By Francine Falk-Allen
As a polio survivor (age three, left with partial paralysis of one leg which did not grow as much as the other leg), all of my life I have had moments when I turned to see a child trying to imitate my walk. It was always disconcerting, and of late, just a little surprising, as when you realize toilet paper is stuck to your shoe and trailing along behind. When I matured, I could smile at the pantomime, and think, “Do I really walk like that??!” And those occasions have given me many opportunities to tell children the reason I walk like this, even when their parents were grabbing their arms and telling them, “Stop it! That girl (or woman) is crippled!”
That is actually always worse for me than what the kid is doing. Sometimes the mom apologizes with embarrassment (always a tinge of “sorry you are disabled”) and sometimes she just scurries her kid away, too embarrassed to look at me. It’s actually more painful to hear someone say, “That woman is crippled” than it is to see a child imitate me. Maybe it’s the third person referral. I prefer the eye contact moms, because then I can say, “It’s OK. Happens all the time with children. Don’t worry about it.”
I used to tell little kids I had a disease “when I was about your age, that caused my leg not to grow.” I’d do this especially if they asked (which mothers will often try to stifle, but, I think it’s healthy for a child to show curiosity about differences). Eventually, I realized that my explanation scared small children, to think that they could get a disease that would deform them as it had me. So, I simplified my explanation to “One of my legs is shorter than the other.” If the why’s ensued and we came to my having polio, I’d say, “But you won’t get polio, because you have had your vaccinations. They didn’t have vaccinations when I was a little girl.” They can talk to their moms about vaccinations if they have not had them.
I’m walking along a sidewalk downtown somewhere and see my reflection, stunned to see that I am limping badly. And I want to just ignore it, though many others cannot. If I am alarmed to see it, and I have lived with it most of my life, what must go through their heads? What went through the head of the middle-aged man in an expensive sports car (and haircut) who stared at my polio foot that one day, without looking at my face, while I walked into the library? While I was waiting for eye contact? I felt like an anomaly, an object, not a human, when he did that.
We are all human and curious. We all have feelings, and we all make mistakes.
What works for me and most handicapped people is for passersby to make eye contact and give a friendly hello. Most of us are fine about being approached respectfully and especially about meeting a curious child. One mother of a child in a wheelchair says she wants children to say hello and exchange names first, so that her son will know the child considers him a peer with interests, and not just interesting because he is abnormal.
Fortunately, we do have the opportunity to eradicate polio. You can start by having friends and relatives support Rotary’s efforts as my husband and I do!
Francine Falk-Allen is author of Not a Poster Child: Living Well with a Disability – a Memoir, She Writes Press, 2018. She and her husband contribute annually to Rotary’s PolioPlus fund.
A good friend of ours, was stricken with polio at age 3. She ended up with a very severe limp in her left leg but did not need a calliper or a walking stick. She drove a car and had several careers, one as a dressmaker. She did not appear to mind if children stared at her deformed leg and indeed went swimming at a local beach. I think it depends on the attitude of the handicapped person as to whether they are affected by peoples reaction to their lame leg. She did not marry or have relationships inspite of being an attractive lady, a result of men only seeing her lame leg rather than her personality
I tweeted your essay—very right-on and a good reminder that kids inquiring minds are not bad and to give an honest answer to them is educational. I’m always amazed at how uninformed and insensitive adults are. To think that a grown woman would say, “Shhh – that woman is a cripple!” These people must never read or aren’t around people who can inform them that their comment is much worse than the child’s inquiring mind.
I heard Supreme Court Justice Sotomoyor speak recently. She has always suffered from diabetes, and if she has to give herself a shot in a washroom, she welcomes a child’s questions as a way to educate them, as opposed to many adults who assume she’s shooting up heroin! Keep on keepin’ on. Great essay!
Thanks, Linda! Have followed Redlined a bit, especially now with the challenges of the black community getting more press. Great to connect with you again.
I guess I need to read your book. I was put off by the title a bit. I was a local MOD poster child.in 1955 in Lancaster County PA.
I am sorry, Jann, that you were put off by the title, and also sorry it took me so long to get back to you! The reason for the title is a whole chapter of the book, but basically, many people would approach me when I was little and say, “I saw your picture on the March of Dimes poster.” That wasn’t true, but it became clear to me, even at age 6, that people did not pay attention to the identifying characteristics of disabled people, they primarily saw that we are disabled, and that was how they identified us, as “the crippled girl,” not as, for instance, “Francine the smart and funny girl.” I was also not always cheery, the way a perfect poster child was expected to be, in order to illicit the feelings of donors, that they would think, “Oh, they’re still happy, even though they have to be so brave.” I was also disappointed that I didn’t get to be a poster girl! So all of those things played into my title. I hope you read my book, and liked it. If so, if you can do a review on Amazon or Goodreads, as a “small” author, that really helps me get the book out there! Best regards, Francine
THANK YOU FOR YOUR KIND WORDS. WE SILL FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT OF FAITH MAY AII THAT IS LEFT BE BLESSED.
i GUESS WE HAVE ABOUT THE SAME STORY HAD POLIO AT 13 MONTH RIGHT LEG SHORT ABOUT 2 IN WEAR A FULL LEG BRACE 82 YEARS WAS SELF EMPLOYED FOR 50-55 YRS
Hi, Robert, Yes, I finally decided to write a book about my experience, which acknowledges the issues many polio survivors faced. Thank you for reading the blog post and responding. Francine Falk-Allen
I KNOW I WAS IN AN IRON LUNG 2 YEARS ONE LEG ALOT BIGGER THEN THE OTHER I WAS MADE FUN OF BULLIED I TRULY UNDERSTAND. PEACE AND BLESSINGS.
Hi, Rev. Dennis, I am sorry you were bullied. I think many handicapped kids have been. There are more tales about this in my book. Although children now face cyber-bullying, I do think that, in person, many handicapped kids are not as poorly treated as they were in the 1940’s and 50’s. There is more awareness now that, especially, having a physical handicap does not mean you are “less than” and also awareness also that we still have great contributions to make. The ADA was helpful in this regard, too! Francine Falk-Allen