Why we need less stories about overcoming disability and more about the fluidity of disability
Plastered across media outlets, reblogged to friends and family, most of the narratives deemed most “impactful” on disability are focused on “overcoming.”
“Student with Down Syndrome makes history as valedictorian”
“Video of husband in wheelchair standing up and dancing with wife goes viral"
“Child with stutter inspires with emotional speech”
This narrative of overcoming disability, while largely considered as heartwarming and inspiring, perpetuates the misconception that disability is something to defeat. Stella Young, a journalist and disability rights advocate, has famously conceptualized this as inspiration porn – the objectification of disabled individuals in media serving a narrative that makes consumers, namely people without disabilities, feel good.
I’ve had a speech disability since I was about three or four years old. My stuttering usually manifests itself in the form of repetitions and prolongations. Even a simple introduction– “Hi, my name is S-S-S-S-Samuel”-- riddled me with anxiety, and thus, I avoided many social situations; I put off things like answering the phone, dating, or meeting new people. I agonized over the fear of being ridiculed for the way that I speak.
As I grew up, I wanted a cure for my stuttering – I wanted to “overcome” it. Surrounded by media parroting the same “inspirational” tales, and my school and local communities united with that sentiment, I internalized the idea that my speech disability needed treatment. That something was wrong with me. That I had this thing that needed to be fixed or mitigated in order for me to thrive in society.
I carried on with that mentality until I was in my early 20s, having just become involved in the stuttering community. I started regularly attending the National Stuttering Association’s annual conference in the U.S., and there I first became exposed to the disability space; I met other people who stutter– stuttered openly– and accept their speech disability. Stuttering soon became something that didn’t represent an obstacle to champion over, an identity to erase, but rather something that I can live with.
Having since continued my engagement in disability spaces and my subsequent work in accessibility, I have come to realize that disability is a much more complex notion than the one we’ve traditionally understood. Stories around overcoming disability have largely interpreted disability as a binary concept: a fixed, performative notion. Disability, then, is something thought to be performed and subsequently consumed. If you have a disability, you are meant to act a certain way, one that is in accordance to how mainstream media thinks you’re meant to based on that label – your actions forever tied to it I remember in class, there were occasions when I would say something without my usual repetition and a peer would ask me, “What’s going on? You’re not stuttering?”
Rather, disability is a much more fluid concept than commonly understood: it changes according to our environments. My speech disability may present as an obstacle for me in various situations:a first date or a timed presentation. Thus, I’m more aware of my disability in these social situations. However, in other social situations, such as talking to my significant other or answering my mom’s millionth call on the phone, I’m not going to be as aware of my stuttering. My point is, we feel more disabled or less disabled in certain situations.
“Everyone is disabled to some extent.”
I don’t remember where I first heard these words, but they have struck me to this day. Disability is not a binary or fixed concept, but rather a fluid one that changes depending on the space that we occupy in the world and how we interact with that space. Our relationship with our disability changes, according to that space, according to the time in our life, or according to how we feel. The more I’ve accepted stuttering as part of my identity, the less I actually feel like I’m disabled. In many ways, disability is a journey.
Media and storytelling, as the central tools which perpetuated my desire to overcome my disability, has the power to create authentic experiences around disability, and validate disability as an evolving phenomenon that everyone lives with. And it ought to be used as such, adding the necessary nuance to re-conceptualize disability as a complex, messy and emotional journey. Why we need less stories about overcoming disability and more about the fluidity of disability