International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Stories of Self-Discovery and Transformation

December 3, 2016 | Winona

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International Day of Persons with Disabilities is celebrated around the world every year on December 3rd. This year, International Day of Persons with Disabilities coincides with the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention is designed to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and freedoms by all people with disabilities, and to promote their inherent dignity. 

IDPD logo - multicoloured circle with the words International Day Persons with Disabilities 3 December

According to the World Health Organization, at least 10% of the world's population, about 650 million people, live with some form of disability. Here in Canada the most recent statistics indicate that 3.8 million adults ages 15 to 64 self-identify as disabled. That's almost 1 in 10 of us. 

Photograph of boy, Scott Connor, smiling and holding a toy truck with his prosthetic arm  Photograph of Scott Conner as a young man, seated, smiling at the camera, with his mother Sandi standing on one side of him and brother Adam on the other

Left: Scott Conner in 1985, age 7. Right: Scott Connor in 1995, age 17, with his mother and brother. Scott lost his right arm at the Metro Zoo. You can read his story in newspaper articles from the time in the online Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive or in microfilm at the Library's Toronto Star Newspaper Centre.
Photographs courtesy Toronto Star Archives. 


In celebration of International Day of Persons with Disabilities, here is a selection of memoirs by people whose life experiences inspire me and make me think about what I can do to help remove barriers to inclusion, promote accessibility and equity, and work towards transformative change, in some way, on this day and every day.

Book cover for Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison shows a close-up photograph of a boy with his eyes closed tight and his lips pressed tightly together

Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison

Alternative formats: Audiobook | eAudiobook | eBook | Large Print | Talking Book CD (restricted to print disabled patrons)

Ever since he was young, John Robison longed to connect with other people, but by the time he was a teenager, his odd habits — an inclination to blurt out non sequiturs, avoid eye contact, dismantle radios and dig five-foot holes (and stick his younger brother, Augusten Burroughs, in them) — had earned him the label “social deviant.” It was not until he was 40 that he was diagnosed with a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome. That understanding transformed the way he saw himself — and the world. A born storyteller, Robison has written a moving, darkly funny memoir about a life that has taken him from developing exploding guitars for KISS to building a family of his own. It’s a strange, sly, indelible account — sometimes alien yet always deeply human. (Publisher's Description.)

Read an excerpt on the publisher's website.


Book cover of Mean Little Deaf Queer shows a photo of a young child standing on a patch of grass in a dirt field, with houses in the distance, wearing a cowboy hat and boots and holding a guitar

Mean Little Deaf Queer: A Memoir by Terry Galloway

In 1959, the year Terry Galloway turned nine, the voices of everyone she loved began to disappear. No one yet knew that an experimental antibiotic given to her mother had wreaked havoc on her fetal nervous system, eventually causing her to go deaf. As a self-proclaimed "child freak," she acted out her fury with her boxy hearing aids and Coke-bottle glasses by faking her own drowning at a camp for crippled children. Ever since that first real-life performance, Galloway has used theatre, whether onstage or off, to defy and transcend her reality. With disarming candour, she writes about her mental breakdowns, her queer identity and living in a silent, quirky world populated by unforgettable characters. What could have been a bitter litany of complaints is instead an unexpectedly hilarious and affecting take on life. (Publisher's description.)

Read an excerpt on the publisher's website.


Book cover for Mermaid by Eileen Cronin shows a photograph of a young woman on a beach looking over her sunglasses at the viewer

Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience by Eileen Cronin

Alternative format: eBook

At the age of three, Eileen Cronin first realized that only she did not have legs. Her boisterous Catholic family accepted her situation as “God’s will,” treating her no differently than her ten siblings, as she “squiddled” through their 1960s Cincinnati home. But starting school, even wearing prosthetics, Cronin had to brave bullying and embarrassing questions. Thanks to her older brother’s coaching, she handled a classmate’s playground taunts with a smack from her lunchbox. As a teen, thrilled when boys asked her out, she was confused about what sexuality meant for her. She felt most comfortable and happiest relaxing and skinny dipping with her girlfriends, imagining herself “an elusive mermaid.” The cause of her disability remained taboo, however, even as she looked toward the future and the possibility of her own family.

