Charles Dickens & Disability Rights

I have come to believe disability is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, the inability or unwillingness to grant someone their humanity because of a challenge they face on the physical or cognitive front is the biggest disability of all; it is the very disability that denies people their freedom.

For some time now I have wondered how best to reveal the dehumanizing treatment people with so-called disabilities often endure. I say so-called because those who do not see the humanity of others are the most disabled of us all.

I have both seen and heard so many examples of dehumanizing and humiliating treatment it’s hard to know where to begin. I know of one instance where a director of a brain injury program in my state told the wife of a brain injury survivor, who was sitting right there listening to this, that a formal funeral needed to be conducted for him because he no longer existed and that his wife needed to allow this program director and his team to recreate him. The director added that it would be a good idea for her husband to attend.

I know of another program where a workshop facilitator with the compassion level of Mussolini locks the doors to the room when a workshop begins and berates those who may need to use the bathroom for not having gone before the workshop. Moreover, he denies people admittance to the workshop if they are late. I have personally heard this “Mussolini” in action, bellowing down a public hallway to survivors, “Okay now, let’s get moving, workshop time. Lets get moving, kids!” Keep in mind he was talking to about four or five adults, one of whom was a squad leader during the Vietnam War. When “Mussolini’s” behavior was brought to the attention of the little dandy of a company owner, he said something to the effect of, Oh my, that just can’t be possible. I’ll look into it, which means, of course, that he won’t do anything of the sort.

So, my point is, it is easy to give you examples that will, if there is a heart beating in your breast, break your heart and turn your stomach.

But it was a sentence from an extraordinary two volume biography of Charles Dickens by Edgar Johnson that opened my eyes to what may be the best way of telling this story. Dickens himself lived a brutally rough childhood. His family was sent to debtors prison and Dickens, his hopes of becoming an educated gentlemen being, in his youthful mind, forever lost, found himself working in a blacking factory. All his life Dickens wrote with a keen awareness of the brutal circumstances faced by the poor and the punitive way they were treated by society. It is still true in too many instances in my country and it is certainly true in the way people with so-called disabilities are treated.

But Dickens understood that revealing harsh realities by merely telling of the horror was not the most effective approach. Instead, Johnson writes, “it was Dickens’s aim not to turn the stomach but move the heart.” And so we have Oliver Twist and David Copperfield and many others who move our hearts.

And so I have determined, that here in this blog, and in a book that is beginning to make its way onto the page, I will try to move the heart. Yes, like Dickens, I will reveal the horror of things as I have done a bit in this essay. But, when the horror of a behavior is linked to a human being you care about, the “Mussolini’s” of the world are more likely to be overthrown, which is as it should be.

2 thoughts on “Charles Dickens & Disability Rights

  1. There was a woman on the Today show this morning talking about her breast cancer treatment. She was pregnant and wanted to keep her baby. She went to eight doctors before she found one that wasn't going to treat her "like a protocol". She wanted to be treated LIKE A PERSON.I had the same thoughts about my own TBI treatment yesterday. I was thinking: How can someone CARE FOR you if they don't CARE ABOUT you? So called "holistic" rehab…

  2. I am really loving your posts about disability civil rights. The “little dandy of a company owner” made me laugh.


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