One of the first misconceptions that confronted me as a handicapped child was that people — children, adults, everyone – would often say, “I saw your picture on the March of Dimes poster!!” The March of Dimes was a campaign initiated to pay for polio vaccinations and patient care. Most of the patients were small children, who were the most prone to severe aspects of the disease. People were asked to send in “even a dime” and there were coin collection placards put out in stores, churches, gas stations, anywhere that people might be able to spare a dime. (A dime in 1950 would be worth about ninety cents in 2018.)
At first, when I heard that comment, I thought that somehow my picture was actually being used for the March of Dimes poster child, and I was excited to learn this. I looked forward to seeing myself the next time I saw a little placard around town. There I’d be, Francine Allen, the poster child. But I soon saw that it wasn’t my picture, though the girl was about my age, around five or six, wore a brace, used Kenny sticks (a half crutch with a canvas arm band), and had hair somewhat similar to mine. Although, hers was not in the meticulous ringlets my mother created to draw attention away from my limp and leave the impression of my being a pretty child. (If I looked pretty, it helped to make up for my defect, a concept I have never been able to drop.)
I asked my mother if I was going to be the March of Dimes girl, and she assured me that I wasn’t, and that there were no posters out there with my picture on them. I was a little disappointed, but what bothered me more was that people didn’t recognize that it was not me, that any little girl with Kenny sticks and brown hair looked the same to them. It made me a little angry, that that was my identity: The March of Dimes Poster Girl. It wasn’t me and I had none of the potential benefits of being famous. It is possible of course that people thought, “What a brave little girl,” when they saw those posters, and that they thought the same of me. But I didn’t think of that when I was five-and-a-half. I was just slightly perturbed that people could not see it was not me, and that I didn’t have a face to them, I had a limp to identify me. That’s another of my too early adult thought processes, required by the disease that took me away from home and into a hospital for six months when I’d barely just learned to run.
I was not a poster child. Not in reality and not in terms of the smiley, optimistic, never-bothered attitude that is often wished for in disabled people. Easier not to feel badly if a crippled person reflects happy accomplishment. Certainly that winsome courage is more appealing for the purpose of collecting donations! No, I was “head strong,” independent, ready with a smarty-pants retort, a girl who got out of a wheelchair and onto crutches before I was four years old.
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