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'Without dreams the burden of reality becomes heavy,' writes David Meyers. Read his and others' responses to this article.


Harry Potter and the Allure of Separatism

By Cal Montgomery

photo of Harry Potter actor
J.K. Rowling has tapped into a powerful fantasy that I've used to comfort myself for as long as I can remember. That old separatist fantasy, the one that J.K. Rowling evokes in me at the start of every Harry Potter book, starts to look good. Damn good.

So there's Harry Potter, right? orphaned and ten years old and living with his loathsome relatives the Dursleys. His horrible aunt and uncle spoil his cousin Dudley terribly while Harry makes do with Dudley's castoffs. Dudley has two bedrooms; Harry has none. It sucks; but what are you going to do?

Harry's not one to be rescued by a a slipper-toting prince, but that's okay: he's got destiny on his side.

I'm five books and two movies into Harry Potter's world; and the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which covers the year that Harry is thirteen, is due to be released on June 4.

I probably won't see it until I can turn on the captions and go through slowly, backing up when I'm pretty sure I've missed something. But I do expect to see it. I expect to read and watch this series the whole way through.

Suddenly and out of nowhere, ten-year-old Harry's life changes. A thrilling-looking letter arrives. It comes from someone who knows a lot about Harry: it even includes "The cupboard under the stairs" as part of his address. Uncle Vernon confiscates it, but the correspondent is persistent. Another one comes, and then a few more, and then a flood. Finally Vernon takes the family to hide from the onslaught, but it's no use. An enormous man called Rubeus Hagrid tracks Harry down to give him his letter in person.

And what a letter! Harry, it turns out, is a wizard, and he has been admitted to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, in what Hagrid calls, "our world.... Your world. My world. Yer parents' world."

Like Harry, and probably like every other kid on the planet, I spent a significant amount of my childhood and adolescence not fitting in, knowing damn well I didn't fit in, and fantasizing about a world in which I "really" belonged.

I did not have destiny on my side.

Like Harry, and probably like every disabled person on the planet, I spend a significant amount of my time navigating through a world that is designed for people who are very different from me, and that systematically punishes nonconformity to the nondisabled (or in Harry's case nonmagical) ideal.

There is no secret world in which my particular set of traits is the key to elite status. There are certainly groups and subcommunities in which one or two of my traits are accepted or even valued, but the equivalent of Harry's Hogwarts? No.

That's one of the reasons I'm following Harry's adventures: J.K. Rowling has tapped into a powerful fantasy that I've used to comfort myself for as long as I can remember, and when at the start of each book Harry's summer "vacation" at the Dursleys' ends and he is returned to the wizarding world it feels damn good. Damn good.

What I want, of course, is to make the world better. I see the situation disabled people are in as unjust, not tragic. Created and sustained by society -- which is to say, by all of us -- and therefore potentially changeable. I'm not interested in changing myself into the sort of person society automatically enables; I'm interested in changing society so that it enables all its members.

But the process of making the world better is not an easy one. Even imagining the kind of world you're shooting for is hard to do.

Our society's official ideology that is meritocratic: we teach our children -- disabled and nondisabled, those who will someday be disabled adults and those who will not -- that the way to get ahead is to start with greater ability and then expend greater effort than other people.

Like Harry, and probably like every disabled person on the planet, I spend a significant amount of my time navigating through a world that is designed for people who are very different from me -- one that systematically punishes nonconformity.

Within this system, children who do not get ahead are encouraged to believe that they are incapable or lazy or both, and to believe that because they are incapable or lazy or both they don't deserve to get ahead; and others are encouraged to believe these "facts" about them.

The children who do get ahead are encouraged to believe that they deserve all the good things that happen to them in a way that the rest of them don't.

What, then, are our children expected to believe about the disabled people around them? About themselves as they confront disablement?

What have those of us who are struggling for disability rights come to believe about ourselves and about one another?

