What's the first thing you think of when you hear the word "mainstream"? I'll bet it's something like the dominant trend or prevailing current in fashion or the arts. Perhaps you even think of it as a derogatory term, as in cliche or boring.
If you have a disability this word takes on a unique meaning. It means living as normal a life as you possibly can in the company of able-bodied people. Going to a regular school and getting the same education as your peers, socializing with able-bodied people, doing everything you can do as normally as you are able to within the parameters of your limitations.
As a child I attended regular public school and handled the same courseload as everyone else. In the afternoons I went to Physical and Occupational Therapy to learn how to cope with my Cerebral Palsy and develop independent living skills. This went on until I was 13, at which time it was determined that my therapy sessions were no longer teaching me anything new; and, they weren't.
At home I was expected to tow the line, but I was strongly discouraged from having any friends. The rationale was simple. People, especially children, were cruel to the handicapped. No able-bodied person would ever really want to be my friend without possessing strong ulterior motives designed to trick me into trusting them so they could use, hurt, or ridicule me. And forget about dating - that was for girls above my station. Best shut the world out and stay at home unless it was absolutely necessary.
I cowered into this line of thinking until I was in high school. One day, I realized that if I was ever going to be truly "mainstreamed" I was going to have to defy all of these rules that had defined my life so far. So I did a complete turnaround and became an out-of-control young woman with far more courage than common sense. People were cruel, hurtful, and deceitful towards me. But they were also kind, loving and sincere. I made many, many mistakes, but my initial decision to go out on a limb and live my own life wasn't one of them.
Fast-forward 35 years to a more tolerant, accepting world where the disabled aren't segregated and don't have to suffer the cruelties of children, the machinations of conniving people or the well-meaning-yet-crippling coddling of their families.
Well, maybe not.
Yes, we have evolved enough as a society to crown Abbey Curran, who has Cerebral Palsy, Miss Iowa USA 2008. Curran wanted to give other disabled girls the opportunity to participate in a positive, self-esteem building event so she founded Miss You Can Do It. The organization's annual pageant was recently the subject of an HBO documentary. Normally I'm not much on beauty pageants but I thought it would be interesting, perhaps even inspiring, to watch.
Instead it broke my heart and made me very, very angry.
Not with Curran, who is as mainstream and as close to being a true inspiration for anyone, disabled or not, as they get. Not with the pageant itself, which sees to it each girl is treated like a princess and receives a trophy for some achievement, no matter how trivial it may seem. Not with the contestants, who range in ages and disabilities but are all gloriously, uniquely wonderful. Not even with the parents, most of whom clearly had the best, if not the wisest, of intentions.
No; it was the realization that we haven't come nearly far enough in giving the physically disabled with the capacity for independent living the tools or the motivation to be mainstream. In the 21st century we still have to hold segregated events to protect the self-image of imperfect girls from a world that ever-increasingly demands perfection. We're still telling the parents of children born with Cerebral Palsy that their child would be better off in an institution. Parents are still telling their disabled children the world is too big and mean to manage without them. Handicapped kids that don't have adequate coping skills are still suffering the cruel taunts of other children because as a society we think if we pass zero-tolerance rules and "ban bullying" we've erased the behavior from existence.
It is because I have suffered all of these injustices so many years ago that I sobbed for the little girls suffering them now. It's for their sake as much as my own that I pose and post and push the idea that my disability doesn't stop me from shining. But I can't do this alone. We can - no, we must - do a better job of giving our disabled youth social support and sincere, realistic tools to foster hope for a good life in the world.
A mainstreamed, beautiful life.