Power of Disability Digest
UK artist Susan Austin, underwater performance in wheelchair, 2013 aimed to challenge perceptions of disability #womensart. Credit: https://twitter.com/womensart1

Dear Reader

This is  a beta version of something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, create a digest that illustrates the remarkable contributions of people with disabilities. There wasn’t room in my new book, The Power of Disability for all the stories I came across. This digest is the next best thing.

I’d like each Digest to introduce you to works of art, stories about interesting people, notable dates and Did-you-know facts.

I plan to make the Digest a regular feature but first I’d like your feedback. What do you think about the format and content? Is it too long, too short or just about right? Would you like more pictures? How often would you like to receive it? I was thinking weekly. Is that about right or would you like it more or less often?

Please send your suggestions via this form.



This week in history ...

January 2nd is the birthday of Jean Little an award winning writer of children’s literature (1932). Little was born in Taiwan where her parents were Canadian medical missionaries. They moved back to Canada when she was seven.

As a child Little was constantly told to go and wash her nose because it was smudged with print. She was born with limited eyesight and had to hold the book right up to her face.

She wrote her first book, Mine for Keeps because she was tired of reading books to her students where children with disabilities can only be happy if they recover from their disability. For example Clara in Heidi or Colin in The Secret Garden. By contrast, Little’s books showed children thriving with their disabilities and portrayed as valuable members of their community, and who gave as much as they received. “I try to be realistic and not dodge things that I think are really important to children,” she said.

Little studied literature at University of Toronto under Northrup Frye . She wrote more than sixty books for young people. One of her most popular and most autobiographical is From Anna, the story of Anna Solden a child who is blind who moves from Germany to Canada with her family on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.

When she was in her mid-sixties, Jean and her sister Pat de Vries, began raising her great-niece and nephew whose mother had been murdered by a serial killer. For years she hosted large family gatherings at her cottage in Muskoka – which she named Gilead and which now belongs to children’s storyteller Robert Munsch .

Little continued to write using a voice activated computer until her death on April 6, 2020. When asked why she wrote for children. She said, “Because I get to be ten.”

On January 3rd 1938 the March of Dimes was launched by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Which is the reason why his image is still on the American dime. FDR encouraged people to mail their dimes to the White House to help find a cure for childhood polio. Dimes came by the truckload – 2,680,000 dimes or $268,000 in the first month. The name “March of Dimes” was coined by entertainer Eddie Cantor based on the song, Brother can you spare a dime? The money funded the development of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine.

FDR was diagnosed with polio in 1921. His wife Eleanor Roosevelt said polio had made her husband more sensitive to the pain of others and determined to do something about it.

January 3 is also the birthday of Greta Thunberg (2003). She began her school strike for the planet in August 2018, skipping school and sitting outside the Swedish Parliament every Friday on her own. By the end of the year, she was named one of the most influential teenagers in the world. Thunberg said, “We live in a strange world where children must sacrifice their own education in order to protest against the destruction of their future.”                         

Thunberg has been criticized for her appearance and mocked for her speaking style. In response she wrote, “When haters go after your looks and differences, it means they have nowhere left to go. And then you know you’re winning!” She added, ”I have Asperger’s syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And — given the right circumstances — being different is a superpower.”

Thunberg’s father says his daughter has dealt with the negativity “incredibly well” and that, “She dances around, she laughs a lot, we have a lot of fun – and she’s in a very good place.”

January 4th is the birthday (1883) of Charles Sherwood Stratton better known by his stage name, General Tom Thumb. He was a talented actor, singer, dancer and comedian. One of the world’s first superstars, his popularity surpassed those of any other celebrity of his day. He began a three year world tour in 1863 performing in more than 580 cities. Stratton became wealthy as a result of his partnership with PT Barnum, the legendary showman. Despite criticism that Barnum was exploiting him, Stratton was in full control of his career. When Barnum got into financial difficulty it was Stratton who bailed him out.

Mat Fraser, a British musician, actor and curator of the tv series Crip Tales thinks there are clear reasons why Stratton was continually drawn to the stage. “Here’s the thing that non-disabled people tend to forget: you do your show and a thousand people think you’re fantastic, you walk out the stage door and some fella’s staring at you on the street again. BANG! You’re back there, you’re always back there. Of course you want to be back on the stage, it’s a delicious power that I wouldn’t know what to do without.”

January 4th is also the birthday of French educator, musician and inventor Louis Braille (1809). He is best known for inventing a tactile system that enabled people who are blind to read and write. Braille lost the sight of one eye when he was three as the result of an accident. Two years later he lost the sight of his other eye.

Braille’s ingenuity began when he was 15. He created braille by simplifying “night writing” a method French soldiers used to communicate quietly when it was dark. He published his first book in braille in 1829.

Braille is not a language but a code enabling people to read and write in their own language. It is still in use today although with the advent of audio books, smart phones and text-to-voice readers usage is 10 percent of what it was a century ago.

The Power of Disability Digest – correcting what history has overlooked.

Also published on Medium.

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