Having had the privilege to meet with Professor Swartz, I read his most recent book publication, ‘Able-Bodied – Scenes from a curious life’ with the jovial sounds of his uncanny ability to reflect on human nature and experiences in the background.
I certainly found Professor Swartz’ presence evident in the somewhat apologetic way he introduces and describes his family, as if telling a story and telling a secret amount to a similar thing. Yet, his words behold a compassion and gentleness that even the greatest of sentiments often fail to display.
Professor Swartz’ conveyed his story as symbol; holding up a mirror to his journey as an academic specializing and devoting himself to studying the way disability manifests in our society and the unfolding of a normative challenge to bring insight into the way we construct our perceptions. For example, at one point, Professor Swartz reminds us that the ‘moralistic ideas’ that ‘go along with our expectations about what people’s appropriate social roles are’ are founding stones for the ideas we cast amid and towards those whom we may perceive as different – we can become in-different as a consequence.
The book welcomes us into exploring the relationship between Professor Swartz and his father; his father whom appears as a man with a great identity – strong and defined, perhaps a form of identity we may find an aspiration for especially in the context of our medicalized body in contemporary clinical settings.
The father’s character develops rather mysteriously and invites much curiousity. We observe the father in the way Professor Swartz cast his young childhood impressions and later in the maturity of a man who comes to realize that the world – or rather, society – sets up certain parameters and boundaries that make up our differences.
However, Professor Swartz’ book and writing is a unique gem because of the way he explores the intricacies of his family life; including the manifestations of the bodies of his aunts and sister and grandmother. He leaves no description untouched and he carefully relativizes differences by emphasizing the power of who we are –who we individually are and that it is our individuality that counts for the establishment of the preciousness of human relationships.
Through this careful approach, Professor Swartz also commits one of the greatest ethical miracles we could hope for in our difficult and turbulent times of battling prejudices and fighting against the tendency to think of the body as a uniform entity that we can stack up and compare against in the empirical apparatus of modern medicine; namely, he shows us how to perceive the story of those around us.
To have witnessed the story of Professor Swartz is an encounter that will certainly shape our minds and practice as we continually come to realize the meanings that different bodies and different abilities have for us all.
About the Author: Leslie Swartz is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
‘Able-Bodied: Scenes from a curious life’ (2010) is published by Zebra Press: www.zebrapress.co.za