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Overlooked No More: Cheryl Marie Wade, a Performer Who Refused to Hide

“Shame is the big killer of us,” she told a conference in 2000. “Shame and isolation, not our particular disability.”

Wade was born in Vallejo, Calif., on March 4, 1948. Her mother was a bookkeeper, and her father was a salesman. Money was tight in their household, but her father was a bit of a raconteur, and she apparently learned that skill remarkably early.

“My mother would always tell this story about my brother’s first word and how it happened,” she said in an oral history recorded in 2003 for the Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement Oral History Project in Berkeley. “He was sitting at the table with my grandma, and he looked out the window and he pointed out and he said, ‘bird.’ And that was his first word. And I would say, ‘What was my first word?’ My mother would always say, ‘You didn’t have one. You just had a first monologue.’”

She had plenty of hardship as a child — her parents drank too much, she said, and she has mentioned often being sexually abused by her father. At 10, rheumatoid arthritis manifested itself intensely.

“Big toe, thumbs, wrists, and then everywhere just started hurting, all the joints started hurting,” she said. “Wrists particularly, wrists and thumbs and knees.”

By 16 she was using a wheelchair, first some of the time, but soon all of the time. She graduated from the high school at Stanford Children’s Hospital and tried attending the College of Marin, a community college in Marin County, Calif., but gave it up after a short while, weighed down by both physical and emotional difficulties. She entered what she described as a bleak period of isolation that lasted almost a decade.

But she fought through it, and when a doctor who had performed surgery on her knees introduced her to an electric wheelchair, that “changed my life,” as she put it. In 1974 she gave the College of Marin another try and found that there was now a community of students with disabilities there.

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