How we think about disability
This is an insightful, thought-provoking article from the New York Times with questions, themes and messages that are universal.
Roughly one in five Americans lives with a disability. So where is our pride movement?
by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson*
Not long ago, a good friend of mine said something revealing to me: “I don’t think of you as disabled,” she confessed.
I knew exactly what she meant; I didn’t think of myself as disabled until a few decades ago, either, even though my two arms have been pretty significantly asymmetrical and different from most everybody else’s my whole life.
My friend’s comment was meant as a compliment, but followed a familiar logic – one that African-Americans have noted when their well-meaning white friends have tried to erase the complications of racial identity by saying, “I don’t think of you as black,” or when a man compliments a woman by saying that he thinks of her as “just one of the guys.”
This impulse to rescue people with disabilities from a discredited identity, while usually well meaning, is decidedly at odds with the various pride movements we’ve come to know in recent decades. Slogans like “Black Is Beautiful” and “We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It!” became transformative taunts for generations of people schooled in the self-loathing of racism, sexism and heterosexism. Pride movements were the psycho-emotional equivalents of the anti-discrimination and desegregation laws that asserted the rights of full citizenship to women, gay people, racial minorities and other groups. More recently, the Black Lives Matter and the L.G.B.T. rights movement have also taken hold.
Yet pride movements for people with disabilities – like Crip Power or Mad Pride – have not gained the same sort of traction in the American consciousness. Why? One answer is that we have a much clearer collective notion of what it means to be a woman or an African-American, gay or transgender person than we do of what it means to be disabled.
A person without a disability may recognize someone using a wheelchair, a guide dog or a prosthetic limb, or someone with Down syndrome, but most don’t conceptualize these people as having a shared social identity and a political status. “They” merely seem to be people to whom something unfortunate has happened, for whom something has gone terribly wrong. The one thing most people do know about being disabled is that they don’t want to be that.
Yet disability is everywhere once you start noticing it. A simple awareness of who we are sharing our public spaces with can be revelatory. Wheelchair users or people with walkers, hearing aids, canes, service animals, prosthetic limbs or breathing devices may seem to appear out of nowhere, when they were in fact there all the time.
… The article finishes with this paragraph
Becoming disabled demands learning how to live effectively as a person with disabilities, not just living as a disabled person trying to become nondisabled. It also demands the awareness and cooperation of others who don’t experience these challenges. Becoming disabled means moving from isolation to community, from ignorance to knowledge about who we are, from exclusion to access, and from shame to pride.
SOURCE: New York Times Opinion. 19 August 2016
*Rosemarie Garland-Thomson teaches English and bioethics at Emory University, where she is a founding director of the Disability Studies Initiative.