Chicken Soup For The Nondisabled Soul (And Why You Won’t Find It Here)

Along with being asked why I’m so angry and negative, I’m also advised, by able and disabled people alike, to be more positive. Sure, I’m allowed to write about exploitation and discrimination, but why am I not serving up more feel-good, inspirational content? Where’s the comfort food? Where’s the acknowledgement that the world is, at its core, full of decent people who just don’t understand me? Where?!

I know what so many people want: they want chicken soup. They want brief, digestible content that reminds them it’s not all bad and that life is essentially good, no matter what. People certainly enjoy rage-fuel, and my passionate posts receive far more attention than my sweet little gratitude pieces, but there is still, it seems, a demand for what we in the disabled community lovingly call “inspiration porn.” You know the stuff—content that portrays disabled people in a light most pleasing to the nondisabled eye. In these pieces, we are courageous, steely individuals with more guts and gumption than anyone else would ever need (and the drive to use them). These pieces highlight inspiring people who have achieved ambitious heights, shattering expectations with an appealingly musical crash. They are high-powered athletes, successful entrepreneurs, survivors of devastating illness and injury, or astonishingly talented superstars. They have “overcome.” They have “transcended.” They have “made it.” Life as an everyday (and unbearably boring) disabled person is a battle, and they have “won.” The rest of us? Well, nobody really wants to hear about us unless we’ve been thrown out of a restaurant for having a service dog, or been paid less than minimum wage by Goodwill. The stories the public seems most attached to are the ones where a disabled person is either beating the odds in the face of adversity, or standing proud and unflappable after shameful mistreatment.

These reassuring bowls of chicken soup are not just favourites of those with no disabilities. They’re also beloved by many in the disabled community, who are convinced that the only right way to be disabled is to reach newsworthy goals. There’s only one acceptable narrative, and if we don’t fit neatly into it, we’re doing it wrong. The only way to get the world to care about how we are mistreated is to uplift them. Make them admire us, and after that, maybe they’ll come around to respecting us as well. You know, eventually.

I like a good story as much as the next person. I’m proud of my disabled peers, who really do work very hard and yield impressive results. I admire and respect their strength, even though I know they wouldn’t have to be so strong in a different, more accessible world. I laugh and cry with them, exulting when they succeed and commiserating when they fail. I share empowering stories when they do particularly well, so that others will know they are more capable than many might imagine. Inspiration is not, in itself, toxic, and positivity in moderation is indeed excellent nourishment for anyone’s soul, disabled or otherwise. The blog has been, I hope,  a vehicle for empathy and understanding as often as advocacy and education.

We need to be vigilant, though, because it’s so tempting to conform to the narrative of disability I discussed earlier—the one demanding we remain appealingly brave and heroic at all times. We already know that living our lives does not necessarily require heroism, and we also know that we deal with disability because there’s no alternative, not because we’re superhumanly strong. The public doesn’t know that all the way down, though, not yet. If we don’t pay attention to how we are portrayed by popular media (and by each other), we will inadvertently place strain on ordinary disabled people simply trying to live their lives.

Not every disabled person is brave at all times. Not every disabled person will soar to new, hitherto unexpected places. Many of us will stumble, and fail, and give up, at least temporarily. Many others of us will live quietly and contentedly, just as the majority of nondisabled people do. We need to remember that it’s okay to stumble. It’s okay to falter. It’s okay to break away from the inspirational mantras circling in your head long enough to remember that you are not obligated to feature in the Huffington Post. Your life is meaningful because it is yours, and is not made less meaningful if you never break a glass ceiling or awe the masses. Plenty of people go through their whole lives without doing anything of note (I expect that will be my own lot, and I’m okay with that) and they’re still perfectly happy. You deserve an accessible, welcoming environment whether you’re “making a difference” or going quietly about your business. Our deeds do not render us eligible or ineligible for decent treatment. Having a disability or illness does not have to shape your personality or desires. Being brave and strong should not determine whether you deserve the struggles you’re up against.