It's easy to do what J.K. Rowling does -- the wand shop where Harry Potter buys his wand claims to have been in operation since 382 B.C. -- and claim legitimacy for our imagined worlds on the basis of history. It's an old move. To claim that we aren't pushing for new and untried changes in society, but merely returning to an old and wise, better and more natural, just system.

It would be a return to what, for us, was effectively Eden. A return to the time before schools demanded standardized pupils in order to streamline the mass production of educated minds. A return to the time before jobs demanded standardized workers in order that any gap in the process could be immediately filled by someone who was effectively interchangeable with the last person. A return to the time before our towns and cities became so large and our neighbors so faceless that we didn't have time to know and support one another as individuals. A return to the time before a loving egalitarian population came to accept the injustices that plague us now. A return to the time before we broke with nature and the natural diversity of humankind. A return to the time before the barriers went up.

That time never existed, and even if it had, we couldn't return to it.

Helluva fantasy, helluva myth. But romanticizing the ruins of the old systems cannot help us make things better now. We can learn from the past -- we can learn, especially, that our current systems aren't inevitable, that things didn't used to be like this and that our labor to change them may be rewarded -- and we can use the past. But we cannot recreate it entirely; and, given some of the things that have happened in the past, that's not a bad thing.

So let's make ourselves a new world.

We'll make a world very much like the one we have now, with competition as paramount, but all level-playing-field, with the penalties for irrelevant inabilities removed.

But the re-leveled world pits us against one another: it is in the interest of each of us to take down the barriers just enough to get past and then to erect them again behind us. That way we face as little competition as possible from the rest of the crowd surging behind us. It is in the interest of each of our impairment-specific subgroups to define its own impairments as irrelevant but its own collective strengths as vital.

The process of making the world better is not an easy one. Even imagining the kind of world you're shooting for is hard to do.

And it is in the interest of those people already on the other side of the barriers to fight to keep the playing field from tilting in any direction that gives any of us more of an edge against them unless an equal number of their neighbors is forced back behind the new barriers: so we are pitted not only against one another but also against our natural allies in the struggle for justice. Divide and rule.

Then we'll make a topsy-turvy world, all the-first-will-be-last, in which the natural goodness of the oppressed will be free to do its work.

But the topsy-turvy world is no freer of injustice than the one we have now: it's only that the injustice rains down on different people. The natural goodness of the oppressed is overrated: with power over one's oppressors comes the heady temptation of vengeance, and faith in our own innate goodness can obscure from us the wrongness of our acts even as we commit them.

Then we'll make a community in which everyone is included and the best in humanity is harnessed to everyone's advantage. It'll be our world: everybody's.

Wouldn't that be great?

For years, Harry's been living with a nonmagical family in a nonmagical neighborhood, and he's never even known the magical world exists. So how is the magical world Harry's world? Had his parents survived to raise him, it would certainly have been his world in an easy and obvious sense. But Lily and James Potter did not raise their son. In the Dursleys' home magic is the preserve of freaks, and they've taken steps -- apparent to Harry only in retrospect -- to keep him from the magical community that regards itself as Harry's birthright. In the instant before Hagrid bursts into his life he's never even heard of it.

Consider, for a moment, two very different ways that we can understand community.

One -- let's call it an accumulative understanding -- has to do with who or where an individual is. Is she somewhere in the heap that makes up the community in question?

On this understanding Harry, who possesses magical ability even before he learns at school to use it, is a member of the magical community; on this understanding I have been a lifelong member of the disability community; moreover, I am a member of the community of Chicago because this is where I live.

The other -- let's call it an associative understanding -- has to do with the individual's entanglement with other people in the community. Is he connected -- is he connected enough -- to the other members of the community?

On this understanding Harry's membership in the magical community is at least limited and possibly nonexistent before the letters start coming: members of the magical community know who he is but he does not know them, and even when he has come face to face with a witch or wizard the event has had no significance for Harry. I wouldn't consider myself a member of the Chicago community, given an associative understanding: I am too isolated here. And my membership in the disability community? I can't really tell you when (or, on bad days, whether) I became a member.

