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Home Bound, by Cass Irvin. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. 223 pages. Softbound. $19.95.


Trials and triumphs in plain view

By Barbara J. McKee

Cass Irvin contracted polio near the end of the polio epidemic. The vaccine came too late for her. The tumors that invaded my body resulting in paraplegia in 1975 were no longer a threat for spina bifida kids two years later. So she and I have something in common: we understand the irony of modern medicine.

'One hopes there's more to come'

Commentary by C. Davis Rodgers.

Cass Irvin and I have been friends for decades, so I came to her work from the inside, as it were. I observed her determination to produce Home Bound, and know most of the characters and events it commemorates. Yet I found it riveting, amazed at the fresh insights I was receiving, from a woman I've known so well, about a minority group still too often unrecognized and unheard. Their issues have defined Cass's life and career.

The book is attractive --just over 200 pages of sturdy paper, with apt, footnoted quotations beginning the five chapters. (Typographical errors are an occasional distraction--shame on Temple's editors!) The plain, elegant cover shows in closeup a doorknob lever, evoking both the shutting-in and opening-out themes that permeate this memoir. The ambiguous title summarizes the narrative: the author's youth bound to her bedroom; her gradual breaking out, finding a life, and then returning to the family home a full person completes a cycle. It's a compelling, often exciting read.

The style--the voice--is consistently spunky, intelligent, clever, self-effacing, and colloquial, like a chat with the author over a teapot. She has an unerring knack for saying much in few words, examining with unflinching candor her own natural timidity and the peculiar kind of cultural brainwashing a patronizing, intimidating environment fosters, all of which made her journey to liberated fulfillment so arduous.

That environment was, first of all, her comfortably middle-class, affluent family--practical, educated, inspiring, but flawed, in ways that sometimes compromised any hope for a useful future. The culture was Louisville and the South at mid-century--conservative, racially segregated, and totally inaccessible

Long stays at the Warm Springs (Ga.) Institute (a beloved second home), her early hero worship of Franklin Roosevelt and, later, the leaders of the Civil Rights and Womens' movements, led to activism--or, as she put it in a chapter title in typically wry third person, "the radicalization of Cass." Living on her own through personal-care attendants, she joined fledgling activist groups around town. Serving on various boards of directors, she learned the ropes, often through trial and error, of how to demand and get basic accommodations, like curb cuts and ramps for public buildings. It's a story of protest marches, meetings with public officials, and showdowns with stubborn opponents. a fine social history of issues that have defined our times.

Yet there is no self-congratulatory tone here, no heroics. The unstated message is modest: "If I could do it, anyone can." Throughout, there is a touching compassion for human frailty, for society as a whole as it gropes toward full acceptance of everyone. Its brevity leaves a sense of much left untold. One hopes there's more to come.

C. Davis Rodgers is a Professor of Humanities at Jefferson Community College in Louisville, KY.

Irvin's book, Home Bound: Growing Up with a Disability In America, is like no other disability book I've ever read. From the very first chapter, I was able to relate to her upbringing in a family where the father worked hard, didn't believe in handouts, and did all he could to keep his beloved child out of a nursing home. Ignoring both physicians and intellectuals who said life would be better if their daugher were institutionalized, Irvin's parents, like mine, didn't look at her as a burden. She was their child, their responsibility, and they loved her.

During her childhood, Irvin spent weeks at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Georgia, a disability haven for people with polio founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1930. In a world of stairs and narrow doorways, this accessible oasis was a both a refuge and a torture chamber for her, a place to be poked, prodded, looked over and talked about as if she were a lab specimen, but also a place with no worries of being taunted or teased, a place where she could find ways to make her life a bit more digestible.

Irvin doesn't start out as a disability activist -- she stumbles into it, meeting the pioneers of disability advocacy who happen to cross her path while attending college. All her trials and triumphs are in plain view: counselors discouraging her ambitions; a mother who couldn't cope with a high-level disability; boyfriends who eventually became personal care assistants and more. Irvin's book spells out what it was like to fight for accessibility when there was none. Setting aside her fear, she plunged ahead, unaware of the obstacles that would litter her path.

The book is candid, sustaining the reader's interest with the little details that make up the cornerstones of disability acculturation.. Irvin slowly gets down to the dirty drama, stripping away emotions once kept in check. She admits she never liked asking for help, and admits accepting being put to bed for hours, sometimes all day, for the convenience of others. Her compliance was the norm for many [of us for ] generations. Her book shows how silence can turn into a jail of one's own making. We watch as Irvin fights to find the key of release.

Ironically, it takes her father's own illness to get him to realize just how difficult her life was. Her father was much like mine -- giving her opportunities rather than public displays of affection. . It is a poignant moment when he finally acknowledges that she had done much more to be independent than he gave her credit for.

There are no charts, graphs or statistics in Home Bound -- it is a like a novel in every sense. Irvin wrote a book that looks straight at us through the eyes of living disabled, and rarely blinks.

Posted Feb. 16, 2004

Barbara J. McKee, a wheelchair user, is a disability activist and weekly columnist for the Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach her at chairgrrl@chairgrrl.com

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