It's with great sadness that I report that Norman Meldrum died this
morning, January 6, 2009. Norm was the founder and director of
AbilityMaine.org, a presence and voice on cross-disability issues at
many a Maine organization meeting and event, and was the co-founder and
site designer/webworker for the literary journal, Breath & Shadow.
Norm had been suffering increasingly severe illness as the result of
miraculously surviving multiple pulmonary embolisms in May of 2007.
Although his death was expected, it is nevertheless a horrible loss.
Norm was my friend, my colleague, my compatriot in the disability
rights struggle, and the person who opened the door to multiple
meaningful paths in my life and then encouraged, motivated, or just
downright nagged me to walk (or roll) through them. We instantly bonded
years ago over our frustrations with ABs (and crips) who "don't get it"
and via our similarly hilarious (to us), often sarcastic, senses of
humor. In the last two years, when we both became much more seriously
ill and disabled than we had been before, we provided each other with
comfort and companionship over the phone line, especially during Norm's
repeated and seemingly interminable hospital stays.
Below is an interview of Norm, by Erika Jahneke, that appeared in
Breath & Shadow, May 2006, Vol. 3, No. 5. I also strongly encourage
those of you who knew Norm or were devotees of AbilityMaine or Breath
& Shadow to share your thoughts and memories of Norm. Even if you
didn't know him well; he and his work touched so many lives –
important. Feel free to include dates and locations, if you know them,
to provide greater context for those of us who wish we knew him longer.
Unless someone specifies that they are not OK with it, I will collect
the posts, and at some point hope they can be used in some sort of
At the very least, it's a way we can mourn Norm's death and celebrate
his wonderful, but too brief, life.
For those who want to see a picture and short bio of Norm from 2006
(before the onslaught of respiratory illness), go to http://www.abilitymaine.org/aboutus/staff.html#Norm
Sharon Wachsler (Founder, and editor, from 2004 through 2007, of Breath
Norman Meldrum, Founder/Director of AbilityMaine
by Erika Jahneke
I recently had the chance to email with Norman Meldrum. In addition to
his work on the AbilityMaine news, events, and advocacy site, Norm
created the Breath & Shadow website itself and converts the
published submissions into HTML so that the pages are formatted.
ERIKA: What do you do for the
NORM: Mostly I don't do much
for Breath & Shadow . . . just put the
stories and poems into HTML. Occasionally, I find a small error and
then I can go, "Ha!" I used to do a lot more before it got all
organized and Sharon told the other people on staff that they had to
work, too. We can't pay them; it's just the glory. I used to nag a lot,
but Sharon does that, too. I think she's management material.
ERIKA: What's one thing about
your job that people don't know, but you
wish they did?
NORM: Well, like everyone else
at AbilityMaine (interviewer's note: this writer included) I don't have
an office, as such. What I have is a
little hole off the kitchen and across from the laundry room. It's a
bit handy as I can cook, wash clothes, and work on AbilityMaine at the
same time. I hope it doesn't show too much.
ERIKA: Not at all. I never
NORM: Also, my job tends to be
very boring. At first, there was a lot
of figuring things out — how to make things work and what
take the AbilityMaine/Breath & Shadow projects in, and there were
epiphanies and little lightbulbs going off like in the cartoons. But
now, we're so cool and polished, it's gotten rather dull, like a
management project. By the way, I was a business major in college. I'm
terrible with numbers and fall asleep in meetings so I gave all that up.
I'm sure it won't be dull that much longer, because people will read
this and come up with all sorts of new ways to make my life stressful
Something else everyone should know is that I walk the dog a lot. I can
be sure that as soon as I get really involved in something, the dog
will have to pee and I'll get distracted.
ERIKA: What are your
connections to the disability community? Do you
have a disability yourself?
NORM: I do have a disability.
It's a bit complicated to explain, but
it's a combination of cervical ribs, a childhood sledding injury, and
My wife Barbara has severe osteoarthritis, and two of our three boys
have learning disabilities. So, as a family, we have a lot of
AbilityMaine, and, later, Breath & Shadow, were started because of
my experience with social discrimination. As an example, people are
confused when they see me one day and I'm tilling the garden, and the
next time they see me I'm sitting in a wheelchair. They don't know how
to react to that disconnect, so I get a lot of weird looks and
avoidance. On the other hand, Barbara is more consistently in a
wheelchair, so she gets patted on the head a lot, poor dear. And we
have two boys who are either very lazy, or learning disabled, you
As a result of these experiences, I believe all AbilityMaine/Breath
& Shadow jobs should be held by people with disabilities, or
directly managed by people with disabilities. This is also in keeping
with the philosophies of Resources For Organizing and Social Change
(ROSC), the social-change organization we are a part of. Yes, we have a
few people working on both projects who have not been officially
designated as having a disability, but key positions are held by people
ERIKA: How can other disability
groups build coalitions with
NORM: When a coalition works,
it's partly because members of
progressive organizations have disabilities, or have family members
It does seem to be hard for people to see the community of people with
disabilities as an oppressed group. Maybe it's because people across
the political spectrum have disabilities and the disabilities aren't
all the same. For example, it's somewhat easy to say that people of
color are discriminated against, but how can you easily define a group
of people with disabilities? Those of us who are active in progressive
organizations need to keep pushing the envelope. For example, when I am
planning an event, I always ask if it will be accessible: i.e.,
wheelchair access, sign-language interpreters, if needed, materials
available in alternative formats, fragrance-free, etc. It may sometimes
make one unpopular, but it does raise the level of awareness. In short,
it works if you nag people.
ERIKA: What do you do when
you're not working?
NORM: Travel, although that's
hard to get the money and energy together
for. I read a lot, both fiction and nonfiction. I'm the parent of a
14-year-old boy, so I spend a lot of time running to music lessons,
friends' houses, and comic book stores.
ERIKA: What do you see as the
future of Breath & Shadow?
NORM: I have to admit that
Breath & Shadow is already more than I
envisioned. I thought Sharon and I would get together this little
online thing, just the two of us, that we'd have to beg people to write
for. Now we have fifteen people working on it and thousands of readers