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Cass Irvin

Home Bound
Growing Up with a Disability in America

Cass Irvin

Cass Irvin is a quadriplegic due to having polio as a child. Here she answers questions about her life and her poignant memoir, Home Bound: Growing Up with a Disability in America

Q: Throughout Home Bound, you talk about Role Models. FDR, Betty Friedan, etc. Why do you feel so connected to these individuals?
A: I looked up to FDR because he had polio, like I did, and he had a regular life-like I wanted. I saw Betty Friedan as a teacher. Her work truly did give me the words to describe the disability situation.

Q: Your book is a memoir, but it reads like a novel. When did you decide to chronicle your life, and how did the book come about?
A: I found that when I tried to educate people about disability, they understood it best when I illustrated with stories about issues such as inclusion and peer support. I was able to develop those memories into stories, and I learned from them. I hope others can learn from them, too.

Q: You talk about the disabled as a "minority group" with its own culture and traditions. What can you say about this sense of "community and belonging"?
A: It is almost easier to talk about the lack of community or the sense of being a stranger. Often disabled people don't feel they belong to their families because their families are not disabled. We can't share our experiences because they are different. Sometimes it's hard finding disability community but you know it as "home" when you get there.

Q: You describe Warm Springs as an institution that was "liberating." What do you remember most about your stay there?
A: I remember being able to do everything: go to the dining hall to eat, go to the movies, and church. To me it was living a regular life. I did not get to do those things very often at home. I also remember the opportunities to meet people from other countries and famous people like John F. Kennedy.

Q: An important point you make in your book is that "everybody needs assistance;" we are all, at times, helpless. How do you feel people can be more compassionate to others?
A: The words "helpless," "compassionate," and "caregiver" bother me. What if one morning your caregiver doesn't care whether you get dressed and out of bed? The executive who has his secretary provide coffee is not helpless, nor is the secretary a caregiver. Franklin Roosevelt should not, and I should not, have to depend on someone who "cares" but rather someone who is responsible for doing a job.

Q: You comment about wanting "to be like everybody else" and being independent with a certain amount of control over your life. Do you feel you have achieved this?
A: Yes, I feel I have as much control over my life as anyone can. I know my activism cannot stop until we are sure no one will be able to take that control away because I get older or become more disabled by age.

Q: One encouraging aspect of your life has been overcoming other people's prejudices towards disabled people. You write: "People handicap us because they do not see us as capable." How do you respond towards people who try to thwart your efforts?
A: One thing I've learned about disability is that you cannot tell what people can do until you get to know them. Don't assume. I know a lot of people who had polio; we're all different-we're similar but different. I do wish people had realize what an impact their misjudgments would have on my life. I never wanted to be a ballerina. I wanted to be a teacher and a writer and I was not too disabled to do either.

Q: What moment for you was the turning point in your life?
A: Getting involved with ALPHA made me deal with my feelings about disability community and whether I belonged-or wanted to. Getting involved with VISTA gave me the tools I needed to feel I could be an activist.

Q: You mention that it is easier to be "political than personal." Can you explain what you mean by that statement?
A: Believe it or not, I've always been uncomfortable talking about myself. I thought people would say, "Well, that's just Cass Irvin. That's her problem." But when I got involved with a disability organization, I found lots of people had the same problem so it wasn't just mine to solve.

Q: You do have self doubt, and yet, you come across as a very positive woman. Can you discuss this paradox?
A: I don't know where that "positive outlook" comes from but I'm very glad I have it. I'm a Taurus with Libra rising so I tend to see the other side.

Q: Your relationship with your parents is a recurring thread of the book—a real mix of love and pain. How have you (re)-thought about your family while you wrote this book?
A: I did come away from this experience realizing how much I wanted to be like my mom and how comforted I am by her image. I also realized you don't have to like everything that happens to you but you can't blame people for being who they are. For the most part, my parents did the best they could for me. Actually, they did a great deal for me but they couldn't be in control of everything.


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