Disability is written out of history either by ignoring the contributions of persons with disability or by separating their disability from their contributions. This issue highlights artist Judith Snow, Mary MacDonald daughter of Canada’s first Prime Minister, jazz legend “Chick” Webb, a secret that playwright Arthur Miller carried to his grave, Abraham Lincoln and a Kama Sutra for disabled people. If you like what you’re reading do spread the word.
Thanks – Al
On February 8th, 1869 Mary MacDonald was born. She is the only child of John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and his second wife Agnes Bernard. Mary was diagnosed with hydrocephalus a condition that prevents the fluid that surrounds the brain from draining properly. Nowadays it is routinely fixed by inserting a shunt that allows the cerebral fluid to drain properly. Mary had limited use of her hands and used a wheelchair to move around. Her parents made their parlour wheelchair accessible to ensure she was included in the diplomatic and political gatherings they hosted. They also made sure she had access to the latest technology including a typewriter which she used to correspond with her father when he was on the road. She also typed her father’s speeches. After Sir John A. died, Mary and her mother settled in England. Mary died in 1933.
There is a children’s book about Mary titled Baboo, which was her father’s affectionate nickname for her. There is also a play Baboo: Missing in History. The play begins: “My name is Mary. Margaret, Mary, Theodora, Macdonald. I have a good life. My father was an important person, you might’ve heard of him.”
February 10th 1905 is the birthday of the “king of drums” William Henry “Chick” Webb. He acquired spinal tuberculosis as a child which limited his mobility and resulted in a curved spine and short stature. A doctor suggested he take up drumming to “loosen his bones.” He became one of the most highly regarded bandleaders and drummers of the new “swing” style. His hard driving drumming style and showmanship influenced Buddy Rich, Art Blakey and Gene Krupa. The Chick Webb Orchestra was the house band at the legendary Savoy Ballroom for years. Their theme song was “Stomping at the Savoy.”
They reached the height of their popularity with the novelty hit, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” featuring a teenaged Ella Fitzgerald as vocalist. Webb died in 1939. His funeral procession included eighty cars. The church was unable to hold all the mourners.
On February 10th 2001 the playwright Arthur Miller died exposing a forty year old secret. Miller had a son Danny born in 1966 with Down syndrome. Miller sent him to live in an institution despite the objections of Danny’s mother, the photographer Inge Morath. Miller wrote him out of his life from then on. For example, Danny wasn’t mentioned in his autobiography Timebends or in his obituary.
Danny now lives in the community with a couple who are his second family. He has a job, is active in sports and is a vocal critic of institutions. No photo of him has ever been published. According to Jean Bowen, a Connecticut disability-rights advocate, the important part of the story is that Danny transcended his father’s denial: “He’s made a life for himself; he is deeply valued and very, very loved. What a loss for Arthur Miller that he couldn’t see how extraordinary his son is.”
Danny is now reunited with his sister Rebecca Miller. She credits her husband, the actor Daniel Day-Lewis, for breathing fresh life into her relationship with her brother.
February 12th, 1809 is the birthday of former US President Abraham Lincoln. He dealt with clinical depression all his life. In those days it was called, “melancholy.” As a young adult Lincoln often talked of suicide. Neighbours occasionally took him in for fear he might take his own life. His biographer Joshua Wolf Shenk claims Lincoln preserved his life by embracing both his darkness and light. Lincoln’s observation, “I am driven to my knees by the conviction that I have nowhere else to go,” serves as tribute to the vulnerable part of everyone’s nature.
In his second inaugural address, a month before the end of the Civil War, Lincoln appealed to a deeply divided nation using phrases such as “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”
Did you know?
There is a Kama Sutra for wheel chair users and their partners. It appears on the home page of Sexuality and Disability, a website that starts with the premise that “women who are disabled are sexual beings – just like other women.”
Also published on Medium.