Lord Byron apparently was born with a clubfoot. I know this because I attended a poetry reading last weekend in which a poem about Lord Byron’s clubfoot was read to much hilarity. The poem was clearly over-the-top, intended to illicit humor from the audience, and contained a refrain that went something like, “His foot, his foot, his awful gimpy foot.” Each time the poet repeated the refrain, his voice grew deeper, more obnoxious, clearly begging for a laugh.
I sat in the audience and glared. I was born with bilateral clubbed feet, treated at first with stretching and casts, then with surgery and braces. I have long scars on my heels where doctors finally surgically lengthened my Achilles tendons, and small round scars below each ankle where pins were inserted to hold each foot in a stretched position. As a child, friends mocked me for my scars, and even as an adult, strangers still stop me in the street to ask about them.
I knew the poet wasn’t trying to make a political statement, wasn’t trying to make me uncomfortable, but I also know that clubfeet are incredibly common—one baby in 1,000 is born with clubfeet. And most of those babies will grow into perfectly healthy, active lives. Proof? Kristy Yamaguchi and Mia Hamm.
Of course, Lord Byron didn’t have a plethora of treatment options and apparently suffered tremendously because of his clubfoot-induced limp. Just as people born without access to medical care still have limited options. To me, this isn’t something about which to laugh. Rather, it’s a reason to reflect again upon the ways in which “normal” and “abnormal” are culturally constructed, how the inevitability and normalcy of disability are carefully hidden, how “normal” bodies are privileged, how a clubfoot is still a mark of defect, humor, and shame.
Remember, clubfoot is common among newborns—some 7 million of the world’s people were born with at least one clubfoot. So clubfoot is a more common “condition” than being a billionaire (there are only about 1200 billionaires globally). What if we conceived of clubfoot as a normal variation of human physiology, and of billionaires as abnormal and defective? How would our thinking change then?
If we lived in a culture in which disability wasn’t openly ridiculed, treated as inconvenient, or used to other, then maybe the poem would have been funnier to me. But we don’t. So when a poet stands on stage and openly mocks a physical condition, openly shames another person for his walking gait, it’s challenging for me to find humor in the situation.
Instead of laughing, I glared. Instead of laughing, I thought about my scars, my tendons, thought about resiliency, how many variations of the body exist. Instead of laughing, I wondered how many in the audience had visible or invisible disabilities, how many would be considered “abnormal” by someone else, by someone else’s measuring stick. Instead of laughing, I thought about Lord Byron, wished we could have swapped stories of our feet, our feet, our crippled, ugly, mangled, grotesque feet.