My earliest memories of school are confused, not because I remember them imperfectly, but because I was genuinely bewildered about where I belonged, what I knew, and even what grade I was in. From kindergarten until grade three I wrote in what my mother calls with a mix of admiration and excitement, “perfect mirror writing;” all of my written work was upside down and backwards and went from right to left. I recall both of my parents crowded around me in the bathroom holding my school assignments upside down in front of the mirror so they could read my Valentine’s Day card to my father. All during the same year, I was put back from grade three into grade two, and then into a grade two/three split class, and once a day I was taken to a “special” class. When some asked me what grade I was in, I started crying. I had no idea.
My mother tells me that I came to terms with my dyslexia quickly after joining the special education class. With my writing marching left to right across the page and only the occasional switching of a “b” for a “d” or the rogue appearance of an upside-down “e,” my family relocated to a small town for my third attempt at grade three, where none of my classmates or teachers knew about my “special” education. From grade three until I graduated high school, my grades skyrocketed and I have stayed at the top of my class, sometimes even the top of my school, ever since. In high school I was put in a special education class again, but this time for gifted students, and I finished my first year of college while still in a public high school. I was no longer marked as “disabled.”
This is particularly important within my family context. All of my siblings have “special needs.” Learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, attachment disorders, schizophrenia, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, developmental delays, sociopathy, and, eventually, depression, have all been terms used to describe my brothers and sister. When social workers came to “evaluate” my family, I was usually forgiven my dyslexia because I did so well in school. I became the measure of normality among my siblings.
I came to believe what the social workers said about me. I did not have a disability, but my brother, who had Fetal Alcohol Affect did, and so when I was sixteen I bought this button to wear on his behalf, not my own.
Yet while I may no longer be “disabled,” I am still dyslexic. In terms of identity, there is no longer a cohering narrative to explain why I cannot add or subtract time or read analog clocks, cannot navigate by numbers (try that in New York), or make simple mistakes while reading out loud, even as I pursue a PhD. I’m below a threshold of visibility for being disabled. In other words, because my dyslexia no longer conforms to stereotypical ideas of “disabled” people, I am not counted as such. No one wears a pin for me. This causes me some anxiety; on one hand, I am often worried that I will be accidentally outted as “disabled” and endure the social stigma of that mark. On the other hand, I wish to be an example of what academics call truncation bias; if I, as an marked of exceptional academic achievement, also have a cognitive disability, the social category of “disability” must be revised. Cognitive disability is equally marked by the instances it does not include, such as exceptional academic cognitive performance. It seems that the category must self-destruct in the face of the contradiction I embody.
And I want the category to self-destruct– that is why I bought the button that says “Disabled still means able” for my brother, one of the sweetest, most curious, earnest, and wonderful people it has ever been my privileged to know. But when I bought the button, I bought it for his disability, not my “disability.” I had swallowed the rhetoric I wanted to implode. The button attests to this paradox, both by the conditions under which I purchased and wore it, and by the slogan on its surface, which seems to reinforce the definition it looks to change.
I see this as a legacy object. I want it to move forward in the world and make waves because of the history it has behind it. It’s not to be worn proudly in a straight-forward, uncomplicated manner. It’s an object that marks a nexus of confusion, emotion, in/justice, and the catch-22’s we live by.
My brother’s life was cut short by his own decision when he was fourteen. His life had become unbearable, not least because of the brutal, often physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his peers for having a disability, or, more specifically, being labeled and treated as different.
— hand delivered in New York via Canada
This object has been withdrawn from the Object Ethnography Project by the donor after two weeks of being available for exchange.