Sunday, November 07, 2004

Jim the Dummy

In the small town in Newfoundland where I grew up, there was a man named "Jim the Dummy".

At least, that's what everybody called him. When I was about six, me and my Dad drove past him in our car as he walked along the road. My Dad waved at him and he waved back. I had never seen him before and I said, "Who's that?"

And Dad said, "That's Jim the Dummy."

Jim the Dummy was around, oh, 50 at that time, I'd guess. He lived with his elderly widowed mom. Jim the Dummy wasn't a dummy, of course. But he was born deaf.

Later, as I grew up, I learned more about him, one of the fixtures in that town of 700. He'd never gone to school and had never been taught to speak if, indeed, he wanted to. He'd never held a real job, although I think he did odd jobs for people in town as a younger man. I suppose he lived on some sort of government income. He never married, and I never saw him at any of the community's social events.

I'd forgotten Jim for years and years, until I went deaf, of course. Now I find I think about him a lot. I don't even know if he's still alive, but he'd be well into his 80s now. But I think about his life and how few options he had, being born as he was into a tiny town when and where progressive ideas about teaching the deaf couldn't have been carried out very well if they'd even been known, and where, with imperfect understanding but perfect innocence, deaf="dumb".

What did he think about, I wonder? Did he know that if he had been born in a different place or at a different time, his life would've been completely different? Was he angry? Did he know everybody called him Jim the Dummy? Did he care? Did it make him mad, or was it just, to him, what he was?

I've mentioned before that after I went deaf, my sister wrote to me how lucky I was to live in the time I do -- in a world of instant messaging, email, voice recognition software, cochlear implants. And how right she is. A newborn infant living in that same town where I grew up would now have access to options and technology that Jim and his mother could only dream of.

Time changes everything - and not just technology. It changes attitudes and language and opinions.

Jim was no dummy.



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