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Coping With Physical Impairment: Assertiveness Versus Reticenceby J.
Lying beside me on my desk are my elegant half-frame reading-glasses made in Italy. They compensate for my longsightedness, and they do so comfortably and conveniently, but they don't disguise my disability: on the contrary they draw attention to it, and to themselves by the excellence of their design.
One of my friends prefers contact lenses. He seems to have constant problems with them: soreness of the eyes, cloudy tears, blurred vision; but against the discomfort and inconvenience he balances the benefit of disguising his disability.
My solution is assertive and comfortable, his reticent and uncomfortable.
It is only recently that people have felt free to cope with defective eyesight assertively. At the beginning of the century, in one of the Father Brown stories, G. K. Chesterton wrote :
... Some apology may be made for Father Brown; for he himself would have been sincerely apologetic. It must be remembered that he had never seen America before and more especially that he had never seen that sort of tortoise-shell spectacles before; for the fashion at this time had not spread to England. His first sensation was that of gazing at some goggling sea-monster with a faint suggestion of a diver's helmet. Otherwise the man was exquisitely dressed; and to Brown, in his innocence, the spectacles seemed the queerest disfigurement for a dandy.
For Chesterton, who wore rimless pince-nez, the assertive strategy came as a shock, but nowadays many people prefer glasses to contact lenses, and choose frames designed to be elegant as well as efficient.
In dealing with other physical disabilities the assertive approach is seldom considered, and this limits the options for designers of aids to circumvent them.
A series of quotations follows, all from accounts by amputees; as it happens, all of them women, who have chosen the assertive strategy preferring, at least some of the time, to use crutches rather than prostheses. (I have emphasised certain passages in the quotations by setting them in italics.)
It seems that prostheses may be even less fun than contact lenses. The assertive solution, the use of crutches, is not expensive and it is efficient because it uses the remaining limbs within their natural potentialities to compensate for the missing member. Because the gait can be efficient it can be beautiful. Notice how many of the quotations contain positive statements about the speed and the ease of locomotion with crutches. By comparison the use of a conventional prosthesis is slow and cumbersome and can be painful as well. The use of a simple peg can also replace much of the missing function, and also free the hands; this too can be efficient and relatively cheap. A hi-tech prosthesis designed solely to replace the function of a missing limb would probably not look much like a leg with a natural knee and foot, but it could be beautiful in a way that a cosmetic prosthesis cannot, because its form would be united with its function. By contrast, a conventional prosthesis is a lie: its appearance implies that it is composed of flesh and bone, while in fact it is made of coloured plastic and metal. Mechanical systems are different from natural ones: aeroplanes fly, but not like birds that flap their wings, so why should a mechanical prosthesis have to look like a limb, and appear to work like a limb when it cannot be powered or controlled like one?
These are all implications of transferring the assertive stategy of coping with defective eyesight to coping with missing limbs. There is no reason why someone should not be uniquely elegant, in the assertive fashion, walking with a pair of Calvin Klein crutches, or driving an Armani wheelchair. Such things might not exist at the moment, but if people demand them the market will supply them.
I have argued elsewhere that there is nothing shameful about physical impairment, and therefore there really is no need to hide it away. (I look no worse when I'm wearing my glasses, and my wife looks gorgeous in hers.) So why isn't the assertive option available to people with other disabilities?
Quotations 1 to 3 are taken from A stroll on the boardwalk by Pat Hackett.
Quotations 4 to 6 from material published in Fascination.
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