Dear friends,

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 – it's all 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 memorial. 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

Sincerely,
Sharon Wachsler (Founder, and editor, from 2004 through 2007, of Breath & Shadow).



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 journal?

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 would've guessed.

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 directions to 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 and rewarding.
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 overuse syndrome.
My wife Barbara has severe osteoarthritis, and two of our three boys have learning disabilities. So, as a family, we have a lot of experience.

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 choose.

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 with disabilities.

ERIKA: How can other disability groups build coalitions with progressive organizations?

NORM: When a coalition works, it's partly because members of progressive organizations have disabilities, or have family members with disabilities.
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 every month.