I Will (not) Overcome

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!


  1. bob said,

    5 January 2008 at 18:47

    laurentius-rex- I agree with your perspective- as a teacher let me point out to those who chide the statement of ” overcoming ” disability, these thoughts are in fact what people see as the need to overcome- the stereotypes that prevent people from finding employment or getting into college- here in America it’s typical that many find those mores and prejudices an inherent part of the materialistic and egoistic society that they live in- early on in your comments I found one that stated more or less:

    ” I don’t know any people like this so I don’t care about them ”

    This unfortunately is typical of the apathy many have if they are not directly affected by the issue

    This is what we ALL need to overcome.

    • Jeannie said,

      7 June 2011 at 22:23

      Fell out of bed feeling down. This has brtgihened my day!

  2. 4 January 2008 at 18:59

    To me overcoming disability means replacing those laws and mores that disable us and defeating those who in there denial set us who don’t lower in there esteem.

    I would say to miss out on the disability movement and the disability culture is in fact a very disabling experience.

    For me impairment (as some call it) and difference is mainstream.

  3. 4 January 2008 at 15:38

    Fabulous stuff. My intense, sometimes quite irrational commitment to the Social Model of Disability leads me to similar kinds of thinking to this. Nice one.

  4. Ed said,

    3 January 2008 at 23:08

    Diversity of perspectives isn’t what is slowing down progress of the disabled. It’s not just the different kinds of people or even the those who most people recognise as unpopular that are excluded. It’s not that way at all.

    Democracy (as most people know it) only recognises the smallest part of the elite few. This is more true today than ever. The biggest reason for that is that today people believe that true democracy exist in some places where it doesn’t at the expense of those who have not been given a voice continuing to be ignored.

    I really don’t think you or Andrea either one are failing to recognise this and my comment wasn’t directed toward Casdok as though she didn’t also know this. I hope that whenever such a veiw as this has the least chance at being seen as valid by anyone, that it is challenged.

    I still think that this post of Andrea’s is the best and most important to me Ive heard her write.

    That sentance that I wrote (without the context of how it was written about in this post) is something that people need to recognise as dangerous and destructive so that a real battle against this problem can be effective. That was the extent of my point.

  5. bob said,

    3 January 2008 at 22:58

    Hi Abndrea- I’d like to post a link to this article on my E.N.O.B.L.E site- would that be permissable and could you send me a pdf ?

    Bob Geake

  6. abfh said,

    3 January 2008 at 22:21

    Gah, I also hate it when I see cliched articles about overcoming disability, and you’ve done a great job of identifying just what is wrong with that phrase. The people who write that stuff need to work on overcoming their prejudices.

    Ed — I don’t think Andrea or anyone else is claiming that people always have had the right to express a diversity of perspectives freely. We all know that society tries to silence those who are unpopular. Just by virtue of the existence of different kinds of people, however, there is more diversity of perspectives in our society than there otherwise would be.

  7. Ed said,

    3 January 2008 at 20:28

    See I missed something again.
    Casdok pointed out:
    “We need the diversity of perspectives to keep dragging the human race forwards.”
    If that was important to this post as great line in and of itself, I would say the idea that we have ever had anything like the right to our diversity of perspectives (because of so many that abuse their privilege of expressing their perspective as though the majority actually DO have this opertunity when they DON’T) is the most dangerous and destructive veiw I’ve ever seen.

    Maybe I learned something anyway though.

  8. Casdok said,

    3 January 2008 at 19:02

    “We need the diversity of perspectives to keep dragging the human race forwards.”
    Great line.

  9. Ed said,

    3 January 2008 at 17:16

    Sometimes I don’t understand what you are trying to say and sometimes I know that I miss the point.

    What you have said here is the most appreciated piece of writing I have ever seen from you. (and I read most all of your post)

    I hope that I can better adopt the attitude that you have expressed here and I know that by reading this I can better express it. Thank you very much.

  10. the AS Man said,

    3 January 2008 at 7:14

    I really like how you think.

%d bloggers like this: