Sunday, May 29, 2011

"I was sad, for I had no shoes" -- Distorted views through the Pity Lens.

From The Gulistan of Sa'di (1258 C.E. -- Persia):

Chapter 3: On the Excellence of Contentment:


Story 19

I never lamented about the vicissitudes of time or complained of the turns of fortune except on the occasion when I was barefooted and unable to procure slippers. But when I entered the great mosque of Kufah with a sore heart and beheld a man without feet I offered thanks to the bounty of God, consoled myself for my want of shoes and recited:

'A roast fowl is to the sight of a satiated man
Less valuable than a blade of fresh grass on the table
And to him who has no means nor power
A burnt turnip is a roasted fowl.'



Every time I hear, or come across, some variation of: "I was sad, for I had no shoes..." I cannot help but imagine the same vignette from the other side. So here is my attempt at a response:


As I sat in the great masque of Kufah, I lamented that I had no feet, and had to rely on companions and strangers to carry me whither I needed to go. But as I sat in prayer, I beheld a man enter walking who was poor, and had no slippers, and whose feet were blue from cold, and bruised by the hard stones of his path. And I offered thanks to the bounty of God that I had companions and strangers to carry me, and that I could fold the ends of my robes around the stubs of my legs, and thus keep warm and comfortable.


The biggest problem with viewing disability from the outside, of course, is that it is far too easy to view everything through the filter of pity. The person who is expressing the pity may think they're giving comfort. But it's a cold, heavy, wet blanket to the person on the receiving end. When Society at Large just assumes your life is devoid of value, then you are denied opportunities to contribute anything of value to Society at Large.

Most of the images of disablity that will come up in this blog will, as in this example, be viewed from "the outside" -- from the able-bodied perspective. This is, in large part, because those with physical disabilities have had far less access to education or to the means to tell their own stories. This has just started to change in the last few generations, but we still have a long way to go.

And, of course, when the creators of these pitying or horrifying images also happen to be generally wise or skilled in their art, everything they've passed down to us is accepted as a Great Truth... Even when it's not. So I've learned to see even the skewed, "monstrous" images of disability as evidence of, if nothing else, the long survival of disabled people in a world that is unfriendly to their existence. And from that, I take great hope.

When discussing the Wisdom, or the Foolishness, of others, my mother often reminded me to: "Consider the source." And unattributed translations make me antsy. So -- here are the sources for my source, as best as I can figure:

I'm quoting the Gulistan posted at The Internet Classics Archive, where the translator is listed as "anonymous." Their source is the Project Gutenberg ebook Persian Literature, comprising: The Sháh Námeh the Rubiyát the Divan and the Gulistan (in two volumes), Revised Edition, 1909. According to Wikipedia, the Gulistan was translated into English several times, starting with "Selections" in 1774 by Stephen Sullivan. The two English translations closest to the 1909 publication of Persian Literature were done by Sir Edwin Arnold in 1899, and Laucelot Alfred Cramer-Byng in 1905, so my best guess is that the words you've read here came from either one of them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

That's so lame!

CELIA: Didst thou hear these verses?

ROSALIND: O, yes, I heard them all, and more too; for some of them had in them more feet than the verses would bear.

CELIA: That's no matter: the feet might bear the verses.

ROSALIND: Ay, but the feet were lame and could not bear themselves without the verse and therefore stood lamely in the verse. (unquote)

As You Like It, Act 3, scene 2 (William Shakespeare, circa 1600).

Usually, when I hear "lame" used as an insult these days (as in: "That TV show is so lame, I can't believe you watch it!"), I flinch inside, even though I sometimes catch myself thinking it.

I'm familiar with the arguments, and perhaps you are, too, that its original meaning is totally obsolete (except maybe when people are talking about horses or other animals), and that no one really thinks of mobility impaired humans when they hear the word, anymore. So no one should seriously consider it a derogatory slur, in the same way that the N word is used. Personally, I find that argument unconvincing. And back in December of 2010, a blogger who goes by the screen name "lauradhel" gathered an archive of modern usage that refutes that argument, here: "I don't even THINK about disability when I say or hear 'lame!' No one does!"

But even without such contemporary evidence, the word 'lame' is still heard regularly in common passages from the Bible, and, yes, in folklore. So that original meaning is a part of our cultural context. And, yes, it does reinforce the idea that anything (or anyone) described as 'lame' is unworthy of even a moment's consideration.

