(Dis)ability is Not Inability
By Julia Morrison, 2019 Loreen Arbus Foundation & AWMF Scholarship Winner
If all determination is through negation, then disability is not inability, nor is it a lack of strength, desire or resolve. (Dis)ability is an opportunity to explore what it means to be a human being in all of our infinite glory. The Latin prefix dis- means ‘apart’; disability as apart from ability, but not as mutually exclusive. What may constrain a person in one area may liberate them in another through the gift of profound insight. Some of humanity’s most important discoveries were born from the minds of those who struggled with disabilities, people whose experience of time & the universe were unlike the experiences of others. Among those who have contributed groundbreaking insight to humankind include dyslexic Albert Einstein, who gave us the theory of relativity; theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, bound to a wheelchair & dependent on a computerized voice, transported us to other dimensions of space-time with a theory of cosmology; A Beautiful Mind mathematician John Nash Jr closed gaps in game theory with his internal life rich with numbers & schizophrenic characters; Thomas Edison, America’s greatest inventor of the motion picture camera, electric light bulb & more, made use of a hearing aid; & life-long disability advocate Helen Keller, who touched the lives of millions with her unparalleled vision for peace & radical progress even though she couldn’t see or hear a thing. I believe that Ability is a philosophy of life rooted in the spirit of the scientific method, for better it is to try, fail & try again, then never to have tried at all.
Language is the key, but where is the door? The words we choose to define our lives, ourselves, & each other are inextricably tied to the outcomes we receive. Words take shape, giving form to ideas like seeds give sprout to trees in an old growth forest. My speech impediment led me to study my voice & language, practices that serve me well as the artist, actress & writer I am. I may not have pronounced clearly my ‘R’s’ until the age of thirteen, but that didn’t stop me from speaking poetry as a child or my truth loud enough to send the man who molested me years earlier to prison in third grade – the same year I started speech therapy. To some, I could have been from New England, while others insisted I spoke like a baby. Random kids I’d never seen or met before would demand I entertain them a few sentences as I’d try to pass in the hallway. They’d sneak in one more laugh, meanwhile I’d find another time & place pretending to be dinosaurs with a few friends on the school’s front lawn. But even my best friends couldn’t resist the temptation to interrupt me mid-sentence to showcase their best rendition of “I park my car in Harvard yard” & wait for me to say it in turn. “C’mon, say it: I pahk my cah in Hahvahd yahd”, they’d push until I’d cave like the prehistoric bones in my velociraptor body.
The year preceding my graduation from speech therapy was wild: my brother & I were homeless, Columbine happened, Clinton faced impeachment & my Grandma died while the whole world watched, anxious with anticipation as Y2K came & never showed up. But I was used to things & people not showing up by then. As someone who overcame my impediment later in life & a child of foster care, I was surprised to learn that 70% of children in the foster system struggle with an impediment or disability. I am beyond grateful for my school for identifying my speech impediment & getting me the therapy I needed. I even looked forward to the hour I’d spend every Friday during my Physical Education class working on my speech while my peers ran a mile around the racetrack. Instead I got to be inside perusing images, shapes, colors, & syllables while practicing my ‘R’ sound in a small room wedged between the main office & the boys’ bath woom – excuse me: room. To this day I slip up in speech when I’m anxious, but my therapist taught me there is nothing we cannot achieve when we take our time & articulate our target outcome into a series of clear, identifiable steps. Figuring out how different parts of my tongue fit into the corners of my upper cleft & met my individual teeth was like finding a whole new landscape within myself – a body map defined yet free from border. In facing my struggle, I discovered new parts of my Self.
I believe in the power of film to ignite social change, catalyze catharsis for self-growth & most importantly: heal. I hope to use my story to help people. Music, myth & metaphor are the three most powerful signatures in the world, which is why I cherish the art of cinema. I aim to maximize my focus over these next few years in my educational career so I may pay this debt forward in the aspiration of helping others. My next great challenge is to honor the girl I raised to turn the page & deliver her story to the big screen. As an actress, artist, & activist, I can appreciate that some of the greatest moments in our lives have the power to render us disabled: the butterfly in our stomach that takes our breath away, the cries of a man as he screams “I can’t breathe’ that render us speechless, or the depressive spell that seeps into every facet of our lives & cripples our spirit. Whether it be physical, that moment we jumped & took a risk, or something intangible, extreme vulnerability harbors an ancient wealth, 1 a secret gem unique to each individual that only she can mine, for in the struggle of its discovery holds the truth behind what makes the human spirit the most dynamic force in the world, as the butterfly strengthens its wings breaking from its cocoon to fly.
On my last day in speech therapy, my therapist paused, expressing concern about my ‘-ing’ sound. I let out a sigh resounding throughout the hallway, closing the door behind me as she pulled out a deck of cards I’d never seen before. I read them off for her one at a time:
“How’s that,” I begged her, “is that good enough?”
She smiled & said, “You’re good to go”.