drawing of woman

A woman I named 'Fliptop'

By Adrienne Rubin Barhydt

Adrienne Rubin Barhydt is a freelance writer.


They told me that she came on the ARC bus. I thought they were mistaken. She did not seem retarded to me. Her personality was, well, strange. Her questions were kind of different, but as a reference librarian in 1975, I had been taught not to be judgmental about what people asked.

The only questions we were to avoid were contest questions. At least we got the part about not judging questions right.

I gave her a new label since I had decided she was not a "retard" after all.

I called her "Fliptop." She wore sunglasses that clipped on over her regular glasses and could be flipped up above them when not needed. Something about the way she was insistent on getting her questions answered to her satisfaction bothered me. It is hard to explain why now but I would try to disappear when I saw her coming.

Her questions began with nuclear radiation. She was familiar with some technical terminology, not what I, with my lack of knowledge of mental retardation, expected a retarded person to know. Over time she moved on to an interest in the military, especially ranks and uniforms.

Her visits to the library spanned several years. The last time I saw her before I left that job, she asked questions about libraries. I showed her an encyclopedia article that happened to have a picture of the card catalog at the Library of Congress. I had visited there recently and was impressed by that catalog. I explained how it took up an entire room and compared it to our catalog for a library with perhaps 250,000 books.

Something changed in that moment. Without intending to I spoke to her as a person, not someone "different" and she knew it immediately. Instantly the relationship was altered. We both relaxed. She asked my name. She began to explain what she had been working on for several years. She was planning how to have a library survive through a nuclear disaster. She envisioned the staff using a ranking system and uniforms based on the military.

I wish I could say that I had learned something about disability in that moment but I was still caught in the stereotypes, still looking for a label for a person who was "different". In all honesty, what I decided was that she was a former librarian who had "cracked up," "gone nuts," "wacko," "off the deep end". I gave her a new label since I had decided she was not a "retard" after all.

I feel sad as I write this. It has taken me such a long time to learn about labeling and about disability. The attitudes toward disability are so deeply engrained in our society, even in people who care about others, that it took becoming seriously disabled for me to "get it." We must do better.

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