Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast About Disability

Episode 38: One of the Wonders

May 09, 2022 Laura Stinson Season 2 Episode 15
Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast About Disability
Episode 38: One of the Wonders
Show Notes Transcript

Do you have a theme song? A song you want to play in the movie of your life? Today I'm talking about mine!

Listen to "Wonder":


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[rock guitar music]

MALE VO [00:03]
This is Bad Attitudes.

[rock guitar music]

LAURA [00:20]

Hello friends and strangers! Welcome to another episode of Bad Attitudes: An Uninspiring Podcast about Disability. I’m your host, Laura.

Today, we’re talking about my theme song. Because it’s my podcast and I do what I want.

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As always, I want to remind you that disability is not a monolith. My experience as a disabled person is going to be different from the experiences of other disabled people. I am one voice for the disabled community but I am not the only voice.

Theme songs. I think we all have one. That one song that we relate to just a little bit more than others. There are plenty of songs out there where I’ve thought, “It’s describing my life!” but none more so than “Wonder” by Natalie Merchant. 

“Wonder” was released in the early to mid-nineties, right around the time I was in ninth or tenth grade. I don’t remember the exact first time I heard it, but when I did, I immediately claimed it as my own. It seemed to perfectly encapsulate my experience as a disabled child and teenager, and now as an adult. I think I may even get one of the lines as my next tattoo.

It’s a poignant song for anyone who is disabled, but I didn’t realize until much, much, MUCH later that Merchant actually wrote it about people with disabilities. I’m going to read an excerpt from the website, which is quoting Merchant herself from her appearance on VH1 Storytellers. Note that in the case of what I’m reading, I’m using the word disabled instead of some less desirable language used at the time.

Quote: “When I was 13 years old, we’re talking 1976, I spent my summer working as a volunteer for a bunch of hippies, basically, that got a seed grant from the Carter administration, which had a lot of really wonderful programs for the arts. These people started a day camp for [disabled] children, and I worked for them the whole summer. A lot of these children were institutionalized —  their parents had left the scene a long time ago.

“From an early age, I had that contact with children who had [disabilities]. I had lost my fear of intimacy with them — especially with Down syndrome kids, they could be really unpredictable and up to that point I had been a little frightened of them. I maintained some of the friendships with those kids and I was always open to meeting children with [disabilities]. So when I wrote the song ‘Wonder,’ I wrote the song about a woman who was born with [disabilities] that seemed insurmountable, but she did overcome them, greatly because she had a loving family, especially her adoptive mother.

“I’ve met a lot of people through this song, and they’ve told me they’ve taken it on as their song, that it describes them….It describes their strengths in spite of what others would see as deficiencies.” End quote.

First, I want to say that I appreciate that Merchant admits to a fear of disabled people. Most non-disabled people do fear disabled people and disability but won’t admit it because it seems like a weakness to be afraid of such a thing. But we all fear the unknown. And clearly, working with and getting to know these kids helped Merchant overcome her fear to the extent that she was open to meeting other disabled people over the course of her career. If instead of giving in to that fear of disability, non-disabled people took a moment to get to know someone disabled — or maybe listened to a podcast hosted by someone disabled, hint hint, nudge nudge — they would probably get over their fear, too.

Now, I’m going to sort of walk you through “Wonder”. I’ll play some clips for you and explain how they relate to me and why I feel so entangled with this song. I’ll also leave a link to the song in its entirety in the episode description.

🎶 Doctors have come from distant cities, just to see me/Stand over my bed disbelieving what they’re seeing

When I was very young, like three years old or so, my orthopedist used me in a presentation at a medical conference. I have no memory of this event, nor do I even know what really went on, only that it happened.

There was also more than one occasion when I was used as a teaching tool. I don’t recall what was said, but I definitely recall occasions where multiple, young doctors were standing over me, listening to my doctor. 

