I rarely write fiction, not anymore, at least. When I was younger I would fill up page after page with original fiction and fanfiction, but perhaps because I have so few life experiences compared to many people, it always falls short. This is a short story that percolated in my head for years before I wrote it, sometime in 2015. I’m posting it now because I needed something to update the blog with and I needed something cheerful. I don’t know if this exactly counts as cheerful, but it’s not as sad or depressing as the things I usually write are. I also happen to think that it is a decent model of disability as a social construct.
Anyway. I like it. I hope you do, too.
When people hear what I do for a living, they generally blanch. They don’t know what to say, so they stammer out something about how noble I am, how hard it must be. They can’t crack a joke to break the tension because my profession isn’t something that gets joked about – it’s something that gets pity, yes, and admiration, yes, but jokes? No.
Yet it never ceases to strike me as funny that people feel sorry for me – me, when I only work with them, when I am as normal as normal could be. The truth is that the children in my care are just that, children, and the fact that they have such a devastating, disfiguring disability is hard for them and them alone. Not me.
“But isn’t it sad?” people ask, “being around, you know, the wingless all day?”
And they always seem surprised when I answer that no, it’s not sad. They are children – they laugh and they play and they learn much as other children do. And when they fly (and yes, it’s perfectly okay to say ‘fly’ around people who don’t, I mean, whoever went for a ‘walk’, anyway?) up the stairs into our modified building, they are there not to be cured but to be accepted, loved and taught.
Inside our building – The Icarus Community Home and School, so much better than what it used to be known as, the School for Crippled Wingless – things are, by necessity, low to the ground. Light switches, for instance, are about four or five feet off the floor. Instead of the usual stools, these children sit in medical devices known as chairs, which have a back to them like a shelf might to help hold up their weakened bodies. Broad flights of stairs connect the levels to one another, and every single room is accessible by hallway.
It’s actually a misnomer, by the way, to call all the children wingless. Some do have stumps or sharply jutted bones where their wings should be. Some have a few feathers on their backs. Some were born with twisted wings which had to be removed lest they grow into the spine or something. When it comes down to it, these children are flightless, not wingless – although that doesn’t stop them, of course, from trying to fly. It usually takes three broken bones before your average six year old stops trying to make her flimsy, non-functional fifth and sixth limbs work and gives up.
At some point, though, they do give up on flying, and they learn to walk, and they learn that, in our world, at least, walking isn’t so bad. It’s really only an annoyance on really rainy days, or when you have to cross a body of water. And of course, most cities don’t have people roads on them yet or, as they say in the disability community, sidewalks. Sidewalks are these strips of tarmac made for people to walk on, next to the traffic, instead of above it with regular people.
Actually, one of the problems with our wonderful school is that when the kids leave it, they aren’t expecting the teasing, the stares or the general inaccessibility of the world. We tell them that they can do anything, but they quickly find out that they can’t. They can’t reach the second, third or fourth stories of almost anything, because despite the Americans with Disabilities Act being twenty-five years old, most places still lack stairs. They can’t play with other kids on playairs because they can’t get into the structures. (At our school we have built our own playair, which we call a playground, where they can reach everything.)
The stories that these kids tell me sometimes break my heart – about other children being warned away from them, like being wingless was something catching, about the subtle and not-so-subtle stares and looks of outright disgust. No matter how many times the staff at Icarus repeats that disability is natural, the majority of the world is quite firmly on the side that being wingless is unnatural.
This is why I’m so glad that we’ve got a half-dozen staff members who are wingless themselves, and who teach our students how to live their lives on the ground. The input of these people is priceless, and to think that just a generation or two ago, the wingless were locked up in their homes, kept away like a dirty secret. The progress that we have made convinces me that we can make still more. The wingless will demand their rights, and America needs to be ready to give them.
So no, I don’t see my job as sad. I see it as amazing – getting to know these kids who I know will change the world. They don’t need to fly, after all, to be able to go places.
If you didn’t figure it out, this is the perspective of a special-needs teacher in a world where all humans have wings and fly easily, everywhere.