But 'lame' does not bother me as much in the passage I cited, above. In the context of poetry writing, "foot" and "feet" have a specific meaning, and therefore, this exchange works both as an extended pun and a personification. And, frankly, I'm a sucker for a good (or bad) pun.

A "foot" in a line of verse is the smallest unit of rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, just as a "bit" is the smallest unit of ones and zeros in a line of computer code. The term comes to us from the ancient Greeks (yup, them again), since choral dancers would dance to the rhythm of spoken or sung line -- tapping with their toes on the short syllables, and stamping with their heels on the long syllables. English doesn't have such a clear delineation between "short" and "long," so for us, it's stressed and unstressed.

For example, if ancient choral dancers chanted this:

"'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house"

Their accompanying footwork would go like this:

Toe-toe-heel, toe-toe-heel, toe-toe-heel, toe-toe-heel

Or, to:

"Hi-ho! Hi-ho! It's off to work we go!"


Toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel, toe-heel.

So when Shakespeare (in the voice of Rosalind) remarks that: "...the feet were lame, and could not bear themselves without the verse," he is making double comparison.

The first is a comparison between the uneven rhythm of a poetic line and the uneven rhythm of a lame person's walk -- with heels and toes dragging and stumbling along. The second comparison is between a line of verse and a crutch -- which (I find) is a striking visual. A line of poetry is straight, crafted from ink, and stretches horizontally across a page; a crutch is straight, carved from wood, and supports a person's weight vertically.

So this use of "lame" acknowledges the fact that lame people exist, and that members of his audience would recognize how a lame person's walk differs from that of the able-bodied. Using "lame" to put down a TV show, or someone's fashion sense (or whatever) -- what does that even mean -- other than: "it's boring," or "I don't like it"?

Perhaps that's another reason the modern use of 'lame' as an insult grates on my nerves: it's lazy. If you can't be bothered to put any more thought into your criticism than that, perhaps you should remain quiet on the subject. As my mother oft said: "If you complain of being bored, maybe it's because you're boring."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Aesop fable, presented without a moral (because questions are more interesting than answers)


(Retold from this version by the Rev. George Fyler Townsend (1867))

There was once an old woman who had become totally blind. She hired a physician who promised he could cure her, and in front of witnesses, made the following agreement: If he succeeded in curing her, and restoring her sight, she would pay him a set fee, but she would only pay him after the cure was complete.

The physician made several visits to her house, and applied his ointment to her eyes each time. But then, before he left, he would quietly steal one item from her house, until, at last, he had stolen everything she owned.

Then, he came for a last treatment, applying the ointment to her eyes, and removing the bandages.

The old woman looked around her house, and said nothing.

The physician demanded his payment.

The old woman refused.

The physician brought her before a judge, and told his story, to compel her to pay his fee.

Before the judge rendered his verdict, however, he asked the old woman for her side of the story.

"Well," she said, "This doctor claims to have cured me. But he hasn't."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes. I know for a fact that my house is full of valuable things; I remember everything I own, from before I went blind. The doctor's cure is not complete yet, because I still can't see a single one of them."



This fable reminds me of the "Logic puzzle" that was fairly well-known when I was growing up in the 1970s, and the first time I heard it, when I was about 10 or 12, I was completely stumped:

(Quote) A doctor and his son were in a car crash. The doctor was killed, and the boy was rushed to the hospital. The attending surgeon in the emergency room looks down at the boy on the operating table and announces that another doctor must perform the operation, "Because this is my son." How is this possible? (Unquote)

The answer, of course, is that the ER surgeon is the boy's mother. This story is only a "puzzle" because of the cultural bias we have that all doctors are men.

The "twist" in this fable only works if, like the physician in tale, you assume that the elderly and blind are helpless and clueless about what is going on around them -- that an old, blind, woman can only sit in the middle of her house and wait to be cured, that it's even possible for the doctor to "quietly steal" all her worldly possessions, over an extended period of time, and she'd know nothing about it until the blindness was removed from her eyes.

Now, go back and read that story again. And this time, assume that she knows the physician is stealing from her from the first time he slips that silver teaspoon into his pocket.

Why would she decide to remain silent, and pretend to be ignorant until she's brought before a judge as a defendant? Could it be that she's afraid the cure would be withheld? Or maybe that she wouldn't be believed, because it would be the word of an old blind woman against that of a successful male doctor? And what about the assumption that a cure for blindness is so desirable that she'd put up with such a long, drawn-out thievery in the first place?


