Melody, the protagonist of Out of My Mind, is a bright, driven, hard-working young woman with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects her muscles and movement. Melody spends her life navigating a world largely inaccessible to her, both because her own body is hard to control, and because people in her life underestimate and bully her. Sharon Draper portrays Melody’s anger and frustration that nobody can acknowledge her abilities, but she also makes clear that this prejudice doesn’t only harm Melody. Melody’s classmates’ exclusion of her from the quiz bowl competition hurts the team—their prejudice causes them to dismiss a person who could have made important contributions.
In the novel, physical disability often masks mental ability. Able-bodied adults and children assume that Melody and other students with disabilities have no thoughts, preferences, personality, or potential. For example, Melody’s physician, Dr. Hugely, assumes Melody is not smart because she has difficulty answering his test questions. Although Melody knows the answers, she cannot physically perform the tasks he asks her to do. Dr. Hugely mistakenly believes that Melody is “severely brain-damaged,” and suggests sending her away from home to a residential facility or a “special school for the developmentally disabled.” Additionally, The students in Melody’s program are often subjected to frustratingly simple lessons. One year, although Melody is in the third grade, the teacher begins each morning by playing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and going over the alphabet. This eventually leads the students to revolt, as they’re bored by the repetitive lessons that are far below their ability level.
The book emphasizes that people with disabilities have talents in addition to, and in spite of, their limitations. Melody has a photographic memory and a passion for language. She eventually uses this ability to join her school’s Whiz Kid quiz team and win the regional competition. Melody observes the talents of the other students in her program for students with disabilities. She notices that unlike the “regular” kids at her school, not one of the other boys and girls in her program “knows how to be mean,” and each has something special about him or her. Willy, for example is “the basketball expert,” Gloria “the music lover,” and Maria “has no enemies.”
Additionally, Out of My Mind is interested in the way that everyone is somehow disabled, whether physically or mentally. The book argues that deficits like a lack of empathy can be limiting in the same way as a medically-diagnosed disability. Melody’s mother points out that, although Dr. Hugely has a medical degree, he’s no better than she or her daughter, "You've got it easy—you have all your physical functions working properly. You never have to struggle just to be understood. You think you're smart because you have a medical degree?...You're not so intelligent, sir you're just lucky!” Melody programs her Medi-Talker (a personal computer that speaks for her), to answer questions about her condition. She has two default answers, one that is straightforward, and explains the ways in which she is and is not disabled: "I have spastic bilateral quadriplegia, also known as cerebral palsy. It limits my body but not my mind." The other, while more playful, is still true: "We all have disabilities. What's yours?" Melody’s aide, Catherine, also defends Melody against fellow students who question her perfect score on a quiz. Catherine argues, "What your body looks like has nothing to do with how well your brain works! You ought to know that by looking in the mirror!" Throughout the novel, Draper argues that disability occurs on a spectrum, and can coexist with extraordinary ability. She cautions against writing off those with visible disabilities, as Melody has insights and talents to offer to her wider, able-bodied community.
Disability and Ability ThemeTracker
Disability and Ability Quotes in Out of My Mind
Sometimes people never even ask my name, like it’s not important or something. It is. My name is Melody.
I knew the words and melodies of hundreds of songs—a symphony exploding inside my head with no one to hear it but me. But he never asked me about music.
I knew all the colors and shapes and animals that children my age were supposed to know, plus lots more. In my head I could count to one thousand—forward and backward. I could identity hundreds of words on sight. But all that was stuck inside.
Dr. Hugely, even though he had been to college for like, a million years, would never be smart enough to see inside of me.
There’s an alphabet strip at the top, so I can spell out words, and a row of numbers under that, so I can count or say how many or talk about time. But for the majority of my life, I’ve had the communication tools of a little kid on my board. It’s no wonder everybody thinks I’m retarded. I hate that word, by the way. Retarded.
I like all the kids in room H-5, and I understand their situations better than anybody, but there’s nobody else like me. It’s like I live in a cage with no door and no key. And I have no way to tell someone how to get me out.
“Of course I’ll watch Melody,” she’d said with certainty.
“Well, Melody is, well, you know, really special,” Dad said hesitantly.
“All kids are special,” Mrs. V had replied with authority. “But this one has hidden superpowers. I’d love to help her find them.”
Finally, old Nimbus got his way, and the rain came down around me and Mrs. V. It rained so hard, I couldn’t see past the porch. The wind blew, and the wet coolness of the rain washed over us. It felt so good. A small leak on Mrs. V’s porch let a few drops of rain fall on my head. I laughed out loud.
Mrs. V gave me a funny look, then hopped up “You want to feel it all?” she asked.
I nodded my head. Yes, yes, yes.
