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Handout

  • Title: Falling for Myself: a memoir
  • Author: Dorothy Ellen Palmer
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: Wolsak & Wynn
  • Pages: 300

Within each alphabetized essay of Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s new memoirs, Falling for Myself, an extraordinary life unfolds. Her story is one of adoption, abuse, disability, poverty and resistance. And it’s a story that’s all too often overlooked.

Born Susan Gail Johnston, Palmer was adopted into a broken middle-class suburban Toronto family that yearned for a daughter who would satisfy the requirements of abled expectations. A girl who would excel in school, look great in a dress and stand tall and proud. But it was the standing part – or, more accurately, the falling-down part – where Palmer failed. Skinned knees and ruined tights were followed by early-life specialist visits and surgeries. Born with congenital abnormalities in both feet, Palmer takes us through her life with whip-like humour, unfettered frustration and, at times, delicate softness as she reveals to us the takeaway: that disability is not a singular identity. Instead, it’s a Venn diagram of experiences formed and internalized through the perceptions of others. She argues that how disabled folks are viewed can primarily be boiled down to one infantilized Dickensian Tiny Tim, stay-out-of-the-ableds’-way-and-don’t-complain-if-we-take-your-parking-spot construct.

Struggling to find both voice and space, Palmer grappled with finding a way to create a disability community, particularly as a teacher. Each year, she witnessed disabled students – students just like her – pass through her classroom, mostly unnoticed by others. “No one encouraged them to use their combined voices to speak up, and out, about their lives.” With rawness, Palmer admits her own complicity. “Without role models, without curriculum, without allies, without language, I couldn’t side with the wheelchair kids.”

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Now, years separated from a teaching career, Palmer acknowledges a large component of disability advocacy is to reject the belief system that disabled people are small, their voices demure. That all they need is to look on the bright side. Stay positive and don’t let it get you down, champ.

Ableist perceptions of disability are a driving force behind her memoirs, including lack of access and denial of justice, which are enshrined in marginalizing language. But challenging social attitudes toward disability, Palmer says, is also about challenging self-identity. Disability is not something to overcome, and it certainly is not an identity flaw. No amount of positive thinking can motivate her to pull that “lame bastard” of a walker out of her closet and finally, through tears, begin assembling the descent of her independence. Motivation poster-esque, positive thinking can’t erase ableist language and attitudes. It’s not about the attitudes of the disabled, but those of abled people. What’s so unique about a senior disabled woman anyways? Not much, she argues, and the statistics prove this. Add poverty to the mix and heads start spinning, if attention were paid in the first place.

So, Palmer asks, what is the hold up? Why is this not a topic of conversation? If disabled people really are only “‘a few old folks on canes,’ or ‘a couple of wheelchairs,’ your ableist privilege is easier to shrug it off. You can steal our parking spots because you don’t think one of us rare birds will show up to need it.” We just don’t see disabled people, Palmer writes, because the world is inaccessible, so we assume they don’t exist. This is a rejection of what is right in front of us. It’s silencing of many voices. It’s erasure.

Together with Herkimer and Horatio (as she calls her left and right feet – but don’t dare call them dainty), Palmer sets out, in 300 pages of staggeringly visceral language, to find an identity that can straddle worlds thrust apart, carefully stitching them together in a resounding chorus of humour, rage, grief, ageism and ableism, and of course, disability justice. To be a disabled person, she argues, is a fight to be heard and seen, for inclusion in space and narrative, access to justice and a living wage. It’s a demand for the packed room of abled people to pipe down and listen to the “4-foot-ten rolling tank” (her assistive chair named McAlmost). “[A]bled folks don’t get to decide what is and isn’t ableism,” she writes. She doesn’t mince words. So hold on, listen, and reserve judgment, because this isn’t your story to tell. But it might just be one of the most important stories you’ll read.

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