The Winter's Tale
(Act 1, Scene 1; lines 20-45)
I think there is not in the world either malice or matter to alter it. You have an unspeakable comfort of your young prince Mamillius: it is a gentleman of the greatest promise that ever came into my note.
I very well agree with you in the hopes of him: it is a gallant child; one that indeed physics the subject, makes old hearts fresh: they that went on crutches ere he was born desire yet their life to see him a man.
Would they else be content to die?
Yes; if there were no other excuse why they should desire to live.
If the king had no son, they would desire to live on crutches till he had one.
I first saw The Winter's Tale on a high school field trip to New York City, over thirty years ago; I believe it was the first Shakespeare play I'd seen performed live on stage. And I fell in love with it (it's a play structured like a fairy tale, after all, which was already one of my favorite genres of literature, even back then).
But it wasn't until I reread it, a few years ago, that I took note of the closing lines of this opening scene, and the comment about how "they that [go] on crutches" will want to keep on living, even if those around them look at their lives from the outside, and conclude they have nothing to live for.
I mentioned this to someone at the time (but I forget who that someone was). And I commented that, despite all the rest that has changed over the last four hundred years, this aspect of life for the Disabled has remained constant. People who say to themselves or others: "I couldn't bear life if I had to be wheelchair-bound!" would probably discover, should they actually need to use a wheelchair or crutches, someday, that life is still bearable, and even enjoyable, after all.
This person then reminded me not to attribute to Shakespeare's philosophy what he never intended (which is always a risk when looking back at the "Greats" of history and the arts), and said that he was probably not talking about Disability at all -- at least, not in the way in which I was thinking about it. In his day, "a crutch" was a shorthand symbol for "elderly," in much the same way as walkers (walking frames) and scooters are for us.
Fair enough. But...
The enduring cultural division between "The Elderly" and "The Disabled" as two distinct groups (even though the elderly often are disabled, and those who are disabled in youth often live to old age) reveals more about the nature of our assumptions and bigotries than it does about the actual world and people we live with. "The Elderly" do not count as "Disabled," in our minds, because we expect a loss of ability and health as a person ages. And we look on disability in youth and middle-age with horror because it is unexpected. Disability among the young is taken as a sign that something in the world has turned topsy-turvy, and therefore, we fear it more than when it shows up in old age.
The statistics bear this out. According to the United States Census from 2000, nearly twenty percent of the entire population is living with some form of disability. But that twenty percent is skewed heavily toward the elder years. For adults between eighteen and twenty-four, slightly more than four percent are disabled. That percentage increases to over forty percent for those seventy-five and older (see the link to the "Office of Minority Health and Health Disparity," below).
We tell ourselves that The Elderly and The Disabled are two distinct populations. We give lip-service to the notion that our elders deserve respect, but the disabled deserve our pity. But when people speak of their fear of old age, it's often disability that they mention -- needing crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair, losing their eyesight, growing deaf, needing help in their own home. There is nothing inherently terrible about any of those things, except for the social stigma attached to them: the fear of being resented, forgotten, excluded from society (often because the built environment where social events happen is full of barriers). These terrible fates have almost nothing to do with actually being old or being disabled, and almost everything to do with entrenched bigotry and social stigma.
As long as humans are mortal, old age and disability are inevitable. The good news is: Superstition and bigotry are not.
Links and Sources:
The Winter's Tale -- entire play (etext)
Office of Minority Health and Health Disparity -- Disability; Centers for Disease Control (U.S. Goverment branch)