Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureWinter 2016
Lessons From The Gimp Ghetto
By Heidi Johnson-Wright
Being a gimp doesn’t mean you ain’t a gimp hater.
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d already been disabled for a decade. My assailant was rheumatoid arthritis. The disease caused my immune system to launch an absurd attack on my body, and destroyed my joints with lightning speed. At 18, I still walked as much as I could, but I sometimes had to use a wheelchair. I hated the damn thing, and hid it in the corner of my room.
Yet regardless of all my pain, surgeries and struggles with mobility, I wasn’t vaccinated against society’s prejudices in relation to disabled people. I’d bought into the nonsense that the disabled are sex-starved pervs--when they’re not otherwise resigned to their chaste, asexual existences. Though I knew this didn’t apply to me, I sometimes saw disabled people as guileless, ever-trustworthy beings in an arrested state of development. Or instead of childlike with sunny dispositions, people with disabilities were bitter and old before their time, ever-angry they’d been robbed of a fulfilling life. And I assumed everyone but me had slightly-overprotective, nurturing parents who gently doted on their kids yet fully accepted their disabilities.
All of that changed when I went away to college. It had to do with the living arrangements. If you were female and disabled at my university, you were probably going to live in Prentice Hall. It was the only girls’ dorm on the Kent State campus that had been made accessible for wheelchair users. It wasn’t until I began to live day in, day out in the Prentice gimp ghetto that I began to appreciate the diversity of people with disabilities and to see society’s biases for what they truly were: a big, steaming load of bullshit.
Sandy lived down the hall from me. She was a slender girl with short, spikey, dark brown hair. Sandy was sweet and easy to laugh, but she was a perpetual Ziggy. The worst luck was always befalling her. Her power chair often broke down, sometimes when she was crossing the street.
Her roommate, Eleanor, was a chubby girl with a cognitive disability who was kind but infuriating. Ellie took one class per semester and so had plenty of time to sleep late and sit in the TV lounge, personally greeting all day long each and every person who passed by. Ellie often stayed up very late, then would come crashing into the dorm room after Letterman had ended, oblivious to Sandy who’d been dead asleep and had to get up early for class.
Besides the little gray cloud that hung over Sandy’s head, I could always count on the spectacular screaming fights at the start and end of each school year between her and her parents. Sandy filled me in on her family’s back story in dribs and drabs: an intractable father, a clueless, head-in-the-sand mother, a wild, defiant sister. I never lost my fascination with their dust-ups, perhaps because they were so blatantly public. There would be shouts, cursing and the thudding of hurled objects landing. The most remarkable aspect was no one shouted, cursed or even screamed louder than Sandy herself. My otherwise sedate friend was transformed for a few hours each year into an unrecognizable hellcat who gave her parents a piece of her mind in ways that most of us could only dream about.
Several girls on my floor had spinal cord injuries resulting in paralysis. The most affected was Caroline, a quadriplegic who required multiple attendants and many hours of care each day. She has a serene, oval-shaped face that was right out of a Botticelli painting of the Madonna. Her injury happened when she dived into deep water yet broke her neck by simply striking the surface.
Because of the severity of Caroline’s disability, she always seemed to be facing a health crisis of some sort: a blood pressure spike, a recurring bladder infection, an incorrigible GI tract, pressure sores that confined her to bed for days at a time. Any one of those things would have sent me into a downward spiral of anxiety, yet Caroline coped as naturally as breathing. She seemed to have a Zen-like calm about her that was pleasantly contagious. Since she was older and wiser, I could go to her room for good, solid life advice, along with a stiff shot of whiskey.
Betty was statuesque and pretty. Like me, she got around by walking, but she leaned on a cane. She had a shuffling walk from the hemiplegia of a severe head injury. The rumor was that Betty and a carload of high school friends decided to race a train. It didn’t take a genius to see how well that turned out.
When boys saw Betty sitting quietly somewhere, all they saw was a willowy, attractive college girl. It wasn’t until she spoke in a voice that made her sound like an 80-year old stroke patient that they turned tail. This sort of reaction was something many of us crip girls understood all too well. Boys would sometimes start randomly dialing dorm phone numbers, hoping to get an anonymous cute girl to talk to them. If they found out you lived on first floor Prentice, though, they hung up in a split second, since it was widely known across campus as the female gimp ghetto.