When Hagrid tells Harry that Hogwarts is in Harry's world, he might be speaking accumulatively, rephrasing something else he has to say: "Harry -- yer a wizard." Or he might be speaking associatively, announcing that Harry's connection to those people who had known and loved his parents is something that, as he enters the magical world, he can take as a given. It isn't clear; but over the course of the first five books at least (of a projected seven) it becomes clear that the traits that James' and Lily's friends had loved in them can also be found, and loved, in their son.

John McKnight, in his essay "Redefining Community," reports on a visit to a group home -- five men lived there -- that was "physically indistinguishable from the other houses on the street." Community services were on display, and these men were touted as being "the beneficiaries of an effective program of community services."

But when McKnight spoke to the men, he discovered that "they had almost no social relationships with their neighbors or the other citizens of the town. None of them could identify a close local friend or neighbor, and none were involved in any kind of organization, association, or club." And the staff members he asked could only identify "a few shopkeepers" as people with whom the residents had relationships.

"That," says McKnight, "was when I first realized that all of this community language obscured the basic fact that these men were completely isolated from community while surrounded by community services."

McKnight urges us to start thinking of community as "various groups of people who work together on a face-to-face basis in public life, not just in private." Examples that he gives of these groups include formal associations like the American Legion, less formal gatherings like poker clubs, and those that surround places of business like people who gather in bars and barbershops, restaurants and hardware stores. "These three types of associations," he says, "represent the community from which most labeled people are excluded, and into which they need to be included if they are to become active citizens at the associational center of a democratic society."

Something to keep in mind, as long as we're talking about accumulative and associative understandings of community: accumulation is the easy part.

When I'm thinking accumulatively, there are straightforward ways to judge which communities are mine and which aren't. Want to know whether I'm a member of the Chicago community? Look at my zip code. Want to know when I became a member? Look at when I started having my mail forwarded here from my last address. Want to know whether I'm a member of the disability community? Pick a definition for disability and then see whether I meet the criteria. Want know when? Get as clear a history as you can of when certain traits became apparent or when I had certain experiences.

But how much connection do I need with my community to be an associative member? How good does my relationship with you have to be for me us to be associated? How do you even measure how good our relationship is? Do you count which community roles I've filled, or which roles I've had access to that I've declined? How do you figure out which ones I've had access to?

And another thing: membership in an accumulative community appears to precede membership in any associative community that draws from it.

What I mean is that until you get access to the physical spaces within which a social network operates (or until the network moves to a physical space to which you have access), you're unlikely to get meaningful membership in the social network. I'd have a hard time being an associative member of the Chicago community if I were living in Anchorage; I'd have a hard time being a member of a school community if I couldn't get into the classrooms.

Or, for communities like the disability community, if you aren't the right kind of person it doesn't matter whom you know. You're still kind of stuck on the outside. The question of whether you have to be disabled (and just what it means to be disabled), or just "live with" disability, or "live or work with" disability, or to "care about" disabled people in the abstract to be a member of the disability community is tricky and contentious; but it's a big one for people who don't identify as disabled or are not identified by others as disabled, and who want to be counted as members of the disability community.

And a third thing: for a lot of people, once the barriers to the accumulative community are dismantled, that's enough.

Your basic plain-vanilla crip, for example -- which I refer to as a "PVC" -- may be very much like everybody else, once the architecture is fixed. As long as the information isn't on top of the filing cabinet, a PVC may be able to get it and use it just fine. As long as the social opportunities aren't in the elevator-free basement, a PVC may be able to meet and network with people and make friends just fine. (But writers like Colin Barnes have suggested that even PVCs can be socialized into behaviors that make segregation much easier than integration.) Then, too, there's the fact that it seems to make more sense to demand access to a community geographically than interpersonally. We consider it perfectly reasonable to demand that people put up with neighbors and classmates and coworkers that they might not want to include; but don't believe anybody has the right to demand that someone else be their friend.

