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"Rewriting the Myths, Redefining the Realities"

 

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Book Review

Black Bird Fly Away: Disabled in an Able-Bodied World


by Hugh Gregory Gallagher - Reviewed by Homer Page

Please read this book.

Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, The Raven, uses the black bird to symbolize death and despair. Hugh Gallagher knows the black bird, and he knows how to make it fly away, at least for a little while. 

Gallagher is “a polio”, his word for people who live with the consequences of the poliomyelitis virus. In 1952, when he was 20 years old, he contracted the disease. He almost died but he chose not to. He spent two years in rehabilitation and then finished his education, built a successful career in politics, and established an admirable independent living lifestyle. But in 1972 he crashed.

When Gallagher was 40, he fell into a deep clinical depression that took several years to overcome. In the score of years since his depression, he has thought deeply about the meaning of disability and of life. 
Black Bird Fly Away is a collection of Gallagher’s writings about his physical limitations as well as society’s difficulty in coming to terms with the issues of disability. He discusses the way in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt adjusted, or did not adjust, to his struggle with polio and disability. Gallagher concludes that FDR cannot be a role model for the disability community. He also writes about the Nazi policy of killing persons with disabilities. Here he concludes that many of the underlying values in our managed care system are not so different from those of the Nazis. 

Gallagher attacks the “super crips”, while acknowledging that he once was one. Super crips strive to achieve to prove that they are as good or better than the able bodied person. He writes of aging and the challenges brought on by post-polio syndrome. One must learn to live within one’s real capacities. He tells us how to work effectively and humanly with the medical profession. 

At the root of Gallagher’s belief about disability is the idea that persons with disabilities do not escape a continuing challenge to their identity and self worth brought about by their disability. No matter how accessible the external environment nor how comprehensive civil rights protections may be nor how skilled an individual is, he or she cannot escape the reality of one’s disability in a world set up to reward the able bodied. This does not mean that accessibility or civil rights or skills are not important. It means, rather, that to focus exclusively on these issues, even for the most successful disabled person, is to neglect the most basic need of ones self for acceptance and nurture. Gallagher was extremely successful, but he did not deal with his own disability and it almost drove him to suicide. For all the good that FDR did, Gallagher believes that he refused to deal with his disability. The result was that he destroyed a number of people who loved him and he died a lonely man. For this reason, Gallagher argues that Roosevelt cannot be a role model for today’s disability community.

Gallagher knows about freedom. In an essay discussing his move from a manual wheelchair to an electric one, he notes the added independence that he experienced when he switched to an electric chair. Freedom is in the activities that one can do, not in the false belief that the more one is like persons who are able bodied, the more independent one is. 

Gallagher also knows about death. He has come close to death on a number of occasions. He knows that pain and death can be managed. Often people with disabilities have a more immediate experience of pain and death, but it is not in the end different than that which all humanity confronts. The deeper we go in to our experience, the more we discover our common humanity. Each of us must learn to make the black bird fly away, at least for a little while. 

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