his seemingly casual refusal to grant my repeated requests that he remove the towel struck me as patronizing. I was determined to assure him that I was brave enough to see whatever he obviously didnt want me to see. In and out I went, feeling no pain, no panic, just sleepy and curious. At some point I awoke with a keen suspicion of what the problem was.

Doctor, is my arm gone?

Yes, Paul.

A long pause. Can I see?

Another long pause. Up went the towel. I lifted my head and looked around, as if emerging from a manhole. As I gazed at my right shoulder I remember thinking: Hmm. How about that. Isnt that interesting. I had never seen human bone before, but there was a piece about half an inch wide, just below my shoulder, surrounded by a three-inch circle of angry-looking flesh. Isnt that something, I thought as I lay my head back, feeling sleepy now. Before I dozed off, the towel came down over my eyes.

My fourteen-year-old mind was obviously engaged in some form of what psychiatrists call denial. Yet it wasnt the classic refusal to admit the painfully obvious. From the moment Dr. Monafo lifted the towel and let me look, and throughout the days and weeks ahead, I accepted the fact of my injuries. What did not occur to me, what I did not think about, what I denied, were the ramifications. I had no dread about my future, no feeling of horror or revulsion or depression. It was not an act of conscious will on my part; my mind just naturally kept away from the fears and questions youd expect I would have had.

This site and all contents within are Copyright 1969-2011 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.