Many thanks to Susan Miller for writing a guest blog post about growing up with polio as a girl in the 1940s.
How I Found Out I Was Bad
One summer in 1948, at age 5, I found out I was bad.
On a street corner in Cincinnati, I was with other neighborhood kids collecting for the March of Dimes, holding a poster that showed a little girl with braces and crutches; I dutifully called out its warning to everyone passing by, “Don’t Let This Happen To Your Child!”
While I was speaking the words, I remember mumbling something like, “Don’t let me? happen….”?
When I went home that day, I felt different: sad…. bad…… ashamed. Was I such a bad thing for my parents that people needed to be warned about me? Did my parents need the money I was collecting? For the first time in my life, I wondered, how did my parents feel about me?
As Kindergarten approached that Fall, those feelings persisted and became firm. I had pictured going on the bus to school with my brothers; instead I got in my Dad’s car to go to school with children who were strange to me.
When I entered my classroom I saw children who were very different from any I’d ever seen. The school had grouped every kind of disability into one class – physical and mental – many of them deformed, or postured weirdly in wheelchairs or moving awkwardly, jerkily.
My reaction might be considered harsh now, but at the time, it was generally accepted public policy to keep those with disabilities “out of sight/out of mind” so as not to “upset” the public. Indeed, it was even against the law in some states to appear in public!)
So there I was, in an unknown world with children I’d never seen before. I was frightened by wild-eyed stares and confused at the unintelligible words they shouted…at me?? Why was I there? I wasn’t like them!!)
When I learned the school’s name, “The Condon School for Crippled Children, I finally understood why I was there; I began to despise the “c” word and I didn’t want it to apply to me!
I began a phase of “Denial” — where I stayed for almost 40 years — by ridding myself of anything that could identify me with the “c” word.
Though I used both brace and crutches, I knew I could get by with crutches alone. They didn’t identify me with the “c” word nearly as much as a braces did. So against my doctors’ and parents’ warnings about damage to my musculoskeletal system over the long term, I refused bracing of any kind. After all, what did “long term” mean to a 5 year old?
I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to escape the Condon school, since its students all wore the “c” label. Ironically, the school ended up eliminating itself; it required all students to follow doctors’ orders. My doc prescribed bracing.
When First Grade started, I appeared ready for school without a brace. After my Dad dropped me off, the school called my parents to remind them of the rules.
The next time I appeared without my brace, I was sent home. The stage was set. So the next morning, after my Mom tried to convince me to wear the brace, I threw a tearful tantrum. Next thing I knew I heard her pick up the phone and say, “No, Susan won’t be attending Condon School this year.”
I later learned that my mom had to endure a bureaucratic nightmare to get me into the public school. Had she not persisted, my life would have been drastically different: I’d never have reached my academic potential or have exposure to the arts with a substandard education; I’d never have learned social norms being isolated from role models to mentor me
And so I began my years in public schools and began to thrive. I did so by making myself “pass” as “normal”. As a result, I found myself surrounded by friends, included in every social activity, elected as a leader, and along the way, earned top grades and honors. My crutches had never seemed to be an issue as far as I could tell, that is, until I “came of age”.
Entering high school in 1956, I was about to learn the same lesson I’d learned while holding that March of Dimes poster: I was “bad,”….again ……only this time it hit me achingly hard, cutting me to the core. The lesson: I was fine as a “girl”, but I’d never make it as “ a woman.”
During my high school years, I not only repeated my early successes, I doubled them – in friendships, in grades, always elected to leadership positions; I was even crowned Homecoming Queen in my senior year, which to me was the highest form of “normal”(!) though it apparently didn’t make me worth dating. I could have guessed why on my own, but in case I couldn’t, a good buddy I’d known since First Grade spelled it out for me early in my Freshman year.
As I sat gabbing with him, he turned to me wearing a big smile and said (probably a great compliment to him), “You know, Sus….it’s a good thing you had polio, or otherwise you’d be too perfect.” It was to be my reality over the next four years of high school: out of about 100 guys in my class, the number to ask me out: one. And that was only after I’d asked him first.
During those years, I’d passed by acting like my crutches were no big deal, just an inconvenience.
As usual I wanted to be like everyone else as well as a good sport, so I always laughed at the stupid jokes, even when I was the butt. One time, for example, I chuckled with my boyfriend as he told me that his Dad being so proud of him for taking me out; it was a “good deed”! And he got to be “the good boy!”
I tasted even more success in college, yet I faced the same fate, where basically one good guy found me date-worthy. I remember hoping that in the post graduate world, adult men would find me attractive as a woman, and I could stop trying to come up with funny retorts to the endless jokes about my crutches, such as “a skiing accident?” or “what happened to the other guy?”) Over the years, I’d learned that if I didn’t take responsibility for putting others at ease after these faux-pas, I’d pay the price; they’d always feel uncomfortable around me.
Back home after graduation that summer, I accompanied my Dad to a business event, where my dinner partner enchanted me by endlessly raving about how fabulous I was, a perfect woman for his bachelor son, wanting my phone number to pass along.
Had my hopes been answered by this charming man, a real adult, who found me so desirable! After dinner and a trip to the Ladies Room, I returned to find his chair empty. Apparently he’d had to leave abruptly, but I could see that he’d left a message on the table for me. As I read the message, it was indeed for me, a phone number.
It was mine.
Maybe it wasn’t all that surprising, but at any rate, it was time to move on, time to get a job. I applied to Cincinnati’s most prestigious company, Procter & Gamble, where MBAs flocked every summer between B-school years to intern at this top-drawer firm. Strong interviews and recommendations landed me an offer immediately; I was ecstatic!
Ecstasy was short-lived, however; the next day I got a call withdrawing the offer: I’d failed the physical! While deeply disappointed, I remained the “good sport”, saying I understood that I posed a greater risk for further injuries than other employees.
What I didn’t realize back then was that I’d just had my first taste of employment discrimination. Perhaps P&G did, however, because they called the next day to re-extend the offer, along with an apology. I reported my first day, thrilled to be working alongside those MBAs; I wondered, too, whether I’d end up dating one of them.
Actually, within my first year, I dated several, including one who turned out to be my “Prince Charming” (In September, we’ll celebrate our 50th Anniversary.) I doubt that my successful dating wasn’t an indication of a change in attitudes; people with disabilities remained an object of wise-cracks throughout most of my adult life.
When I was raising my family, there were times when my children had to deal with these things; I remember once when I was shopping with my 4 year-daughter, a child nearby pointed to her, exclaiming “Look Mommy; she has a broken Mommy!” Or the time I was the only parent to show up at my son’s baseball game and had to fill in as coach. I remember introducing myself to the other coach, after which he laughed and told his little boys, “We should certainly be able to beat a team with a cripple for a coach!” (“My” boys, upset by that crack, played their darndest and eked out a tie in the final inning, which to me was as sweet as a win.)
As I look back at the almost 50 years of my life, the attitudes I experienced reflected universally negative ideas and opinions: people just didn’t see how life with a disability could be worthwhile, let alone satisfying or personally fulfilling. A remark I’ve commonly heard at funerals says it all, “It’s just as well that [so-and-so] passed away; he could’ve never lived like that,” (meaning a wheelchair).
With attitudes so deeply ingrained over the centuries, it raises the question as to whether they can be changed by a piece of civil rights legislation, such as the ADA. An about-face would be needed to ensure people with disabilities were welcomed as full participants in our society; this question will be addressed in the next section.
Photo: Susan Miller (left) with her son BJ (center) and husband Bruce (right)