Making of a disabilities rights activist

From the July-August 2016 issue of News & Letters

Berkeley, Calif.—On March 7, I attended a talk by a daughter/mother team, Becky and Dena Taylor, who introduced their book, Tell Me the Number Before Infinity (Many Names Press, 2016). Becky was born very premature in 1972, with a doctor telling Dena that if Becky lived she would probably be “blind, deaf and retarded.” Becky had cerebral palsy and developed very differently than other children.

From the perspective of both mother and daughter, we get a view of the travails of raising a child and growing up as that child while being pioneers in standing up to a conscious and unconscious cruelty inflicted on those who are different. Becky grew up in a loving, protective family, including her younger sister Anna, but the experience in the outer world made her wonder if “being teased and feeling lonely were normal.”

Becky was one of the first to be mainstreamed in public school under a California law that required publicly funded schools to integrate disabled children. There were serious challenges and difficulties at every step, all the way to getting a degree in computer science at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

This, however, is not a tale of woe, but rather of a person whose open optimism was nurtured by her family. Early on Becky was appreciated for her innate talents, which are considerable, especially with respect to mathematics. This intelligent, sensitive person turned outward, learning how best to deal with a body and slowness to communicate that often made others uncomfortable. It took a while for her precociousness in math, an ability to do very complicated problems in her head, to show through to her teachers because for Becky the “hardest part is saying the answer out loud.”

While Becky’s life is not defined by her disability, she is now a disability rights activist, sitting on a local disability access committee, and joining the group Women Independently Living with Disabilities (WILD), which fights for the rights of those with disabilities. The book is part of Becky’s openness to the world and an attempt to break down barriers that often keep people isolated instead of appreciating our mutual humanity. Rather than wishing she had a different life, Becky feels comfortable being who she is and wouldn’t change anything. As she put it: “I think the outsider perspective is very important in a homogenizing society.”

Investigating what is specifically human, Karl Marx—contrary to the prevailing view, in which physical differences often play such a dominating role—found that what is human is specifically what we make of those differences. Do we relate to the other as a self-determining free agent? To me, Becky’s message is that we know how human we are by how much the importance of that “outsider perspective” becomes internalized, so that being different does not mean you are an outsider.

—Ron Kelch

2 thoughts on “Making of a disabilities rights activist

  1. Ron, I know Becky and Dena, her mother. I worked with Becky at UCSC and she was a very smart student and wonderful caring spirit. Great review of their book.

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