She rolled me down the ramp Dad had built, both of us getting wetter every second. She stopped when we got to the grass, and we let the rain drench us. My hair, my clothes, my eyes, and arms and hands. Wet. Wet. Wet. It was awesome. The rain was warm, almost like bathwater. I laughed and laughed.
When I sleep, I dream. And in my dreams I can do anything. I get picked first on the playground for games. I can run so fast! I take gymnastics, and I never fall off the balance beam. I know how to square-dance, and I’m good at it. I call my friends on the phone, and we talk for hours. I whisper secrets. I sing.
When I wake up in the morning, it’s always sort of a letdown as reality hits me. I have to be fed and dressed so I can spend another long day in the happy-face room at Spaulding Street School.
Ollie spent all day long swimming around that small bowl, ducking through the fake log, and then swimming around again. He always swam in the same direction. The only time he’d change his course was when Mom dropped a few grains of fish food into his bowl each morning and evening. I’d watch him gobble the food, then poop it out, then swim around and around once again. I felt sorry for him.
At least I got to go outside and to the store and to school. Ollie just swam in a circle all day. I wondered if fish ever slept. But any time I woke up in the middle of the night, Ollie was still swimming, his little mouth opening and closing like he was trying to say something.
I once got one of those electronic dolls for Christmas. It was supposed to talk and cry and move its arms and legs if you pushed the right buttons. But when we opened the box, one of the arms had come off, and all the doll did, no matter which button you pushed, was squeak. Mom took it back to the store and got her money back.
I wonder if she ever wished she could get a refund for me.
The kids in there were mostly fifth graders too. They’d probably be surprised to know that I knew all their names. I’ve watched them on the playground at lunch and at recess for years. My classmates sit under a tree and catch a breeze while they play kickball or tag, so I know who they are and how they work. I doubted if they knew any of us by name, though.
“Some people get braces on their teeth. Some get braces on their legs. For others, braces won’t work, so they need wheelchairs and walkers and such. You’re a lucky girl that you only had messed-up teeth. Remember that.”
“I’m not trying to be mean—honest—but it just never occurred to me that Melody had thoughts in her head.”
A couple of other kids nod slightly.
Miss Gordon doesn’t raise her voice. Instead, she responds thoughtfully: “You’ve always been able to say whatever came to your mind, Claire. All of you. But Melody has been forced to be silent. She probably has mountains of stuff to say.”
Catherine jumped out of her chair and stormed over to where Claire and Molly were sitting, her new black leather boots clicking sharply on the tiled classroom floor. “I did not help her! Did it ever occur to you that she might have some smarts of her own?”
“She can’t even sit up by herself!” Claire replied, her voice petulant.
“What your body looks like has nothing to do with how well your brain works! You ought to know that by looking in a mirror!”
Hmmm, I thought. Claire gets sick in the middle of a crowded restaurant, yet I’m the one everybody looks at sideways.
They all had to wait for me and Mom. We took our time.
Push gently. Roll down. Bump. Top step.
Push gently. Roll down. Bump. Next step.
Push gently. Roll down. Bump. Third step.
Five bumps down to the bottom of the steps.
And I was still so hungry.
Mr. Dimming said slowly, “The six members of the championship Spaulding Street Elementary School quiz team are…” He paused. I thought Connor was going to throw something at him. “Rose, Connor, Melody, Elena, Rodney, and Molly. Claire and Amanda will be our alternates.”
“I’m an alternate?” Claire gasped.
“Molly beat you by two points, Claire,” Mr. D explained. “But you still get to come with us and cheer us on and tour the city.”
“But it was me who helped her study! Claire said, outrage in her voice. “That is so not fair!”
I just shook my head and smiled a little. There is so much Claire doesn’t know about stuff not being fair.”
I glanced out of her large picture window and I watched the wet branches sway. How could I say it? I looked back at my talker and typed very slowly, “I want to be like other kids.”
“So you want to be mean and fake and thoughtless?”
I looked up at her angry face, then looked away. “No. Normal.”
“Normal sucks!” she roared. “People love you because you’re Melody, not because of what you can or cannot do. Give us a little credit.”
When we get to school, the air is chilly, so the aides take us directly to room H-5. As we get settled, I look at my friends there through different eyes.
Freddy, who wants to zoom to the moon.
Ashley, our fashion model.
Will, the baseball expert.
Maria, who has no enemies.
Gloria, the music lover.
Carl, our resident gourmet.
Jill, who might have once been like Penny.
Not one of them even knows how to be mean.
It’s like somebody gave me a puzzle, but I don’t have the box with the picture on it. So I don’t know what the final thing is supposed to look like. I’m not even sure if I have all the pieces. That’s probably not a good comparison, since I couldn’t put a puzzle together if I wanted to. Even though I usually know the answer to most of the questions at school, lots of stuff still puzzles me.