All of this means that it becomes very tempting to focus on accumulative membership -- to insist that children spend their schooldays in the same classrooms as their neighbors, that disabled adults live in the same kind of housing and in the same neighborhoods as nondisabled adults, that stairs and narrow doorways and other barriers that keep some disabled people out of the spaces used by nondisabled people who are in other respects similar to them be dismantled -- and hope or trust that once we've done that the rest will follow. There's only one problem with that plan: you can't count on it to work. And if you've been fighting like hell just to make it into the accumulative community, designing and implementing a new strategy to move from the accumulative to the associative can look insurmountable.

So what do you do when you no longer believe that getting into an associative community is possible, or when you no longer think the fight is worth it? When you lose faith in the community?

It is in the interest of each of us to take down the barriers just enough to get past and then to erect them again behind us. That way we face as little competition as possible from the rest of the crowd surging behind us.

One option is to separate from the larger community within which your group is disadvantaged, and to form a subcommunity that meets the needs of its members better than the larger community ever did.

And that old separatist fantasy, the one that J.K. Rowling evokes in me at the start of every Harry Potter book, starts to look good. Damn good.

It started in my childhood. I didn't fit the world; the world didn't fit me; and I couldn't see what I could do about any of it. The adults around me weren't interested in changing anything other than me -- I was either unable or unwilling to meet their expectations, and that was either a tragedy or a damn sorry shame, but the world certainly wasn't going to rearrange itself just to indulge one little brat -- and it was just assumed that I would accommodate the world or pay the price.

I paid the price; and went and lay behind the sofa so my mother wouldn't see the thumb in my mouth, dreaming of a small and intimate world in which every mismatch between anyone else and me was resolved in my favor.

Harry's Hogwarts isn't that insipid, but where he has been mistreated by the Dursleys he is suddenly surrounded by admiring children and nurturing adults. Perhaps more significant, at Hogwarts he has power enough to thwart the once-and-future evil tyrant Voldemort once a year. Almost nobody else even dares say Voldemort's name -- they call him You-Know-Who -- and there's Harry and his friends, thwarting Voldemort's various comeback schemes.

I consider myself an activist these days, and a member -- accumulatively at least -- of an activist disability rights community. I know other activists, in person or by reputation, whose work gives me strength.

When an Amtrak employee ran me into a wall hard enough to render my wheelchair inoperative, I spent the next 22 hours thinking of Sharon and Carol from the suburbs and how they've handled similar situations. When I'm sweating over a clump of words that seem determined not to let me express myself, I imagine Mary from Louisville, because I'm sure she'd understand. When I'm tired and frustrated and angry and all I want to do is go home and shut out the world, I remind myself of Charlie from Rochester, quietly waiting out the night and the cold.

The disability rights community gives me strength. Partly by just existing. Partly by direct contact with people who respect what I'm trying to do and who understand why. Partly by the incremental gains that are being made. Partly by the angry resistance to the losses.

But sometimes it's not enough. Some nights I'm tired, I'm discouraged, I'm frustrated, I'm angry, and I'm lonely. Some nights I lie down and retreat into that old separatist fantasy.

It's a little different now. My parents and siblings don't beg my forgiveness any more -- they're not there at all -- and the signage has pictures as well as words. My thumb is firmly outside my mouth and I'm on top of the furniture. But in an important way nothing has changed at all.

Even within the disability community, even within the communities that work on disability rights, various subgroups adopt a strategy of tinkering with meritocracy so that the "right" abilities are rewarded and others treated as irrelevant.

