Sex, Body, and Identity: How the Language of Metaphor Functions in Various Physically-Challenged Individuals' Expression of Identity and Selfhood
In her memoir Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled [sic], author Nancy Mairs, who writes about how having Multiple Sclerosis (MS) had impacted her self-image, body image, and day to-day life, observes that:
In biblical times, physical and mental disorders were thought to signify possession by demons. . . People who were stooped or blind or subject to seizures were clearly not okay as they were but required fixing
Mairs's detailed, often painfully honest reflections on dealing with (in her case, progressive) physical disabilities, e.g., difficulties with walking, sitting, standing straight; brushing her teeth (capabilities most take for granted) shed light on the myriad physical, psychological, emotional, and other challenges that daily fill the lives of those with physical disabilities. Narratives written by individuals with physical disabilities ranging from blindness to Multiple Sclerosis to blindness to various physical deformities, about their own experiences; their bodies, and their lives, also illustrate, implicitly, how the language of metaphor functions, within several of these texts, to express those individuals' unique identities and selfhoods, inflected constant physical and other challenges, while living and coping with physical disability.
John Hockenberry, author of Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence (1995), uses a wheelchair to get around. In the excerpt from that book called "The Point of No Comment," Hockenberry recalls how he discovered that tracks in the snow made by his own wheelchair could in fact be a thing of beauty:
On a winter night in Chicago, after a light snow, I rolled across a clean stretch of pavement and felt the smooth frictionless glide of the icy surface. I made a tight turn and chanced to look around and back from where I had just come.
The street lamp cast soft icicle rainbows that arched over and highlighted the white surface with burst of color. Tracing out from where I sat I saw two beautiful lines etched in the snow. They began as parallel and curved, then they crossed in an effortless knot at the place where my wheelchair turned to look back. My chair had made those lines. It was the first time I dared to believe that a wheelchair could make something . . . beautiful.
Other metaphors, often of power and vitality rather than of weakness or incapacity, that Hockenberry creates within Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence, often have to do with sports: bowling, racing, rollerblading. Rolling by wheelchair through the streets of Chicago, he suggests, is in some ways comparable to a game of bowling, in which the ball (i.e., oneself) must be directed in a certain way.
A wheelchair "bowler," moreover, is seldom the only one on wheels on city streets nowadays: modern life is replete with other wheel-travelers, "Whether they be other wheelchairs, stroller wheels, or Rollerblades." Being wheelchair-bound is therefore a metaphor for shared rather than individual experience; of community rather than isolation; and of dynamism rather than stasis, thereby challenging, on all counts, stereotypic views of wheelchairs and those who inhabit them as trapped, isolated, limited, or otherwise different than the rest of society.
In our society of mostly non-physically disabled individuals, wheelchairs themselves have become visual reminders of physical weakness and limitation. Wheelchairs are, after all, vehicles of physical mobility for those needing such assistance. In a reversal of the stereotypic wheelchair (and wheelchair user) image, though, Hockenberry describes wheelchairs, especially fast-moving ones, instruments of physical power. For example, women pushing strollers; stray rollerblade riders, and others who may block wheelchair paths or ramps, justifiably or not, always know immediately that they must get out of the way of a fast moving wheelchair, especially one moving downhill in their direction.
Even average pedestrians, as Hockenberry points out, typically feel weak and overpowered when confronted head on by a moving wheelchair. Non-wheelchair users can in fact be far more vulnerable than people traveling in wheelchairs. Within these and other illustrations of the life of an individual who uses a wheelchair, Hockenberry explores, metaphorically and literally, the concept of physical disability-as-power rather than powerlessness.
Similarly, in her memoir Sight Unseen, author Georgia Kleege, who has been legally blind since age 11, creates an implicit metaphor, within her descriptions of her life as a child, and then an adult, with progressively poor vision, of herself, within society, as the (physically) blind being led by the (socially and attitudinally) blind. Moreover, Kleege describes how during her childhood in the 1960's, doctors, teachers, and others seemed more interested in denying, to themselves and to her, the fact and realities of her blindness. Kleege recalls of her optometrist when she was 11 years old: "In 1967 the boom in high-tech 'low vision' aids had not yet begun. He said that as long as I continued to perform well at school, there was no point in burdening me with cumbersome gadgetry." Kleege herself has the physical blindness, but her ophthalmologist is blind (or blinds himself) to the possibilities of what might now be done to help her adapt: at home, in school, and elsewhere.
As Kleege further recalls, her optometrist:
did not tell me that I was eligible to receive recorded materials for the blind.
He did not even explain legal blindness, much less the specifics of my condition - I did not find out what my macula was for several years. He said nothing about adaptation, did not speculate about what my brain had already learned to do to compensate for the incomplete images my eyes were sending.
Kleege also explores blindness (her own and blindness in general) as an automatic metaphor, within society, for "helpless"; "needy," or "charity case." Society as a whole, she suggests, prefers not to "see" blindness as it is, or, perhaps, more accurately, prefers not to have to bother to do so. When Kleege was a child, for instance, no one used the word "blind" to describe her condition, as if by steadfastly avoiding calling blindness what it actually was, the uncomfortable (and for the non-blind, likely unfathomable) reality of blindness could somehow be avoided. If Kleege's condition remained unnamed, and stubbornly ignored, by all those with normal sight, they would not need to dig any deeper into the uncomfortable facts and realities of a blind person's life. Society's avoidance of the mere subject of blindness, both conversationally and in terms of willingness to reach out and better help blind individuals day-to-day, was because, as Kleege suggests, blindness, both stereotypically and metaphorically speaking, means darkness, dependence, destitution, despair. Blind means the beggar in the subway station. Look at him slouching there, unkempt, head bowed, stationary among the rushing crowd. Intermittently, an involuntary twitch jerks his arm upward, making the coin or two in his cup clink. Otherwise he is silent, apparently speechless. A sign around his neck reads: "I'm blind. Please help.'
Because blind means "needs help' " and also "needs charity." But the people rushing by barely oblige. They barely see him. They don't stop to stare, and they certainly do not expand their vision to allow for any other image of blindness [emphasis added].
In his memoir Planet of the Blind (the title of which is itself a metaphor for a world where sighted people often refuse to see the realities of life for a blind person) author Stephen Kuusisto (another person who, like Kleege, lives with a severe vision problem, strabismus) recalls his aloneness while at school, particularly among peers who not only misunderstood, but ridiculed his disability.
Kuusisto describes various non-visually impaired inhabitants of the "Planet of the Blind: doctors who were less than helpful; teachers who did not realize that he had a serious vision problem; classmates who hid his coke bottle-like glasses for their own amusement. Like Kleege, moreover, Kuusisto received no assistance at school, academically or otherwise, to help him cope in any way with his near-blindness. As he recalls in his memoir:
When I enter the public school, I am without assistance. Without "low vision" specialists or special education standards, I am without the benefits of proper orientation and mobility training. There are no Braille lessons for me, no large print materials. The air flashes like quartz, and I see nothing of the arithmetic lesson. My fingers slide in all directions. I clasp and unclasp the lid of my pencil box, trace the scars on my desk. I pull at my eyelids in an effort to refine the mist.
Metaphorically and otherwise, as the works of Kleege and Kuusisto both indicate in detail, they, and by association others similarly disabled by poor vision, represent, metaphorically, the (physically) blind being led by the (attitudinally and socially) blind, that is, society itself. As Hockenberry implicitly suggests as well, society on the whole, deliberately, non-deliberately, or perhaps due to ignorance and/or neglect of those with disabilities, often puts up more, and worse, barriers for the disabled than do the individuals' various disabilities themselves.…