Some of us were quietly resigned to this – but not Betty. Whether it was due to her head injury or simply hormones, Betty was horny as hell and plenty vocal about it. When she went on one of her frequent “when am I going to get some?” rants, it was a little unnerving. It was as if somebody’s lusty grandma had taken possession of a 19-year old’s body.
Some of the girls had forms of muscular dystrophy, progressive diseases that slowly waste away the muscles. It was understood but never spoken about that they would, in all likelihood, not live to see their 30th birthdays. Someday their muscles would grow so weak that they would no longer be able to swallow food or breathe without a ventilator. Their last days would be spent lying in bed, being fed through a tube and having mucus suctioned from their throats. Yet they chose to go to college and study the things they felt passionate about – fate be damned. I was also acquainted with some boys with muscular dystrophy who resided in the male gimp ghetto, just across the street in Dunbar Hall.
Lorenzo lived in Dunbar. He was often a pain in the ass but never boring. He used a power chair for mobility and still had decent use of his arms. He was brash and crude – much like any other college boy – yet it appeared to be a smokescreen for his sense of emotional vulnerability. And he was always angling to get laid. As was I, though not with Lorenzo.
Sex and college are supposed to go together, although getting some is often not so easy. You first must find a willing partner, appropriate contraception, then a place with some privacy. But throw a disability that severely impacts your mobility into the mix – as well has your partner’s mobility -- and the hurdles to be jumped grow exponentially. I was sitting with Lorenzo, waiting on a van pick-up one day, when he began a soliloquy about this very subject. There was a girl on my floor with MD that Lorenzo found delicious. His attendant had offered to position both him and the girl in order to facilitate an encounter. Despite his college boy libido, Lorenzo couldn’t quite get past the idea of boinking with his caregiver just a few feet away.
Finding a partner with at least average physical agility seemed to be key, something Isaac knew from the start. He lived down the hall from Lorenzo and was about three feet tall. He had a cute, boyish face, though it often wore an expression of annoyance with the world. He used a wheelchair and had a form of MD that impaired his mobility but was not expected to be fatal. My personal care attendant, Lexie, also worked for Isaac. She sometimes commented on his great taste in music. He had a Hendrix poster on his wall, and was disgusted by his roommate’s infatuation with the Go-Gos.
One Saturday morning, Lexie came to my room after her visit with Isaac. She swung open my door with a loud “Oh, my God -- guess what?!” “I went to Isaac’s room – his roommate went home for the weekend – and when I opened his door, a cute blonde was snuggled up with him under the covers! She nuzzled into his chest and he told me ‘I’m good, you can come back tonight.’”
Weeks later, Lexie discovered that Isaac was not only a lover, but quite the entrepreneur. She found this out when Isaac ended up with pneumonia. He’d gotten his wheelchair mired in mud on his way back from the bars late one night. He sat for hours in cold rain until someone came along and freed him. A few days later, he was admitted to the student health center looking like death on a cracker.
When Lexie went to visit him, his first words to her were: “Does liquid acid have to be refrigerated?” He then told her where his stash (consisting of LSD and expertly pre-rolled doobies) was and asked her to take it for safekeeping until he got discharged. Her storage fee was several big fatties from the stash.
To me, the moral of the story was this: find someone to bang who can walk, maneuver on top or bottom, and is willing to accompany you home from the bars on cold, rainy nights.
Heidi Johnson-Wright is a lawyer but please don't hold that against her. Her day job is working as an ADA compliance professional for a large metropolitan area. She’s had severe rheumatoid arthritis since childhood and is a full-time power wheelchair user. She’s been a published free-lance writer for 23 years, writing mostly book and music reviews, as well as stories on accessible travel. Johnson-Wright is a native Clevelander who got smart and moved to Miami 15 years ago. She and her husband are two of the handful of gringos who live in Little Havana. She has a forthcoming memoir titled “The Earthbound Tomboy.”