Harilyn Rousso Doesn’t Want You to Call Her Inspirational
From day one Rousso emerged as a powerhouse, coming into the world before it was ready. While her mother rushed to the hospital to give birth, the doctor was nowhere to be found and the nurses refused to proceed without him. Rousso’s mother clawed and bit the nurses as they held her legs shut, trying to postpone the birth. They succeeded, and while doing so nearly suffocated Rousso to death.
With this came about a constant involuntary jerking movement throughout her body, grimacing facial expressions, an uncontrollable right hand, and feet that turn in, making her walk unbalanced and lopsided.
Rousso’s mother got the sense that something wasn’t quite right as characteristics of her CP emerged early on. Doctors persistently disagreed, on more than one occasion accusing her of being neurotic, and recommending she be institutionalized. Finally, at age three, Rousso was diagnosed.
Rousso came to the Campus Center Assembly Hall Tuesday night as a part of Disability Awareness Month. During her lecture Rousso read excerpts from her book “Don’t Call Me Inspirational, A Disabled Feminist Talks Back,” a memoir filled with a collage of short takes and long narratives about Rousso’s life at home, interactions with school children, and outright strangers as she grew older, and ultimately her journey in confronted prejudice.
In the first section of Rousso’s memoir, titled ‘Close Encounters with the Clueless,’ she reflects on walking into a cafe and having a bystander abruptly ask, “Why are you walking like that?” an encounter Rousso says was more outlandish than usual. To her dismay, she remarked on what she considered a subconscious level, “My crotch itches.” This kind of wit and humor runs through her recollections seamlessly, providing the reader with a fresh perspective on the trying prejudice Rousso faces daily.
Rousso talks a lot about her relationship with her mother and cars. She reads from her memoir, bringing the audience back to when she was 20-years-old and had grand fantasies of being able to drive anywhere her heart desired—whether it be the peaks of New Mexico to watch a miraculous sunset—or a drive past the doctor who nearly killed her, promptly flipping him off as she drove by. Rousso describes her mother as strong and feisty, the epitome of an independent woman. Three days a week, her mother would show up to her doorstep after voyaging from Long Island and they would drive together.
“You could do this, you will do this, and you’ll like it,” her mother would repeat. And on her first try at getting a driver’s license, Harilyn did.
Rousso claims the label of having a disability with pride, as an “acceptance of total self.” The basis of her memoir is framed around accepting one’s self and accepting life as it is dealt to you without having pity for yourself. This includes realizing you are not heroic just because you decide to live your life, hence the title.
Rousso explains it’s annoying to constantly be patronized by strangers, explaining she could be doing something as mundane as buying Cheerios at the grocery store and be met with a cheery “You are so courageous!” or “You are such an inspiration!”
As an outright founder of the women’s disability rights movement in the US, creator of the Networking Project for Disabled Woman and Girls, and former commissioner with the NYC Commission on Human Rights, it’s OK to admit Rousso is inspiring, but this becomes apparent through her enormous accomplishments, not her will to live.