Why I Write, Vol. 3: Disabled People Don't Exist to Make Non-Disabled People Feel Better
In this series, "Why I Write," members of the Grub community share what compels them to put words onto paper day after day.
As a disabled woman of color scanning the media landscape, I typically find a scarcity of supply when searching for stories that mirror my experience. Often when a disability-related story makes the radar, it approaches the subject from one of two angles, pity or “pedestal,” both of which rely on objectifying the person with a disability rather than using a comprehensive lens. For instance, a recent story of a restaurant employee feeding a disabled patron that went viral frames the employee as “kind-hearted,” spotlighting his altruism. But we know nothing about the disabled person and whether they even consented to being taped. Now to be clear, the employee’s kindness is not the problem—the issue is the “pity” narrative of the disabled person that is often trafficked in. Needing or asking for help doesn’t negate one’s humanity, and disabled people don’t exist to make non-disabled people feel better about their lives.
The other end of the pendulum is exalting people with disabilities, painting us as “overcoming” obstacles, or dubbing us “superhuman.” There is no shortage of examples—Google “disabilities” and “overcoming,” and you’ll find a spate of stories filled with syrupy-sweet sentimentality, such as the following on athletes who overcame their disabilities, and this “promposal” story. This type of content is commonly referred to in the disability community as “inspiration porn, ” a term made famous by Australian disability rights activist Stella Young in her very popular TED Talk.
Since the disability community is not monolithic, multi-dimensional views of what it means to live with disabilities are sorely needed to normalize what disability “looks” like. What is not seen is generally assumed not to exist. The disability community numbers at 57 million in the U.S. per the 2010 US Census. That’s 20% of the population. This erasure of disabled voices negatively affects how disability is conceptualized, both on the individual and societal level. People with disabilities are rarely depicted as parents, sexual beings, heads of corporations; we’re seldom thought of as fashion-conscious, party-goers, or as fully actualized beings with dreams, goals, and plans. Absent are comprehensive portrayals of our lives, lives that might include being in need of care, caregiving, and community building, all at once. I know many in this continuum, especially women. Most often the focus is on lack and limitations. Now, imagine how these narrow depictions of people with disabilities might affect the budding self-awareness of young people, or those who are newly disabled, likely making it even harder to envision a new normalcy beyond this prism of limitations. This skewed understanding of disability and being disabled also contributes to harmful policy measures, where the messaging is “better dead than disabled.”
This is perhaps one of the main reasons many of us, especially women of color with disabilities, exercise creative control in telling our own stories and history. Many of us write blogs to chronicle our experience and amplify our access to media. Toni Morrison, social and literary icon and disabled woman of color, says this of why she began to write: “I read all the time, but I wasn't ever in any of those books.” We write because we must; I write because who else will tell my story with specificity and spark? Who else will spotlight me in my natural glow?
Even in the blogosphere, depictions of disability are overwhelmingly white, and the same stories often seem to get heavy circulation. Friend and fellow advocate sis Vilissa Thompson’s viral sensation, #DisabilityTooWhite, which called attention to the whitewashing of disability, was prompted by seeing yet another beauty and disability feature that was blatantly sans women of color.
As a disability advocate, a facet of my advocacy is searching for disabled women of color to form greater community born of commonality. I also write as an extension of my advocacy work, often chronicling my experience to help raise awareness, ring alarm bells, and reveal latent aspects of myself. Have Cane, Will Strut: Black Disabled Woman and When Self-Identification Gets Corrected are two of my more popular posts providing examples of the aforementioned.
I channel creative energy, crafting works with a cadence that escapes me when ambulating; my gait is more of a staccato-strut. With my cane I maintain balance, and I benefit from sitting with like-minded brothers and sisters working for change. There is no shortage of work but it is so worthwhile, it fuels my life and it is why I write.
Heather Watkins is a Disability Advocate, author, blogger, mother, and graduate of Emerson College with a B.S. in Mass Communications. Born with Muscular Dystrophy, Heather is a cane-user, loves reading, daydreaming, chocolate, and serves on a handful of disability-related boards and a former Chair of Boston Disability Commission Advisory Board. She is Co-founder of “Divas with Disabilities Project,” a supportive sisterhood network representing women of color with disabilities. Her publishing experience includes articles in MDA’s Quest magazine, Mass Rehab Commission’s Consumer Voice newsletter and has blogged for OurAbility.com, Artoflivingguide.org, Disabledparenting.com, and Thankgodi.com. Heather’s short story, “Thank God I have Muscular Dystrophy” published in 2013 as part of compilation in the Thank God I…Am an Empowered Woman ® book series. Her blog Slow Walkers See More includes reflections and insight from her life with disability.