I’m not dissing a great protest song. I am however, getting really tired of the whole “overcoming one’s disability” cliché. For someone who does spend a lot of effort dealing with issues, that may sound odd. Why don’t I want to “overcome” my problems?
To overcome one’s disability does not just means to succeed in doing things in life that are personally difficult. It also carries the social and verbal subcontexts that one has not only succeeded, but also triumphed. You’ve beaten the disability (against all odds, of course) and won. The sports / war metaphors get really heavy, and they are described as if the disability is separate from yourself. You’re engaged in an ongoing battle, where everyone is keeping track of your score like fair-weather fans. But somehow it’s a battle against your disabled-self. Being able to separate yourself from the disability, to hold its limitations at arm’s length as it were, ennobles you because you have become closer to a “normal” person. The unspoken social contract says that if you can remove the disability and redeem yourself as a normal person, then you will earn the rights, privileges and responsibilities of full personhood.
Assuming of course, that you can keep it up. There are always higher hurdles to be leaped, and previous records that must be maintained. Slackers can’t be winners; choosing to resort to non-standard methods that are more enabling and less stressful is just giving up. Oh, you poor pitiable thing. (/sarcasm)
But disabilities are not completely extrinsic things from our selves and our identities. Of course, no one wants to be known more for their disability than for their personality, and the other factors that make up who they are. There are many sorts of disabilities (especially the physical and health-related sorts) that many people would be perfectly glad to not have. But despite the problems that go with them, our various disabilities are still part of who we are; they shape our lives.
But how much can we extricate disabilities and their effects from personhood? I’ve previously blogged about “person-first language“. The philosophy behind this is that the person is more important than an impairment they have; that a person should not be known by a diagnosis. And indeed, “person-with” makes better rational linguistic sense when the “with” is a temporary (or preferably temporary) condition, as in “person with broken leg” or “person with cancer”. But person-first language can be prissy and awkward, and sometimes is simply benign earnestness at being polite – well-intended but treacly. Or, person-first can be Politically Correct at its most obnoxious, demonstrating a belief that the condition is “recoverable” and thus meaning something should be done about it. My autistic pal David jokes about how he “has autism — I keep it in this little box”. The point of course, being that rather than something that can be extracted or cured or a shell that can be peeled off, autism is rather something that permeates a number of things in a person’s entire life. It colors the perspectives and the social world and communication and a number of other things, not unlike the ways that being a Deaf person makes one different.
Despite the fact that disabilities are necessarily “disabling”, they are not wholly problematic. There are a number of things that are more disabling by how the social world runs, and by the construction of the architectural environments. Out in the wild, my hyperacute hearing is hardly a problem, aside from rare thunderstorms. In the urban or industrial environment, such sensitivity can be exhausting and stressful. It’s only when I need to be able to identify hundreds of different people in professional realms that the faceblindness is problematic; I could certainly cope with the limited number I encountered in my naturally constrained “village” when I worked from home and met with others under the controlled circumstances of arranged appointments. Give me an LCD monitor and incandescent or sunlight conditions, and I can do computer work for hours without complaint; it’s the fluorescent lights and television-type monitors that give me headaches with all their damn flickering.
There are a number of things that are really more about differences than handicaps. It’s less about the fact that we “can’t” Do This or can’t Do That. It’s really about the fact that most people Do This or Do That to achieve particular goals, or to fill common human needs. But we don’t all have to do things in those same ways to achieve those goals and needs. It’s only if we place verbal speech as the “natural, necessary and desirable” form of communication that hearing impairment or speech difficulties are disabling. Filling buildings with stairs and narrow passageways and heavy doors disable anyone who is not limber on two feet or doesn’t have a lot of aerobic stamina. Big, mechanically noisy rooms full of fluorescent lights will fatigue or overwhelm a number of people with a variety of conditions. What is so damn virtuous about being able to tolerate working in crappy environments?
“Beating” and “overcoming” the disability is not the only means removing its negative influence from life. Rather, accepting disability and figuring out how to do things differently is how we best succeed. It does not mean that we have resigned ourselves to “giving up”.
Like millions of others, I would not be the same person, and would not have the same abilities without my own various cognitive quirks. This leads us to something important about the discourse of disability:
Requiring everyone to meet the same achievements, while continuously increasing what all those requirements must include, necessarily results in an ever-shrinking pool of citizens that meet the codified parameters for “acceptable normalcy”. Every time you slice off the outliers from yet another bell-curve, you end up settling for the common denominators of mediocrity.
One of the prime social benefits to having, keeping, valuing and listening to those who are different is that such people will perforce have perspectives outside of the norm. Like travelers in our own culture, we can perceive things that are invisible in their normalcy and ubiquity to others. Cultural progress depends upon being able to define and evaluate social structures. We need the diversity of perspectives to keep dragging the human race forwards.
We all have plenty of things to overcome, but I bet they aren’t the things most people think some of us need to overcome!