A wheelchair user tells me that public transit does not need to be accessible to autistic people. She says that people should not be denied opportunity on the basis of physical ability, but that those with cognitive impairments should be under 24-hour-a-day supervision and control in special institutions built for us. An autistic tells me that public buildings do not need to be accessible to wheelchair users. She says that people should not be denied opportunity on the basis of cognitive ability, but that those with physical impairments should be under 24-hour-a-day medical care in special institutions built for us. And while we're fighting this one out in the disability communities and in the larger society, known barriers remain in place, barrier removal is treated as a handout and an unfair advantage rather than a just response to entrenched disadvantage, and I indulge in the guilty pleasure of imagining finding a group of like-minded, like-bodied people and seceding from disability rights. Wouldn't be too many of us: we'd be leaving a whole lot of people out. But we'd be the insiders for once, not the outsiders; and wouldn't it be great?

Reading the Harry Potterbooks, I am struck by how everybody knows everybody else, or can at least wangle an introduction. Harry and his friends just happen to run into one important figure after another in the battle of good, evil, and pettiness. Why? The major players all have dealings in one way or another with the elite school Hogwarts and its students.

And that means that Hogwarts student Harry and his friends are close enough to power to be able to participate in momentous events.

But the magical population of Britain is not so small; it only seems that way because the majority of that population is irrelevant to the stories being told. It is obvious that in a community populous enough to support as many professional sports teams and as large a bureaucracy as that one apparently does, the political elites can't be constantly running into everybody or they'd have no time to do anything else.

J.K. Rowling does not treat magical Britain as anything like a paradise. Even if she may be less attuned than some readers to the problems facing squibs (the magic-impaired offspring of witches and wizards who, despite living next door to people who have invented all kinds of conveniences to help get around the inconveniences of not having magic, don't appear to have access to assistive technology), she has depicted the society as one that casually accepts the slavery of house-elves, the persecution of giants, and a host of petty adults to rival any that we can find in the malls of America. And, of course, Voldemort.

The disability rights community gives me strength. Partly by just existing. Partly by direct contact with people who respect what I'm trying to do and who understand why. Partly by the incremental gains that are being made. Partly by the angry resistance to the losses.

But sometimes it's not enough.

But by focusing on the heroic deeds of a group of elite students -- and in particular on Harry Potter, whose arrival at Hogwarts marks an especially large improvement in his quality of life -- and by highlighting some of the advantages of magic over her readers' ways of doing the dishes or getting to the shopping district, Rowling manages to distract us from the question of what magical Britain is like for those who don't make the Hogwarts cut.

Is there widespread injustice? Dissent? Are there movements for radical change that aren't just about being evil? Maybe Rowling and Harry's friend Hermione know, but I don't; and with Rowling's protagonists too busy with homework and averting world catastrophe to join those movements I'm pretty sure I'd rather not know.

Similarly, when I imagine what it would be like if my like-minded, like-bodied friends and I created a separatist haven, I tend not to be thinking about what it would be like to be a personal care attendant or support worker there. Those workers are just in the background somewhere, doing their bit to make my life easier without calling much attention to whether I'm doing my bit for them.

I tend not to be thinking about people whose minds and bodies are just enough unlike mine that we'd need to plan carefully to avoid access conflicts.

I tend not to be thinking about the people, of whom there are a number approximately equal to the population of the world, who have a different idea of what a perfect society would be like. Since I would need some of them to live in my dreamland with me, though, there would have to be some way to either win them to my way of thinking or simply to ensure that they wield no real power. Egalitarianism gets hard when your equals perversely refuse to go along with whatever you want; and if you have the power to suppress dissent it can be tempting to use it.

Those people illuminate the dark underbelly of my fantasy: I don't think about them, and that makes it easier for me to imagine arranging things to their disadvantage.

I'm not a real separatist. I'm not really trying to call up this fantasy and make it real. So it's a bit of a guilty pleasure, the nice simple world in which everything goes well for me, it's not a shameful pleasure. I note my tendency to gloss over the unpleasant details, but in my off-hours I don't exactly fight it.

