PistoriusOscar Pistorius is known to many as Blade Runner – the man who rose to fame as an athlete running on curved blades for lower limbs in events for those with and without disabilities.  These days, the question is whether or not he has a mental illness that caused him to shoot his girlfriend as she was locked behind a bathroom door.

Perhaps the larger question is this: how does an understanding of trauma and disability culture affect framing of his situation? It does not bring Steenkamp back. It does not excuse abusive behavior in relationships, take the gun out of Pistorius’ hand, or make anything that happened okay. It does not let Pistorius off the hook, no matter the outcome. But it may raise curious questions.

It seems as if parents of children with disabilities raise their children in one of two ways: expecting the child to adapt to the world or the world to adapt to the child.  Pistorius and I were raised in the same manner – we were to disregard our disabilities.  Both of us were born with congenital defects. Mine led to frequent knee dislocations and multiple surgeries later in childhood along with behavioral health challenges; his resulted in double amputation at 11 months, just as he might have been about to learn to walk.  Temple Grandin, the woman who has autism and is acclaimed by Time Magazine as one of the”100 Most Influential People in the World,” was also raised in a family who said “you can” instead of “you can’t.”

This approach of dealing with visible and invisible disabilities in which we were people first taught us to constantly and forever adapt, to do things differently.  Expecting the world to adapt to the disabled child fosters pity and entitlement by placing the disability in the center of the child’s life at the expense of learning how to live in the world everyone else lives in.

Every parent does his or her best. And despite our parents’ protection, deep-seated terrors rooted in our disabilities remain.  Height, mobility, vision, strength – all play key roles in being able to protect oneself from harm.  To be taunted and have others take prosthetics or critical assistive technology of other sorts—glasses, braces, crutches, canes, hearing aids, walkers, speech boards, for example—and set them out of reach, or deliberately beyond reach? These actions make our vulnerability so much more profound. They evoke primal responses from deep within if the will to live is present, sometimes blinding terror, sometimes blinding rage. We learn—those of us who have some degree of self-respect—to both tolerate and shrug them off, tamping down the terror and rage, converting it to fuel for performance, gardening, something.

There is trauma associated with having a disability that is based on how our bodies work that is outside of the realm of the world of mental illness. Often when people can “get inside” our world they realize, painfully, that our reactions mimic the reactions that 90% of the people who are not hospitalized or even diagnosed would also have.

There is trauma for the parents and families that raise children with visible and invisible disabilities, and in some—such as Oscar Pistorius,’ based on the reports in the news—don’t make it. Something bad happens that causes a husbandless mum to sleep with a gun in her hand, while her son whose limbs are absent from below the knee sleeps nearby. Something awful must have happened for Oscar Pistorius, too.

He can’t undo the amputation of both legs when he was 11 months, the challenges his mum faced from his father, or the years of internal challenge—what has been labeled General Anxiety Disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder does not a murderer make. Nor an inherently violent person, contrary to the worries of many of the relatives of those who have disclosed their diagnosis, now calling it the “Oscar disease.”

Generalized Anxiety Disease makes worriers, not killers. Disability doesn’t either. But a man who is notably shorter without his prostheses, top heavy, balancing on his stumps in the dark of the night, and who is terrified? The adrenaline of vulnerability can cause murderous things to happen. The challenge of disability is not always what we can or can’t “do” but how we deal in the world when we are the “Other.”

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