If you write blogs, or opeds, or opinion pieces, the holy grail is not something Indy and his dad search for, but the New York Times pages. Thousands apply each week, and the paper, after running their regular columnists, prints one or two outside authors a day. After writing seven books I got in once, only because I had a unique insight into some aspect of the 2016 presidential campaign. Never heard from them again. An accomplished freelance journalist I know told me, “I am sooo jealous.” More on this in a second.
One of the great and enduring stereotypes of the disabled is that we’re all sad, lonely, and miserable. Of course, who wouldn’t be, stuck in a wheelchair, or bereft of hearing, or sight?
Of course, this is nonsense. I’m a hemiplegic, I get solid teaching evaluations, and my next book is due out this month from a major university press. My best buddy in the disabled community is a highly successful writer, and, by the way, a paraplegic. Millions of us are married, are parents, have successful careers. And some are miserable, and have failed lives and love affairs. Just like everybody else. It’s called the human condition. Still the meme of the disgruntled disabled persists.
Thus, it’s such a joy when someone busts that wide open. Meet Melissa Shang, who titled her recent article, “Stories About Disability Don’t Have to Be Sad”. Permit me to quote the opening paragraph:
“Like any middle schooler, I usually start my day with cereal. Every morning, after brushing my teeth, I have a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with milk, and try to catch all the flakes with my spoon before they go soggy. I get dressed for the day, and try to put on some makeup before my mom yells at me for hogging the bathroom. Then I go catch the bus.”
Nice, fun, a paragraph out of the booklet that comes with an American Girl doll.
There’s some things I need to point out here. First, Melissa’s disabled. Her next paragraph explains:
“While in most other ways I’m just your typical eighth grader, I also happen to have been born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, a form of muscular dystrophy. Charcot-Marie-Tooth is a degenerative nerve disease that causes muscles in my arms and legs to atrophy over time. I wear leg braces and use a wheelchair to get around, and have an aide at school who helps me spin my locker combination. Every morning, an accessible bus arrives at my house to pick me up.”
Next, she is fourteen years of age.
Third, that piece was published on the oped page of the New York Times on June 21, 2017. Just for the record, I was sixty-one when they accepted my piece.
Thus, Melissa is a most remarkable combination of typical kid and amazingly gifted youngster. Who, as a minor fact, happens to be disabled. Here’s her story:
“For the most part, despite my wheelchair and knowledge of medical terminology (you build that kind of vocabulary when it’s about your own limbs), my daily reality is mostly the same as that of my classmates. I groan over the same math and science homework, giggle with the same friends, and like every other adolescent, I probably spend too much time on my phone.”
Not that much time. “For the past four years, I’ve been trying to convince everyone else as well that my story doesn’t have to be a sad one.” To most of us, that would mean telling friends, relatives, classmates, and teachers that we were okay, were happy and not miserable.
In 2013 Melissa took a different route: she initiated a Change.org petition asking American Girl, (“my favorite doll company”) to make a doll with a disability, earning 140,000 signatures and national publicity, including a writeup in People magazine.
After that, seeking a better depiction of kids like her in literature (“something like the CupCake Diaries”), she wrote her own book, Mia Lee is Wheeling Through Middle School, except instead of selling pastries, the students make YouTube videos. She self-published it, and you can get it on Amazon.
I bought Mia Lee, the first volume written for this age group I’ve read in over half-a-century, and it’s not bad. She opens, “If I starred in a movie, I wouldn’t be some fairy tale Cinderella. Forget Prince Charming. I’d rather be the movie director, directing all the scenes with my giant megaphone, like “Places, everyone!” and “Cut!”—except, you know, in sixth grade and in a wheelchair but just as awesome.” Regarding her disability: “Because I can’t get up and move around a lot, I pay close attention to stuff that most people don’t. It’s like this bonus app automatically uploaded in my head to store more information.” To Melissa, in other words, her condition is a “bonus app”.
What is it like to be a published author in middle school? Her last lines in the Times piece read, “I’ve gone back to being your average middle schooler. Last month, I was in my school play, and now I am getting ready to graduate. On the weekends, I go to the library, where sometimes, I see my book on the ‘just returned’ shelf. I often wonder who had it checked out. Maybe it was someone who would go on to invite the special needs kid in his class over for a play date. Or maybe, it was another kid with a disability, who could point to the pages and say: ‘She’s just like me! And she’s happy, too!’”
Melissa Shang is a young teenager. In some ways she is just like everyone else. But in others she is different, very, very special. And in the best ways possible.
Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions in the Department of History