This story may have had its two thousand years ago, but all these questions are still being wrestled with by the disabled and the elderly who have to wade through a medical-judicial-economic system.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Lame Smith God, and the Two Sides of "Myth"

Blogging Against Disablism Day, 2011 -- growing archive (click to see what others are writing).

[Author's note: in this article, I am citing ancient Greek myth and epithets, so I'm primarily using the terms "crippled" and "Lame," rather than "physically disabled" or "mobility impaired."]

There are two primary meanings of the word "myth." The first meaning is: "a sacred and ancient story that reflects a deep truth about the world and our place in it." The second is: "a falsehood that we deeply wish to be true." Often, those two meanings overlap, and the false myths we tell about ouselves can skew our understanding of the sacred myths of those who came before.

And this is what typically happens around the myths of Hephaestus, the ancient Greek god of metalwork, the forge, and craftsmanship ("Vulcan" to the Romans), who was also "The lame one," and "of Crooked Feet". Wayland, the Norse god of the forge was also lame, and this attribute of both the gods may trace back to their common Indo-European roots. But for this article, I will focus on Hephaestus.

The sacred story myths of Hephaestus overlap with the wishful thinking myth of our own time, namely that the "Issue of Disability" is a modern phenomenon, and something we've only started to confront in the last few generations. In ancient times, we tell ourselves, disability as we understand it just didn't exist. Any infant who was born too early or too small was taken out to the wilderness and left to die. The same was true of the elderly, or those grievously wounded by accident.

Sure, it may be less than ideal that we put our disabled into institutions, or deny them access to jobs or schooling, but at least we give them food and shelter and medical care. The ancient Greeks may have been the pinnacle of civilization for their age. But we're even better, more filled with Christian Charity than they were in this regard. They may have called one of their gods "lame" and "crippled," but that just meant that he walked a little bit funny, and was less graceful or handsome than Apollo or Zeus. It certainly didn't mean that he was actually impaired. He couldn't have been. He was a god.

The Greek Gods. Just the mention of them conjures up images of physical perfection, strength and beauty. They are, in modern Western culture, the archetypes of archetypes: understood as the rootstock of literature and psychology.

So imagine my surprise, when, in high school, I was reading through an illustrated encyclopedia of mythology for young readers, and I came across the story of Hephaestus -- the god of metalworking, the forge, and crafts. In the version of the story I read, he came between his parents, Zeus and Hera, during one of their frequent fights, and sided with his mother.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, did not take this well, and threw Hephaestus off Olympus, who was then falling for a whole day and night, and when he landed, he became crippled, and unable to walk from then on. He used his skills as a metalworker to build himself four golden handmaidens support him as he walked, and to help him in his workshop (Perhaps the first example of "robots" in the Western Tradition).

It has been many years, now, since I first encountered this story, so I can't recall with one hundred percent accuracy, but I may have giggled as I read it -- or at least, grinned like the Cheshire Cat. This was a god -- a Greek god, to boot -- who was far from perfect, who needed to build himself automaton maidens to help him walk, and who, (it would seem, from this version of the story) suffered and survived the very mortal accident of a spinal chord injury, with its very mortal consequences. Here, at last, was an archetypal representation for me, nestled in among the archetypes of perfect humanity.

Sometime later, I read a second Hephaestus myth: that he had no father -- that Hera, jealous that Zeus had birthed the goddess Athena without her, decided to birth a child without him. Her anger, bitterness and jealousy infected her son, and he was born deformed. In shame and disgust, it was Hera who threw him off the mountain as unfit to live on Olympus. This version of the myth corresponds more closely with my own experience on the one hand, since Hephaestus was born disabled, but on the other, his level of disability is more ambiguous -- he was simply "too imperfect" to be in the company of the other gods, and was therefore rejected.

This is the version that corresponds to our modern concept that the ancient past was barbaric and cruel: a mother who would throw her own child to his supposed death. We don't do that, we tell ourselves (except, sometimes, we do).

So, which interpretation of the myth was correct? Was it my first reaction, as a teenager, that took "crippled" at face value to mean the same thing way back then as it does today? Or was it the more jaded view, that says life back then was so brutish and short that it couldn't possibly mean the same -- that anyone who fell short of an athletic, "Olympic", ideal was labeled as defective?

