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Blog for Episode 27: Disability, Empowerment and Dialogue

Nov 2, 2018

I’m fascinated by the exchange of ideas, culture, story and language that occurs when someone like Rossana Pasquino not only visits but lives in a different country, even if just for a few months. After the recording, Rosanna talked about a habit that she got into while here in Canada. Frequently for lunch she would sit at the same table with a rotating group of scholars of the Faculty Club at Queen’s University in Kingston. For hours they would talk: about their research and the daily grind, of course, but about everything else too. The conversations became addictive – to be so stimulated by other minds, other experiences. Rosanna said that it was something she would always remember from her short time in Canada: people, sharing food and experience and ideas.

Remove the food and you have what this show is trying to do: get to the bottom of the human story by having human stories told. To facilitate a conversation where both sides are curious, humble, keen to learn, and hopefully with a sense of humour about themselves. Not much is required for this – a quiet room, a couple headsets with microphones, and a set time for me and my guest to talk. The conversation can then pull out, like a magnet to iron filings, all of the invisible pieces that lie underneath. With Rosanna, one of these pieces is her disability.

Confined to a wheelchair for most of her life, she has risen to the challenge not just in a life of the mind, but by fully occupying and using her body as it is. I’m an able-bodied person, so how could I possibly understand the challenges that Rosanna faces? Forget what she has overcome to have a respected career in chemistry, and forget what it must mean for her to become one of the top wheelchair fencers in Italy. Just the everyday obstacles that are before her: curbs that are too high. Doors not wide enough, or with doorknobs out of reach. Light switches or electrical plugs installed too high or low. Cars, buses, trains, planes – let alone roads and sidewalks and office buildings and houses – that were not for a moment built for her in mind.

People with disabilities have learned to shrug at these relentless daily barriers. Overcoming them is not a chore or an inconvenience but after a while it’s as much a part of the everyday routine, like unlocking the door or opening the garage when you get home. It takes willpower and strength and conviction to live fully in a world that appears to not want you. Sure, there are bright blue handicap parking stalls and awkward metal ramps to the side of the stairs, but these are always the exception with attention drawn to it. You, in the wheelchair, are the exception that sticks out like a sore thumb.

How could I possibly empathize with or understand what it means to be, feel, think, live or thrive like Rosanna does? Maybe I can’t, or maybe it’s always a reach. But I think the best possible start is a dialogue, a sharing of story and time. In my conversation with Rosanna, we also talk about her home in Naples, Italy. We take it for granted, as travelers, that we can go there and understand a people and a place. But I’m blind to Rosanna’s upbringing, to the nuances of her culture and language and deep communal experience. I can spend time there, visit museums, sit in cafes, eat the food, drink the wine, even learn the language. But the barriers remain. Yet, aren’t these a different kind of barrier to a cobblestone path that someone in a wheelchair is actually injured to traverse? In other words, the barriers that exist between two people because of their divergent backgrounds and language and values – aren’t these barriers not to overcome, but to transcend? Maybe they make us stronger, better, faster, smarter. That is, if we start with dialogue. If we start with the conversation.

I’m not saying anything profound here, I know, but I do want to reinforce the power of two people talking. Yes, to reinforce the importance of this show, sure. But because there is so much else we can do that feels just as good but enhances barriers rather than move across them. I’ve never seen a comment section of an online newspaper bring people closer together. This isn’t a rag against online culture. But let’s not forget that if we all simply go further and further apart, eventually we’ll all be alone. Some scientists believe that our expanding universe’s eventual fate will be maximum entropy, or disorder. A state of total disorder where there is no energy moving around anymore. The bits that make up the stars and galaxies are going to continue to expand until there is no heat left; an eternal deep freeze. I think that it is in the mixing and mingling and coming together, which is not always easy, that we are alive.