My Left Foot was on RTE 2 on Saturday night. I know it well because it was one of the ‘comparative’ texts I studied for my Leaving Cert (the film, not the book). Of course, me being me, I’ve read the book as well and it seems to be the voice of a man who very much came from an era where disability and impairment were problematic (okay, let’s face it, that’s every era – nothing’s changed there). Christy Brown is regarded as one of the most talented Irish writers of the twentieth century, and his name has become synonymous with triumph over adversity, literary genius, truly inspirational. And as a writer with Cerebral Palsy myself, I reflected on what it’s like to live in the shadow of such genius, and such brutal and cold oppression such as that endured by Brown.
If I had been born thirty years before, would I too have been relegated to watching life pass me by from under the stairs?
I’m constantly being told that I should consider writing an autobiography, as Christy says ‘my own story’, and although I’m sure that every writer toys with the idea at one stage or another, part of me can’t see anything particularly extraordinary about my life. Unlike Christy Brown I was mainstreamed, and was very much a part of ordinary family life. I went to school, where I detested homework, and then to secondary school and college. I was always convinced that this was the status quo for other disabled people too, in spite of the fact that there were only two other students with physical disabilities in my school. (I say physical because there are also hidden disabilities like dyslexia, etc.)
Sixty years on from the publication of My Left Foot, I know that there are hundreds of autobiographies written by people with disabilities. In my home town alone, two men with Cerebral Palsy have published their own stories – Brendan Brophy wrote On Three Wheels and Dealing a Bad Hand and David Boland wrote Life from the Tip of My Tongue. Their style is different from Christy Brown’s, although some experiences are the same such as being in the CRC. My good friend Leigh Gath is currently extending her autobiography Don’t Tell Me I Can’t, the s\tory of her incredible journey as a thalidomide survivor (she has hands and feet, but not arms and legs) growing up in Newry during the Troubles, finding her identity as a sexual being and escaping from her alcoholic husband to finally find true love.
The progression of the perception of disability between My Left Foot and Don’t Tell Me I Can’t is intriguing. In My Left Foot Christy is preoccupied with his physical limitations and the now outdated terms he uses to describe himself, such as ‘cripple’ and ‘handicap’ whereas having been born thirty(?) years later, Leigh has a different perspective. Despite her specialised education at boarding school, she can clearly see from a young age that she is not the ‘problem’ but rather she lives in a society that won’t accommodate her needs. This frustration led her to become involved in disability activism and hard-core protests in trying to secure the rights of people with disabilities. It’s interesting to note that Leigh grew up in Newry, a community divided into Catholic and Protestants, while also inhabiting a world that endeavoured to reinforce the differences between disabled and non-disabled people.
Christy Brown’s perception of disability is now a little outdated. But one thing he must be credited for is that he gave permission to the disability community of Ireland (and the wider world) to tell their stories. Unfortunately at present we live in a world where these stories often exist in isolation. Christy Brown’s book may have garnered him worldwide recognition, but the rest of us face a new challenge. Disability has become so commonplace and integration is supposedly the status quo to the extent where, in the future, writing your story from the perspective of having a disability won’t be enough to gain you credibility or respect.
Instead, it will be up to us as the future Christy Browns to push the message that disabled people in themselves are not problematic. It is society that disables, society that insists that we are different. A disability or impairment can never be overcome, but obstacles created by our society can be removed, if we put our minds to it.
And though I admit that I also am a sucker for a good old ‘triumph over adversity’ story, wouldn’t it be simultaneously strange and wonderful if we had more stories like: ‘Wobbly Yummy Mummy had no problems accessing mainstream school, or going to college, or accessing transport. She lived an average life with her husband and her kid. She sold a billion copies of her bestselling novel. The End.’
Okay, that’s a little boring. A little ordinary, even. But a good writer will always find the extraordinary in everyday life, if he or she is willing to look hard enough for it. My hope is that in the future, disabled people will be perceived, and have the courage to portray themselves as the multi-faceted, complicated creatures we are.
And undoubtedly My Left Foot, both the book and the film version will be studied for decades to come, and my hope is that students will exclaim, ‘How could Irish society exclude Christy Brown and other disabled people for so long? Thank God Ireland ratified the UNCRPD!’*
*We haven’t, as of 23rd January 2018. The Minister of State with responsibility for Disability promised it would be ratified by the end of January. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.