With every cast-out type Mr. Solomon found, he uncovered a community that wanted to revel in the child’s “exceptionality” (the current euphemism). Many of these communities did not want to be lumped in with the other groups in the book: Deaf people did not want to be compared to schizophrenics; parents of schizophrenics were “creeped out” by dwarfs. Each community sees itself as special.
In the world of the Deaf – capitalized, to formalize it as a separate political identity – Mr. Solomon discovers that more than 90 per cent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. But American Sign Language, invented 200 years ago by the deaf for the deaf, is Deaf culture’s most respected communication system. It has helped deaf people achieve at the highest levels in the non-deaf world.
Today, “an increasing number of deaf people maintain they would not choose to be hearing,” Mr. Solomon writes. He meets deaf couples who openly want to have deaf children, to populate their world with others who can experience what they believe to be a unique, valuable way of being.
“Over all,” Mr. Solomon told me, “and it sounds shocking, and I would not have believed it before I began this work – but Deaf culture seemed to me to be as valid as African-American culture. And in the same way that I don’t question that African-American people would like to have children who look like them and feel that they can convey a sense of cultural identity that will make those children do well, despite social prejudice that persists, even in the Obama era, against black people in America, I think that deaf people have the right to seek deaf children if that’s what they want to do.”
He finds the same unified political consciousness among dwarfs (200,000 strong) and among those with Down syndrome (the most common intellectual disability in the United States, where more than 400,000 people have it).
Seventy per cent of expectant mothers who receive a prenatal Down diagnosis abort. But others do not, and the U.S. national life expectancy of a Down person is now 50, and rising. A recent poll in Canada asked parents of Down kids if they would cure their child if it were possible. A quarter said no. The Down population is expected to double by 2025.
Even autism – still a mysterious syndrome, with an alarmingly wide range of severity and consequences – has its proponents in the “neurodiversity” movement, who claim it is a lush identity as well as a disability. (Mr. Solomon interviews Temple Grandin, and she makes a convincing, if atypically high-functioning, case.)
A million and a half Americans are on the autism spectrum. Its rate of occurrence (or at least diagnosis) is rising: one in 88 births today, versus one in 2,500 in 1960.
We may be afraid of people who look disjointed and discontinued and disabled. But we had better get used to them.
The most common question Mr. Solomon was asked as he wrote his book was which affliction he found most upsetting. His answer was schizophrenia, because it is degenerative, arrives late and replaces the person a family has loved with a being they no longer recognize. The transgendered children Mr. Solomon got to know – who feel to the point of despair that they have been born in a body of the wrong gender – seem almost (repeat, almost) blessed by comparison.
But the village fury they face is another story. In Atlanta, 10-year-old Paul decides he will henceforth attend school as Paula, in a dress. On the bus, a brother and sister lay their hands on Paula’s head and pray to God to turn her back into a boy. “I didn’t really mind,” Paula tells her mother later. “But does this mean they’re not going to be my friends?”
The most socially isolated cadres Mr. Solomon uncovers are children conceived during a rape, and children who have shamed their families by committing crimes. They, too, find themselves loved, but the odds are slimmer: Many raped mothers see their assailants every time they look at their offspring, and they are hardly prepared for motherhood.
More than 80 per cent of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows; half the victims are under 18, and a quarter are under 12. They result in as many as 32,000 rape-induced pregnancies every year. But at least a quarter come to term and are kept by the moms. Why? Because the mother has no access to birth control; because she is religious; because she wants lasting proof of what happened to her. And at least sometimes, because she feels called to love her kid.