Monday, June 14, 2010

Reflections: I Raise My Eyes To Say Yes

Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy when she was a toddler. Since that tender age, all she could muster with her body consisted of three things - she could raise her eyes to say "yes", frown and crumple her lips to say "no", and do both the actions in quick succession to indicate "maybe". As Ruth's family grew and finances became tight, her parents were confronted with the tough choice of sending her away to a residential school. However, when her parents entered her into a State Infirmary for the physically and mentally challenged, little did they know how much their ignorance and stoicism resulted in the sacrifice of Ruth's emotional growth and physical development. Ruth was unfairly categorized as being mentally retarded because of her extremely limited expression of intelligence and comprehension. It is ridiculous and highly atrocious that she was made to go through IQ tests, when she was given no tool or support to communicate her answers. She was shuttled between wards housing mentally unstable patients, where she was made to lie on her back all day long, was stuffed with unpalatable food through a watering can, and was left to stare at nothingness all day long, every day, for years together. In short, she was treated like a vegetable which was kept alive and breathing. If there is any other form of cruel punishment to surpass solitary confinement, this would be it. A young girl with an intelligent and curious mind, shackled in a useless body, torn away from friends and family, made to stare at the same things and hear the same disturbing noises, would have lost her sanity. But not Ruth. She braved the ordeal for thirteen years, with her sanity intact, her thoughts lucid, her ambitions high. With the help of many empathetic friends, she eventually moved out of the Infirmary and started a new life in her own apartment. She also undertook the project of putting her story and her thoughts into words. Through communication devices and sophisticated alphabet boards, her thoughts were painstakingly conveyed, and her story has been meticulously written as a book, by Steven Kaplan.

Ruth's story is not just the run of the mill heart-breaking, inspirational memoir. It is a person's plea for recognition as a human being. The book steers away from self-pity, and it doesn't weigh down with emotional intensity. It is a realistic, honest narration of a severely disabled woman with an incredibly robust mind, and an even greater will power. I can't even begin to imagine how anyone could preserve their sanity when subjected to the circumstances that Ruth went through. Not only did this woman, who was branded as useless and mentally retarded, brave the tragic circumstances with a healthy spirit, she also developed a wonderful personality through the whole experience! She never ever gave up trying to assert herself as a person who deserved basic respect. She was astute and intelligent to adapt what little gestures and vocal abilities she had to communicate and let her thoughts be known. When she was introduced to technology which could expand her vocabulary, she worked herself to the bone to somehow use words other than "yes", "no" and "maybe" to express her self. This whole book yet again painfully explicates how priceless words are to establish ourselves as normal, competent individuals. Communication and expression are fundamental to human beings, for we are social animals.

Ruth was "helped" to survive, if survival means just staying alive. But she rebelled for something even more basic - dignity and acceptance. Her life serves as a lesson for bettering the treatment of the physically challenged.

It is a sad realization that even those who aren't limited by any physical challenges face a jungle everyday, that it seems almost unrealistic to expect constant empathy and perfect consideration towards those who unfortunately can't contribute much to society. Ruth's hurt and frustration can be put off as denial to face reality. But with the advent of technology, physical limitations can be erased, skills can be virtually augmented, and the horizon of opportunities through which people like Ruth can contribute to society can be widened. Yet, it still requires empathy, patience and a consideration of these people as fellow human beings to be able to execute these ideals. Ruth's story will demand all of these.


Sanjini said...

Since you are an avid reader..wanted to recommend a few books
- Unicorn Expedition by Satyajit Ray
- Discovery of India - Nehru.

Neeraja said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I have read parts of Discovery of India, but didn't know Satyajit Ray had written books! Will surely try to read it.