The place of disability as a concept . . . has simply not been understood or excavated because it’s not in the archive.
–Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “What Her Body Taught”
So reads the idyllic slogan of Princeton, Illinois. In this same small city, on February 16, 1947, Ann Elizabeth Eckberg was born. Nine years later, she would be the only child in her neighborhood to contract spinal meningitis—an infection that would permanently rob her of her ability to hear. Because she had been struck with this tragic and debilitating handicap, her day-to-day life was to be characterized by struggle and isolation. Eckberg, it seemed, was the victim of a cruel fate. Yet, she bore her misfortune with an unassuming, angelic patience. Until her untimely death, she remained sequestered from the world and meekly carried on with life—the way that it shouldn’t have been.
Ann Eckberg would have most likely loathed, and perhaps even laughed at, this version of her existence. It is what disability scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson would call a “crippled saint story”: an account that accentuates the incapacity—the limitations—of its subject, and that, in actuality, only reflects the narrow perceptions of its non-“crippled” narrator (“Body” 29). Unfortunately, though, this melodramatic and myopic vision of Eckberg’s life typifies the narrative lens through which most able-bodied Americans have been conditioned to understand disability. As a result, most temporarily-abled citizens are blinded by a condescending pity for their disabled counterparts—to such a great extent, in fact, that many become convinced that the experiences of people with disabilities are somehow qualitatively different, and maybe even “less than,” their own. It would probably be easier and more convenient to uphold this hierarchy, to proceed with the tale of Eckberg’s life in this pat, formulaic vein. But, her tale is infinitely more complex and compelling than the opening storyline could possibly divulge, and quite simply, she deserves further consideration.
Ann Eckberg did not see her deafness as a master status, a disabling condition, or a handicap; she simply regarded it as an “inconvenience,” a mere “hearing problem” (Gauger 1B). Making sure that this opinion was recognized, she once brazenly declared, “It’s often the hearing people who aren’t happy with our being deaf. I’m perfectly happy as I am” (Bechtold 6). Eckberg didn’t feel sorry for herself, and by the same token, she would have heartily rejected our sympathy. Similarly, we wouldn’t be doing Eckberg any favors by discussing her only in terms of her hearing deficit, because she was endowed with so many talents and exceptional in so many respects.
That being said, I will proceed with my narrative. Ann Eckberg was a petite woman who nevertheless established herself as an overpowering physical presence wherever she went. Although she was capable of communicating via speech, she simply preferred not to. She was an outspoken introvert who possessed an exceedingly keen intellect and conveyed an “intensity that bordered on passion” (Bechtold 6). All at once, Eckberg had the capacity to joke light-heartedly about decidedly-misfortunate occurrences, the gravity to create and inspire soul-stirring art, and more than enough grit to pit herself against any status quo that she deemed unjust. Yes, Ann Eckberg was deaf, but that fact did not deter her from forcefully exercising her voice, nor did it hinder her efforts to make that voice heard throughout the span of her life.
The hearing world did not generally share Eckberg’s self-affirming outlook concerning deafness. In 1956, immediately following the onset of her hearing impairment, a doctor suggested that Lawrence and Letha Eckberg’s daughter was, by virtue of her newly acquired “disability,” incapable of learning. Subsequently, he advised them to send her to a state institution for the “mentally retarded” (Pritchard 7). At the time, medical authorities attempted to paint these publically-funded establishments as the most optimal setting for disabled children. Many parents, faced with limited educational avenues for their children, agreed to commit them to these “asylums” (see Figure 1). However, an often gruesome reality was housed within these institutes: many were unsanitary, overcrowded, under-supervised, poorly funded, plagued with abuse, and predicated on the undifferentiated treatment of residents’ various conditions and needs (see Figure 2). Had Eckberg ended up at one of