When you live out in the suburbs, you see some pretty stark economic divisions. In school there are the “have” kids, the ones who bring sacks of sugar or cans of cranberry for the holiday food basket drive. And there are the “have not” kids, the ones whose families receive baskets. In my suburb there are wealthy neighborhoods with huge houses and water views. There are also cramped, ugly apartment buildings near the old highway. Homeless families are in the neighborhood, too. The school district counts over 200 homeless students. That they know about.
But that’s the suburbs. Spend a few days in the part of the city where the social service organizations are (for good reason) concentrated and you will see a different dichotomy emerge. I’m going to use “blessed” and “cursed” because those words are usefully descriptive, but I don’t really like them. They carry a religious connotation I don’t intend (god has nothing to do with it) and they imply a lack of agency when in fact agency is often present along with whopping doses of luck, good and bad.
Blessed and cursed is not so much about money as it is about functionality. People who would be have-nots in suburbia—the guys in the reflective vests sweeping the sidewalk, for example—count among the blessed in social-service land, because they have jobs, income, strong bodies that obey their commands, and the wherewithal to maintain that state of affairs. Suburban have-nots take care of their families and have the savvy to know how to score one of those holiday baskets and the free backpacks full of school supplies and the reduced-fee lunches and so on. They are immensely more powerful than the cursed.
The cursed struggle with physical and mental disabilities. Some are outright psychotic and carry on animated conversations with invisible (to everyone else) entities on the street. Some shuffle along painfully with canes or walkers even though they are nowhere near old age. I was once shocked when I got off a bus and watched a man haul himself up from the sidewalk he had slept on into his wheelchair to begin his day. Some are unkempt, some filthy. They are missing teeth. They hover in neighborhoods that have resources to help them, and the resources are located in the neighborhoods where they hover.
Years ago, when I was working with adults with cerebral palsy and studying the art of special ed, I read a fair amount of disability rights literature. There’s a name for people like me and all of the blessed: Temporarily Able-Bodied (TAB). Accidents happen and so do psychotic breaks. Some disabling events are random happenstance and some are your own damn fault (using meth is an outstanding way to slide from blessed to cursed in short order) and some are a little of both. TABs often regard the less functional with the same sort of contempt that the rich sometimes have for the poor. They see only the differences and not the connecting continuum we are all sliding around on.
I don’t have a concluding paragraph for these thoughts. But my life is in disarray and I’m feeling very slidey right now. Transitions are perilous and terrifying. And I try to remember, every time I walk through social-service land, that I don’t know anyone’s story but my own.