When playtime is over I get up and I strap my communication device to my body, I strap my body to my wheelchair, and I go back out to struggle in the company of people I sometimes suspect would just as soon not have me beside them. I rejoice in the tiny wins and I resolve to fight harder with every big loss. I do my best to absorb the constant, unthinking grinding down that comes with running headfirst into barriers that could so easily be addressed, but somehow never are. I try to find people who bring out the best in me, and I try to support them at least a little.

Egalitarianism gets hard when your equals perversely refuse to go along with whatever you want.

I get up and I take up my books and computer and try to use language -- still my first, best, tool -- to contribute something to the struggle. I grapple with the complexity of the world. I do my best to understand how changes that would benefit one group of people may harm another, to understand why I think some tradeoffs are worth it. I try to understand other people's positions. I try to make my own clear.

I have too little time with too few friends and colleagues: we don't live near enough to one another, we don't have the time or the money or the stamina or the transportation access to get together, we hit access conflicts when we try to talk and type to one another, we're just overwhelmed.

But we do our best -- and when our best isn't good enough and the crushing isolation is more than I can bear, I lie back and imagine a world in which I am surrounded by people who love me and none of us has to struggle. Even if it's a ridiculous world. Even if it is so patently unjust that it would be a crime ever to realize it. Even if I don't believe that there will ever, that there can ever, be a world in which people don't have to struggle to make things better.

Because I'm not four years old any more, hiding and thumbsucking. I'm not powerless any more even if sometimes it seems that I am. And the feeling that I get when I drop into that insipid fantasy is like the feeling that I get when I can finally spend a couple of hours with a couple of friends, talking about everyday frustrations and absurdities: it'll soothe me for awhile and then it'll motivate me to get back up and try again.

And that's why one of these days when I'm tired and sore I'm going to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Posted June 3, 2004.

Cal Montgomery lives in Chicago and writes regularly for Ragged Edge. Her last article was 'This Precious Cause': Medical Marijuana and Disability Rights.

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Click to tell us.

Readers respond . . .

This is an emotionally honest and thought-provoking article. Without dreams the burden of reality becomes heavy. Thank you for reminding me of the value of community in terms of justice and fantasy.

-- David Meyers, Takoma Park, MD

Cal Montgomery raises some interesting questions about where people really fit. When I was going to the school for the blind during my junior year of high school, I first heard the saying "the partially sighted are the kings in the blind world." I could see this right away: things were in my favor, being able to perceive a three-diminsional world with depth, as opposed to a two diminsional world and complete forced trust in others for vital information. I went to public schools all my life, except for that one year. Since there were no other partial sighted students in my town, I had no reference group.

-- Claudia Criss, Juneau, AK

The concept of meritocracy is so deeply ingrained in the United States that the dream of equality being advocated in the article is unlikely to become a reality.

I recently got an advertisement from a graduate school. It says that I'd better get a graduate degree because more people are getting Bachelor's degrees. Did jobs become more advanced? Or is this just another arbitrary barrier -- a way of playing musical chairs with the limited number of opportunities now available in this country?

In a truly democratic economy, the job market would fit the population. The qualifications for jobs would be what are actually required to do the jobs, not simply a way to raise qualifications to winnow down applicants from the many to the few, and then make them contort to fit the job. Education would be transformed from a system of competition for jobs to a system of truly preparing people for jobs that would fit them.

-- Michael Warner II, Pasadena, CA

Most people are mediocre. The top 10 percent or the top 30 percent are, by the definition of those cookie-cutter tests, just that: "above average." Except in Lake Woebegon, the rest of us in the population are average or below average. But the nondisabled average have jobs and access.

That is the lie of meritocracy; it does not tell you to strive for "average" -- even though being average is not all that bad a goal.

Having a severe disability requires so much effort, so much work, that even an "average" person is required to strive as though aiming for the best, just to survive.

We get tired, too.

-- John Jay Frank, Mississippi State University

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