This blog is about reconciling the two worlds of disability understanding. On one side are the strong voices of activists in the disability community. On the other is the well meaning but naïve/ ignorant able bodied population who see disability as something pitiable. As an able bodied person who has realized the very compelling and interesting arguments about society and life coming from the disability community, I am compelled to referee the exchanges between the two sides. Often times it seems that everyone is speaking so loudly and with such great conviction that the other doesn't even listen. Since I am not personally motivated by either side, I can weigh both sides of the arguments and hopefully facilitate an open and accepting space for both sides to express themselves and learn about each other. Please join the discussion!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Review: The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, is built around the question, “What would happen if we had a cure for autism?”. Knowing that the issue would be the central debate of this novel made me suspicious, fearing that it would overdo the disability angle and result in some sappy conclusion. Initially the argument was overpoweringly obvious, but soon the characters overshadowed it and took me to a surprising place.

The narrative was crucial to teasing out all the subtleties hidden in the question I raised above. The resulting discussion was honest, subtle, and comprehensive. Ms. Moon used characters to represent different points of view e.g. the boss who thinks the autistic workers would be better off without their disability, or the friend who sincerely appreciates the main character for who he is, autism included. These characters are one-dimensional and don’t make for the best literature, but they facilitate the discussion.

Here's the dilemma. If we tell people with disabilities they the are just as valuable as anyone else, then when the option of a cure is introduced, can we ask them to take it? In most respects, the cure could “improve” their lives, but if there wasn’t anything wrong with their lives before, then why should they change? There is a great quote in the book that highlights this dilemma. “If someone told the last maples that they could change and live happily in the warmer climate, would they choose to do it? What if it meant losing their translucent leaves that turn such beautiful colors every year?”

Toward the end of novel, I forgot that it was exploring this conundrum and focused on the very human, multidimensional, main character making choices about his life, the way anyone would. In my past foray into disability literature with Planet of the Blind, I was impressed because while the book educated about disability, it also related on a simply human level; a fundamental commonality that we all share but which seems to be sometimes overlooked in the presence of disability. The Speed of Dark happily achieved the same connection because of the strength of the main character. Ms. Moon does an excellent job conveying his autistic style through the text, and I found myself quickly growing accustomed to it and feeling like I knew him. The greatest reward from this book is to go on a journey with the main character, see the choices he makes and why, and become more intimately connected with someone with autism. As for the greater question, we are left with a more complete understanding, but gladly no answer.

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