Reach for the stars, if that is what you believe you should do. Don’t succumb to the doubts and misgivings of others. I’m the last person to limit you. While you’re aspiring, just keep in mind that you don’t have to function as living chicken soup. If you want to be ordinary, if you feel too exhausted to be strong at all times, or if you fail spectacularly, know that it’s an acceptable circumstance and, while you can always get back on the horse, you don’t need to be inspiring while you do it. If you need to cry, to rage, to crumple, please do. Gather your support system close and let them carry you for a moment. You’re allowed.
In short, you do you.

Looking for chicken soup? Sorry, I’m fresh out.

Fearing The Pigeon-Hole: Or, The Trials Of Being A Disabled Writer

During a mock interview, the interviewer skimmed through some writing samples, noticing how many of them were directly related to disability. He then asked, without a trace of irony, whether I was “all about accessibility?” I didn’t have a coherent answer for him.
After mentioning blindness in a piece of creative writing, my classmates pressed for details, appearing to overlook the fact that the story wasn’t about being blind at all. I was writing about love, familial obligation, and social isolation, but all people seemed interested in, at least at the time, was the blindness angle.
Writing a blog about disability advocacy is hard, honest work, but many people believe it is the obvious choice for a blind writer. It is generally assumed that disabled people only ever write books, articles, and blogs about their disabilities, and all too often, this is proven true. Most of the blind writers I know focus, if not exclusively, then predominantly on their disability and how it colours the world around them. They may engage in all types of social advocacy, but disability tends to be at the forefront. They may have a varied work history, but much of it may involve working for advocacy organizations. We are, in short, pigeon-holed.
As I embarked on my modest little writing career, I began to fear the pigeon-hole. I wrote stories and articles that were completely devoid of disability-related themes, just so I could avoid being put into a neat little box. I explored every other facet of myself—Meagan as woman, Meagan as student, Meagan as writer and so on—but tried to write around blindness so I would seem more nuanced and less typical. I fought hard when classmates and instructors would press for more information on my disability, especially when I deemed it to be peripheral to the writing in question. I resisted when people suggested that my writing would only be unique if I included my disability, as though the rest of me was incurably boring without it. I became frustrated when I was told to “write like you do for your blog,” thinking this meant I was only of interest when writing about my broken eyes.
What I failed to understand, though, was that my disability-related writing was appealing simply because it was direct, confident, and convincing. I wrote with an authority I struggle to maintain when writing about other subjects less well-known to me. My straightforward but illuminating approach on the blog was what made others want to see more of that style, not the blindness itself. People didn’t want more of my blindness, per se; they wanted more of me, period.
Nervous that I would inadvertently paint myself into a corner I would never emerge from again, I considered dropping my blog altogether, to weaken the associations between my writing and my blindness. Would having a blindness blog peg me as a one-trick pony right off the hop?
I asked myself what I’d write about instead. Contrary to the beliefs of many, I have wide-ranging interests, and could probably write half a dozen blogs if I had the time and energy. My bibliophile self would have no difficulty writing about books once a week. Certainly my adventures with mental illness would provide ample fodder for a blog all on their own. I could easily write about music, popular culture, technology, and even philosophy, without breaking too much of a sweat. If I thought enough of my writing to believe people would actually enjoy them, I could write five blogs.
It took some time, but I’ve come to realize that writing “Where’s your dog” does not have to pen me in as a writer unless I let it. Focusing on disability in one medium does not restrict me in others. Writers are, in theory, limited only by their time, energy, and ingenuity. I can submit to as many publications as I’d like. I can establish as many blogs as I please (though I think one is enough, for now anyway). I can explore the multi-faceted world I inhabit just as fully whether I have a blindness-related blog or not. And, if I fear that employers and the casual reader will dismiss me as that one-trick pony, why, all I can do is prove them wrong.
Further, if I do choose to write about my disability in relation to the wider world, that’s not shameful or lazy. If the everyday woman can write about being female, and the everyday lover can write about being in love, then surely I, the everyday blind person, can write about being blind without sacrificing self-respect. Surely disability, like any other minority trait, is enough to give me an interesting perspective on the world? After all, I greatly enjoy the perspectives of fellow disabled people. So, why shouldn’t my own writing about my blindness be truly meaningful?
Society is so often putting us in boxes, telling us our place, and shaping our narratives. In this case, though, the only one stuffing me into the pigeon-hole was me.