Dorothy Ellen Palmer, BA’82, grew up in the West End of Toronto, a child of adoptive parents, learning to live with a congenital anomalies in both feet.
“I’m adopted and disabled. Both of those things worked together to make me believe I was a burden.”
It nearly took a lifetime to resolve those feelings – shedding them only after connecting with an adoption rights group in university and, years later, discovering an online disability pride community after she retired from the classroom.
“Once I put those two things together, I realized it really was time to write my memoir and to claim that I wasn’t a burden on either front.”
Now, Palmer has chronicled her decades-long journey in Falling for Myself: A Memoir.
In her recently released second book, the now-retired teacher documents her upbringing with a family struggling with the complexities of adoption and disability, her decades as an educator, activist, mother and union leader and how she continually tried to hide being different.
Born in 1955, Palmer was adopted at 3 years old. In 1973, she arrived at Western straight out of high school with the intention of studying Journalism. But History professor Craig Simpson drew her into his program, a spot where she started to develop her activist voice.
At that time, many of her professors were Americans objecting to the conflict in Vietnam and finding work in Canada. “It was 1973 and Western hired some young professors from Ivy League American universities. Their way of looking at the world was brand new to me,” she said.
“University was also where I went to my first meeting for the Women’s Liberation movement – that’s what we called it then so you can tell how long ago it was,” she laughed. “There were all kinds of things that were new and exciting because it felt like it was actually possible to make change in the world.”
After graduation, Palmer completed her teacher certification at Simon Fraser University and embarked on a career in education.
She accepted unique assignments teaching on a Mennonite colony near the Northwest Territories and at a school attached to a prison in Calgary, before moving back to Ontario. She spent most of her career at a large, diverse high school in Pickering, often assuming union representative duties on the front line during the Harris government’s fractious education reforms.
Palmer harboured a love of writing. She published some short stories after the birth of her daughter in 1986 then took “a large, twenty-year interval” from the craft.
After retirement, she started writing in earnest. Her first novel, When Fenlon Falls, features a 14-year-old disabled protagonist against the backdrop of the tumultuous summer of 1969. It was published in 2010. That was followed by various short stories and articles before Falling for Myself: A Memoir was released late in 2019.
With her most recent – and most personal – work, she had reservations about sharing such a story.
“There were days when I was concerned. But once I realized you had to tell the whole truth – not just part of it – I understood it was the secrets that had hurt me all along. Once I had set myself free of the secrets, they couldn’t hurt me any longer.”
Palmer’s diverse life experiences and insightful nature has helped her gain a different perspective on her upbringing.
“My mother, in fairness, did the best she could. She was never close to her own mother. She didn’t know how to be a mother. She also suffered many miscarriages before she finally adopted me and then she went on to have her own biological children. In some ways, I represented her failure as a woman.”
Palmer admits it took a long time to come to that realization. “I certainly would have offered her none of that forgiveness in my teens or even in my twenties. It was only later when I became a mother myself that I was able to be a little less judgmental of her.”
With her memoir published, Palmer has turned to social media to facilitate her connection with the international disabled community.
“For many disabled people, the Internet – Facebook and Twitter, in particular – are our only contact with each other. There’s an international disability justice movement. I’m in regular contact with activists across Canada, the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. Social media has empowered that in a way that was never possible before,” she said.
“It’s not strictly consciousness-raising. Some members of the disability community work on legislation, some work on building design, housing or health care. There’s all kinds of campaigns that disability activists can work on.”
According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability by Statistics Canada, 22 per cent of Canadians have at least one disability. That represents 6.2 million people.
“It’s a significant percentage,” Palmer said. “When you’ve got it in your head that you’re only discriminating against a small group of people, it’s much easier to shrug. When I can barely leave my house in the winter, I’m vanished from public sight.
“If you don’t see any disabled people, it never occurs to you that you are discriminating against them with buildings they can’t enter.”
However, she is starting to see some small improvements. “Our human rights are being respected a bit more in new buildings. Governments are starting to do more consultation with disabled people to make decisions about what a barrier-free Ontario will look like,” she said.
“The real problem is enforcement in older buildings. Because the government isn’t ready to enforce that, isn’t willing to insist on it or fine it if it doesn’t happen, a lot of people who own the buildings just shrug and say, ‘It’s too expensive. I can’t handle it.’ Then they don’t do it and there are no consequences.”
For Hamilton, Ont.-based Palmer, she looks back on her years at Western with a sense of serendipity. When she located her birthmother, using skills honed in the History program, she discovered that both sides of her birth family were from the London area and had deep roots in the community.
“It is so odd to think that when I went to Western, met students from the area and visited their homes, I was visiting the home of my birth family – and I didn’t know it.”