In later years, as her mother battled mental illness and denied having taken the drug thalidomide — known to cause birth defects — Cronin felt apart from her family. After the death of a close brother, she turned to alcohol. Eventually, however, she found the strength to set out on her own, volunteering at hospitals and earning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

Reflecting with humour and grace on her youth, search for love and quest for answers, Cronin spins a shimmering story of self-discovery and transformation. (Publisher's description.)

Read an excerpt on The Daily Beast website.


Book cover for Nujeen by Nujeen Mustafa shows a young woman looking at the viewer and smiling

Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey from War-torn Syria in a Wheelchair by Nujeen Mustafa (with Christina Lamb)

Alternative formats: eAudiobook | eBook

Confined to a wheelchair because of her cerebral palsy and denied formal schooling in Syria because of her illness, Nujeen taught herself English by watching American soap operas. When her small town became the epicenter of the brutal fight between ISIS militants and US-backed Kurdish troops in 2014, she and her family were forced to flee.

Despite her physical limitations, Nujeen embarked on the arduous trek to safety and a new life. The grueling 16-month odyssey by foot, boat and bus took her across Turkey and the Mediterranean to Greece, through Macedonia to Serbia and Hungary, and finally, to Germany. Yet, in spite of the tremendous physical hardship she endured, Nujeen's extraordinary optimism never wavered. Refusing to give in to despair or see herself as a passive victim, she kept her head high. As she told a BBC reporter, "You should fight to get what you want in this world."

Nujeen's positivity and resolve infuses this unforgettable story of one young woman determined to make a better life for herself. Told by acclaimed British foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, Nujeen is a unique and powerful memoir that gives voice to the Syrian refugee crisis, helping us to understand that the world must change — and offering the inspiration to make that change reality. (Publisher's description.)

Read an excerpt on the Overdrive eBook platform.


Book cover for The Point of Vanishing by Howard Axelrod shows a black and white photo of one eye with the rest of the face obscured by white tree branches and three large orange and yellow dots

The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod

Alternative format: eBook

After losing vision in one eye during his senior year at Harvard, Howard Axelrod found himself in a world where nothing was solid, where the smooth veneer of reality had been shattered, and where the distance between how people saw him and how he saw himself had widened into a gulf. Five years later, heartbroken from a love affair in Italy and desperate for a sense of orientation, Axelrod retreated to a small house in the Vermont woods. Miles from the nearest neighbour, he lived with barely any human contact or communication for two years. Whether tending to the woodstove or snow-shoeing through the forest, he devoted his energies to learning to see again — to paying attention and to rediscovering what really matters. A gorgeous memoir of solitude in an age of superficial connection, this book probes the profoundly human questions of perception, time, identity and meaning. (Publisher's Description.)

Read an excerpt on the CBC website.


Book cover for The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida is an illustration of abstract flowers and butterflies in shades of blue, white, and yellow, radiating out in a mandala-like pattern

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida

Alternative format: eBook

Naoki Higashida was only a middle-schooler when he began to write The Reason I Jump. Autistic and with very low verbal fluency, Naoki used an alphabet grid to painstakingly spell out his answers to the questions he imagines others most often wonder about him: why do you talk so loud? Is it true you hate being touched? Would you like to be normal? The result is an inspiring, attitude-transforming book that will be embraced by anyone interested in understanding their fellow human beings, and by parents, caregivers, teachers and friends of autistic children. Higashida examines issues as diverse and complex as self-harm, perceptions of time and beauty, and the challenges of communication, and in doing so, discredits the popular belief that autistic people are anti-social loners who lack empathy. (Publisher's description.)

Read an excerpt from the introduction on the book's website.

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