Critiquing Ableism and 'Normalcy' with Sharon M. Draper’s "Out of My Mind"
People often perceive disability as a physical or psychological obstacle that prevents them from achieving a ‘good’ and ‘normal’ life. Given that society is based on different individuals, subjectively apart from one another, it is flawed to assume these terms are anything but arbitrary perceptions of what a life should be. The lack of disability as something inherently positive is only a societal constraint governed by ableism, which ultimately minimizes the experiences of people with disabilities. In Sharon M. Draper’s novel Out of My Mind (2010), ableism and the skewed notion of ‘normalcy’ is challenged through its protagonist Melody Brooks, an eleven-year-old girl born with cerebral palsy. She is bound to her “pink wheelchair” and physically unable to speak or move her body beside her thumbs. Her experiences going through Spaulding Street Elementary School and interacting with society’s version of normal children are the very means through which Draper critiques ableism, while also providing a better way to address disability.
Melody’s story is entirely hers from beginning to end. Draper uses first-person narration to liberate Melody from any societal restraints that would otherwise silence her voice, instead narratively supporting her and her unique worldview. Melody’s disability physically traps her in her mind, but since she perceives herself as able and normal, “[her voice] helps her react against the society which sees her as an abnormal child, and thus allows her to question the ableism” (Vasan and Jose 45). Furthermore, by introducing the Medi-Talker—a computer which speaks Melody’s input words—Draper offers Melody the freedom she deserves to express her unique self. Vocalizing words is something her teachers and classmates take for granted, but which opens “the cage” she was living in “with no door or key” (13). While Melody has to use words for people to fully understand her, the other characters in the novel show that it is only a matter of wanting to understand the other’s perspective.
The history teacher and the kid quiz group illustrate how people typically perceive the world in the dichotomy of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’, placing disability in the latter and, consequently, distancing themselves from someone like Melody. They leave her behind when they go to the nationals, even though she demonstrated she was an asset to the team. The group does this only because of her differences, which fully encapsulates how ableism divides society and, ultimately, does not help anyone: they lose the competition and Melody’s respect. However, since Draper actively pushes against the idea of cognitive uniformity, there are also characters in the novel that try to understand Melody’s unique perception, and support her through her challenges. Melody’s family, the neighbor Mrs. Violet, and her school caretaker Catherine represent the other side of society, people who understand that everyone is different and disability is not the determining factor of those differences. As Mrs. Violet says to Melody, “People love you because you’re Melody, not because of what you can or cannot do” (281), outlining the novel’s message.
While the novel achieves many good things through Melody’s character, there is a problem in using the “genius child” trope to critique ableism. By having Melody be brilliant in a way that surpasses her age and cognitive abilities (i.e., remembering everything from being an infant to her being eleven), the author falls into the trap of overcompensating to reverse the power imbalance. The underlying message, then, could be that only genius disabled people stand a chance to be understood or heard, which minimizes the majority of experiences from people with disabilities who become negatively average in comparison. No matter the author’s intentions, the perpetuation of this trope ultimately does more harm than good if stories from disabled voices only arise from stereotypical genius characters.
With her novel, Sharon M. Draper successfully critiques society’s skewed version of ‘normalcy’, questioning the notion that an abled body determines intelligence and individual respect through the voice of her character Melody Brooks. By freeing Melody from her physical restraints and surrounding her with a wide cast of characters that partly undermine and support her uniqueness, Draper portrays society as a whole. This helps readers see differences as something ordinary, without an assigned positive or negative value.
Draper, Sharon M. Out Of My Mind. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.
Vasan, Preetha and Ann Mariya Jose. “Understanding Disability: A Study of Sharon M. Draper’s Out Of My Mind.” IRA-International Journal of Education & Multidisciplinary Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, 2018, pp. 43-48.