🎶 Newspapers ask such intimate questions, they want confessions/Reach into my head/They try to steal the glory of my story

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but when I was around 12, a friend of mine who was paralyzed and I started going around to the younger kids in our elementary school, talking about what it’s like to be disabled. Thanks to the promotional efforts of my mom, we were written up in the local paper. I don’t remember the reporter asking super intimate questions, but it’s an intimate experience nonetheless. Being interviewed is weird. I’ve done it a couple of times since, and it never stops being weird. Especially if you’re not that interested in being the center of attention.

This next bit might be my favorite.

🎶 People see me/I’m a challenge to your balance/Well, I’m over your heads/How I confound you and astound you, too

I’m a challenge to your balance. If that does not sum up the disabled experience, I don’t know what will. My existence challenges everything non-disabled people think they know about the world. In a way, I understand it. When you grow up only knowing what it means to be, quote, “normal,” encountering something or someone who challenges that is extremely upsetting. Human beings don’t like having our status quo rocked. It’s why there is so much pushback to Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement. Acknowledging the foundational racism and sexism and ableism built into our system shakes up everything we have ever known. People don’t like change, even when that change is good and necessary.

I have also been known to be pretty confounding and astounding. The expectations people have for those of us with disabilities are SO LOW. It’s why inspiration porn exists. They expect so little of us, that to not expect just a smidge more of themselves would be unthinkable. Many times I have subverted people’s low expectations of me. They don’t expect me to be smart. They don’t expect me to be talented or eloquent or opinionated or to challenge them. I think people are most surprised when I talk back. Not in the sense of speaking in response to them, but in the sassy sense. When I talk back. When I put them in their place. When I call out their ableism. So many non-disabled people expect disabled people to accept whatever pittance they are doling out, and I just won’t.

🎶 I believe Fate smiled at Destiny/Laughed as she came to my cradle/Know this child will be able/Laughed as my body she lifted/Know this child will be gifted/Laughed as she came to my mother/Know this child will not suffer/With love and with patience and with faith/She’ll make her way

I love the imagery of Fate and Destiny standing over me and smirking conspiratorially at each other like, “Oh, the world has no idea what we are about to unleash.” And then laughing about it. It gives me such wonderful, powerful vibes.

The line I’m thinking about getting tattooed is the last line, “She’ll make her way.” It’s a great summation of the idea of the song. Whatever it is, whatever it looks like, I’ll make my way in this world. No one is going to stop me. You (non-disabled society) might think that I can’t, that I don’t have the ability or the necessary qualities, but you’re wrong. I’ve been gifted with love, with patience (okay, that’s debatable), and with FAITH. In myself. It was hard won, but it’s there. I know what I’m capable of, even if you don’t. I know what I can do, even if you don’t. But you will. And soon.

And let’s not ignore the refrain: “I must be one of the wonders, God’s own creation.” So many people who ascribe to a monotheistic religion like Christianity consider disability an anathema to God’s plan. (Go way back and check out episode 8 for more on THAT.) But if you believe that God does everything for a reason, and that God is the creator of all things and all people, AND if you believe that God doesn’t make mistakes, you have to accept that all of that ALSO applies to disability. God made me the way I am and it wasn’t an accident or a punishment. It has a purpose, and you thinking disability doesn’t fit in with YOUR vision of God’s plan is a YOU problem.

I love this song so much. When they make a movie about me — you know, after I’m all famous and powerful and shit — this is the one song that I insist be in the score.

What do you think of “Wonder”? Do you have a theme song? Be sure to tell me. I think theme songs give us a lot of insight into a person.

If you’re interested in learning more about disability and other marginalized groups, I’d like to suggest the podcast out_cast. Out_cast is a podcast about being multiply marginalized, specifically about queerness, disability, neurodivergence, mental health, and sometimes other stuff. That’s out underscore cast, available wherever you listen to podcasts. Let me know if you listen and tell me what you think.

Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you in the next one.

[rock guitar music]