He's one of my prized possessions. Sitting by my desk for years, I sometimes forget he's there. But he is. I noticed him this morning. The case is about 3 X 4 inches and you can tell by looking at it that it's old. The cover is some kind of faux leather and it's finely and minutely detailed. Opening it by pulling two tiny hooks through eyelets, like clasps on a locket, one sees a soft red velvet pad decorated with a floral design and on the other side an elaborate gold frame that holds a daguerrotype which is an early form of photography. To see the picture it is necessary to get the light to hit it just right, other than that all you see is a silver hue.
The boy in the picture is probably about 4 years old. He sits in a wheelchair with his hands resting comfortably in his lap. His shirt is severe, buttoned right up to the neck where a white ruffled collar peeks out. He looks at the camera gravely but confidently. This is a rich kid. This is a loved kid. This is a disabled kid. His wheelchair fair gleams as if it was polished just before the shot was taken. The photo and it's elaborate frame and the case must have cost a small fortune at the time. I found it on ebay a few years ago when I was collecting antique photographs of disabled children. I gave up collecting when someone at a conference stole the whole collection out of my briefcase, that act disheartened me. They didn't get this one because I never carried it with me.
But here it is. I like to look at this kid because he, in his small way, gives me tremendous hope. Someone who knows the history of photographs would have to tell me when daguerrotypes were made, but it was generations ago. You hear only about how kids with disabilities from the distant past were hidden away, denied, institutionalized, brutalized even murdered. But here is evidence that the human heart did not learn to love with the 60's generation. Here is evidence that disability didn't always, for everyone, equate shame.
I love what this kid represents. He represents the idea that love and hope have always been eternally present for people with disabilities. That no matter how harsh the prevaling attitude there will always be someone somewhere with their heart intact. It means that we belong to a long heritage of caring - a long heritage of hoping and a long heritage of remembering.
I'd love to show it to everyone reading this but all I can do is describe what it is that I hope and tell you why I find it dear. Funny, I'm glancing around my office now. Right above my computer is a photograph taken by a man with Down Syndrome, a painting of an ocean scene done by a leader of self advocacy in northern California sits on the opposite wall, a box made by client artisans from the Tri-Town and District Association for Community Living sits on my desk beside a huge statue of Edward Sissorhands, a photograph of my beloved dog - Eric sits like a guide dog beside an autographed photo of Helen Keller, and then there are the usual pile of discs and papers and staplers and pens. I like being surrounded by these things - they give me pause in my day to just reflect on history, art, creativity and possibility.
But it's this picture, and the mystery it holds, that grips me most. Who was he, and how was it that this picture was taken? My whimsical side thinks that this picture was taken in the past to give the future a shake, tell us that we aren't so special and to get on with providing what this kid got.
So, lets do just that.