Dorothy Ellen Palmer is disabled, but don’t call her new book inspiration porn

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is disabled, but don’t call her new book inspiration porn
Dorothy Ellen Palmer started her Christmas shopping early, but not to take advantage of Black Friday sales. She knows that once the snow starts falling, she can’t manoeuvre her walker through tight sidewalks caked with salt, ice and other wintery debris.

The Burlington novelist relies on her car for mobility, but even so she must confirm there is parking nearby or that when she arrives at a store she’ll physically be able to enter. Palmer often calls ahead, and then follows up with more research. It’s the same process she goes through whenever she’s invited to a book launch or a writers’ festival.

“I turn into Sherlock Holmes,” says Palmer, 64. “Just because they say something is accessible, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is. A lot of people who are abled don’t see steps, don’t really recognize they’re there.”

Navigating barriers that others ignore proves both a physical and metaphorical reality in Palmer’s new memoir, “Falling for Myself” (published by Hamilton indie publisher Wolsak & Wynn), a call to arms for disabled and seniors’ rights told through the intimate details of a woman’s life. With dry wit and direct language, Palmer recalls deep traumas and joys, motherhood, political awakenings, career successes, a fury-inducing marital betrayal and a parental reunion, while offering a first-hand perspective on the effects of institutionalized ableism.

“Falling for Myself” as a title is not meant to be inspirational, but it does serve a double purpose. It refers to a succession of skinned, bloody knees and constant tumbles, but also to a woman finding her place in the world as an activist, passionately advocating for others like herself.

Born in 1955, adopted at three years old, Palmer grew up like so many women of her generation, instructed that good girls don’t get angry, that pretty pink dresses are their uniforms. “My mother really tried to make me into a nice girl, and she pretty much succeeded. I was much less feisty through my growing-up years,” says Palmer.

While she couldn’t disguise her diminutive height, Palmer tried to hide her constant companions: her finely boned, size 2.5 left foot, dubbed Herkimer — “her nattering C-3P0” — and Horatio, her fatter right foot enlisted in the role of “martyred workhorse.” She spent years in what she refers to as the disability closet, trying to mask not just her body, but her anger and pain.

As Palmer’s activist voice began to rise at the University of Western Ontario, so did the height of her platform shoes. The unisex fashions of the early 1970s suited her body and her growing confidence. After moving to Vancouver with her first husband, Palmer found a family of feminist activists that included journalist Judy Rebick, novelist Linda Grant and artist Sara Diamond, now president of OCAD University. But it was years later, after retiring as a high school drama teacher and an active union representative, that Palmer realized she had spent her life fighting for causes that didn’t include her own body.

“It wasn’t until I started doing disability activism that I really understood that disability justice unites all of those things,” she says. “I realized, ‘Hey, it’s now or never. I might as well say exactly what I think.”

And that is exactly what Palmer does on Twitter, where she connects with disability activists around the world. “I want to feel that I’m doing a good job breaking out of the bubble of disabled people only talking to each other, but bringing it into the larger world.”

“It puts you in the crosshairs of a lot of people,” says Palmer, who learned as a union rep fighting on the picket line that “politeness doesn’t serve anybody except those who don’t want change.”

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Palmer is careful to point out that “Falling for Myself” only sheds light on a small part of accessibility. With an estimated 23 per cent of the population identified as having a disability, this is only one story among millions. It may be raw and unapologetic, but it’s all hers.

“I spent a lot of days in tears and worrying if I really wanted to expose that much of my story. But in the end I really did come to the conclusion that it was the secrets that have hurt me,” Palmer says. “Once I set the secrets free, I was setting myself free of the secrets. Once no longer a secret, it no longer had power over me.”
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