A couple of years ago, armed with Google Search, I decided scratch that curiosity itch. Most of the images that came back, for the first few pages, seemed to confirm the second interpretation. All the statues of Hephaestus looked as hale and hardy as any of his divine siblings; the only visible nod to his mythic lameness might be that he was shown putting less weight on one foot than the other. Or else, even though perfectly formed, he was shown working at his forge while sitting on a bench or chair.

And then, I came upon the photo of a painting from an archaic drinking vessel, dating to somewhere in the sixth century B.C. It showed Hephaestus in a winged chair with wheels. What struck me immediately was how like a modern wheelchair this vehicle was in its proportions (not counting the massive wings sprouting from each wheel, or the matching bird's tail feathers counterbalancing the rear).

(caption: Black and white image of Hephaestus in a winged, wheelchair-like chariot, adorned with crane motifs, within a white circle; from circa 525 B.C.E)

Now, in context, paintings on these types of vessels (called Kylix) were often meant to be laughed at by drunken humans: Zeus getting caught in one of his many affairs with mortal women was a common motif, for example. So this image of a god riding in a chair with wheels was meant to be an image of mockery and derision. But the artist who painted that image was able, at least, to imagine what sort of assistive technology a person (or god) would need if they really, actually, could not walk.

And recently, I found another image of Hephaestus, from roughly the same period, depicting the scene where he is being led back to Olympus on a donkey. It's a commonly painted scene; in most such scenes, the god looks perfectly able-bodied, if a little tipsy from Dionysus's wine. But in this particular image, his deformity is striking: his lower legs are severely shrunken, his feet are half-formed, seem to be missing several toes, and they are turned around backward at the ankles. There is no way someone with legs like that could walk with nothing more than an "unsightly limp." Such a being would need canes, crutches, or if he had the power to create them, automaton handmaidens to support him on each side as he walked, or a golden, flying wheelchair to carry him to the top of a mountain.

Hephaistos Hydria
(caption: Color photo of an archaic water jar detail: painted image of Hephaestus riding on a donkey. Both lower legs are depicted as shrunken and deformed. Circa 530 B.C.E.)

These images are in the minority in the archaeological record, as far as I know. But depictions of the disabled are relatively rare in our own day, too, and for much the same reasons; if you have difficulty standing for long periods of time, you are not likely to work as a model in a sculptor's studio. And if, for this reason, you are an artist who is only familiar with "ideal" bodies, you're probably going to guesstimate what a crippled body should look like. If there is a social taboo around the existence of disability, you may be reluctant to fully depict what you can imagine, especially when a god is the subject. But if you happen to have disability as part of your lived experience (either directly, or through life with a disabled family member), you will more likely show that in your art.

In relatively recent years, as the fields of archeology, multicultural studies, and modern medicine cross, there's been a trend of looking at all the instances of lame smith gods, and asking if there was something about the ancient craft that causes the disability -- lead and arsenic poisoning seem to be the leading hypotheses (See the Google Scholar results page Ancient metallurgy and Lameness for examples).

This is a step in the right direction. But this approach still presumes that any impairment or disability in ancient times was acquired -- not something anyone lived with and adapted to from the start. And there are no symptoms of Hephaestus being otherwise sickly or poisoned in his myths -- simply that he cannot walk far without assistance. It could be that working at a forge was something a person could do while seated, with a workshop full of apprentices, should you need extra help -- as Hephaestus was depicted in so many vase paintings, frescoes and murals.

And I know, from personal experience, that living in a mobility-impaired body leads you to inventive thinking, and building new tools on the spot ("Oop! Dropped my pencil, let me get my grabber... Darn! dropped my grabber. What can I reach? And how can I use that cobble something together to get the things I can't?"). It's not hard to imagine that the first hammer was invented by someone who lacked the hand or arm strength to smash open a marrow bone or nut with a rock alone... And then, others in the clan kept finding reason to borrow it, and make their own. Seen in this way, all technology is assistive technology. And maybe, even in our advanced civilization, we need diverse ways to move through the world as much as we need a diverse genome.

So maybe the ancients did mean the same thing as we do, when they spoke of someone being "crippled" and "lame." Maybe it's time to acknowledge that disability has been a part of human culture from the beginning. Maybe it's time to discard the notion acknowledging the disabled is enough. Maybe, after twenty-five centuries, it's time to raise the bar.

For more details on the Hephaestus myths, quotes from literature, and a gallery of Hephaestus images, go here: Hephaistos pages at