Who We Are When Life is Good

How much does society love talking about the impact of adversity on disabled people? The polishing powers of struggle, turning us all into sparkling gems? The motivation that comes from being told we’ll never be good enough, never measure up, never prosper? The myriad obstacles we’ve ‘overcome’ to be the people we are?

As a person with multiple disabilities, I can tell you with confidence that we love it a whole lot.

We love talking about it so much that you’ll rarely hear about anything else. Stories featuring disabled people centre around their troubles and barriers and the Debbie downers who insisted they’d never succeed. Disabled people are forever prompted: Tell us about the haters. The doubters. The people and institutions that stood in your way. Did all that negativity make you work harder? Did it make you stronger? Was it the driving force behind all your ‘inspirational’ achievements? Less often are we asked about positive sources of strength and power.

Societal hunger for tales of marginalized struggle is so voracious that I wonder if, on some deep, dark, shameful level, we quietly enjoy the idea of disabled people having to suffer in order to earn their place in the world. If access comes easily, if an environment is supportive and if barriers aren’t blocking a person’s path, do their accomplishments count?

Maybe not, or at least, not as much. No one wants to hear a story without conflict, so what’s the value of a disabled person’s story if it doesn’t involve plenty of misery?

This romanticism of struggle bled into the way I viewed my life, even as I was living it. I kept waiting for the adversity I faced to make me better, more resilient. Mostly it just made everything worse.

Logic dictated that being a blind person in a visual world would make learning, travel, and daily life more complicated. Of course debilitating chronic pain would make me less dependable, less inclined to pursue great things and explore my creative side. Why wouldn’t mental health issues contribute to my low energy levels and aversion to new challenges? Wouldn’t it be odd if they didn’t?

And yet, because I’d grown up surrounded by triumphant stories of struggle, of people being more successful precisely because they had suffered and come through, I expected that, if anything, my disabilities meant the bar was even higher for me.

The shoulds came thick and fast: my mental ill health should turn me into an unpredictable but admirable genius. My blindness should help me smash barriers to bits with superhuman aptitude. My personal haters and doubters should spur me to work harder, instead of making me feel unwelcome and afraid as they were trying to do.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand that I thrive best when my health is good and my environment is supportive. At present, I’m surrounded by positive, encouraging people who want me to flourish, and by God I’m flourishing. No longer do I cower at the very thought of a real challenge. Weirder still, I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie. I crave variety and I need constant, low-grade stress to be content. Give me a new project, a tight timeline and vague instructions, and watch me crush it. If you’d told me all this five years ago, before I’d ever known such support, I’d have laughed in your face. “No no,” I’d say, “I’m more of a ‘scared of my own shadow’ type.”

As far as I can tell, I owe very little to pain and suffering. Adversity has been useful enough in some ways, but I will never claim to do my best work while beset by destructive forces. Shocker of all shockers: Not everyone soars in the middle of a hailstorm, and it’s strange and sad that we ever expected they should.

Perhaps you’re one of those remarkable creatures who functions well under the worst of conditions. Maybe you’re doing great during this pandemic, while most of the world flounders. It’s possible you’re one of those unicorns, disabled or nondisabled, who confronts terrifying situations—bullying, discrimination, six-lane intersections—and comes out of them more badass than ever. (Teach me thy way!)

But I’m not a unicorn. Many, many of my disabled friends are not unicorns, either, and we get down on ourselves when the troubles that are supposed to make us better end up tiring us out instead. Lots of us get bullied, discriminated against or hit by cars in six-lane intersections, and then we go home and cry because it hurts and it sucks and we hope it’s a long time before we have to go through that again. These things may not break us, and we might get a good blog post out of them if we’re lucky, but we sure as hell bend.

Let’s share some new stories — stories that make room for people who get things done in times of crisis, yes, but who also know the value of environments where they are supported and encouraged. I want to amplify stories about disabled people who get the tools they need, the access they deserve, and the inclusive communities they crave, and who accomplish wonderful things as a result.

I’ll start: Once upon a time, there was a disabled gal named Meagan who did okay in the face of adversity, but who wanted more from life than leaping from hurdle to hurdle. After years of being low-key miserable and unable to fulfill her potential, she found the access and support and community she needed. She blossomed. She accomplished some very cool things, which were no less valid because she wasn’t ‘overcoming’ anything more daunting than her own self-doubt at the time. Also, she had very few haters, and that was handy. She lived happily ever after, terrible mobility skills and nasty migraines and inconvenient mood disorder notwithstanding. (My blog, my ending.)

Not exactly riveting, sure. But it’s kind of a nice change, don’t you think?

Stay safe and healthy, folks, and make some space for happy stories.

If A Blind Person Could Do It…

“If a blind person could do it, what’s your excuse?”
Here we go again.
Here is yet another nondisabled person using blindness, that infamous limiter, to boost motivation levels while simultaneously shaming any sighted person who has accomplished less than any given blind person.
My strong distaste for this specific motivational quote has long baffled me. I see ridiculous inspiration porn plastered all over the internet every day, and I don’t even have to look for it. Why, then, does the “what’s your excuse” line crawl so persistently under my skin? What is it about the “if a blind person could do it” reasoning that makes me feel both belittled and misrepresented? Why do I care what strangers use to get them out of bed in the morning?
Unpacking inspiration porn, as many in the disability community call it, is never enjoyable and often controversial. However well-reasoned your conclusions, someone is always going to chime in with a plea to stop all the negativity. Why begrudge someone the right to feel inspired and uplifted by you? It doesn’t cost you a thing.
Or does it?
Let’s begin with “if a blind person could do it” rhetoric, shall we? My interpretation of this statement is that anything a blind person does must be relatively easy, because we are so much more limited and incapable by default. For example, if a blind person can learn to ski, or play the piano, or cook a five-course meal, anyone can. According to the typical inspirational framework, the “if a blind person could do it” narrative depends upon disabled people being less-than: less capable, less talented, less accomplished. It also depends on us being more-than in one way: determined. Supposedly, our innate resilience is such that, despite our nearly-insurmountable challenges, we manage to get out of bed, go to the gym, hold down jobs, and raise families. Were it not for our remarkable courage and superhuman desire to succeed, we’d be sitting inconspicuously in a lonely corner weaving baskets and smiling vacantly at the wall.
It gets worse: This specious line assumes that any skills and talents developed and honed by disabled people are immaterial. If a blind person could do it, it’s possible for everyone, right? I spent four years in university learning how to communicate professionally and edit meticulously, but if I can do these things well, anyone can. If my blind friend spends years practicing her jewelry design craft, making use of existing talent and working hard to improve, none of those efforts matter because if she can design beautiful jewelry, anyone can. After my high school valedictorian speech, a sighted stranger turned to their companion and whispered “If she can learn to speak like that and accomplish so much…what’s my excuse? Why haven’t I achieved those things?” Hollow admiration when you deconstruct it, since the reason I had already accomplished as much as I had by high school graduation was a combination of gifts I was born with and hard work I’d put in to get where I was. The glaring flaw in this backhanded compliment leaves a very bitter taste behind. (Side note: I wasn’t a particularly outstanding student, but as we all know by now, expectations are lower when you’re me.)
Let us move along to the “so what’s your excuse” portion. The logic of this idea states that sighted people should use us as a way to stem the tide of excuses that frees them from everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking, and working out. If a blind person gets up every morning and gets these done, that must mean sighted people have no excuse at all, despite any challenges they might be facing. Maybe the nondisabled person struggling to motivate themselves has had less sleep than the blind person they’re using for emotional fuel. Perhaps that blind person is an early riser by nature. Could they be healthier? Could it be that they enjoy cooking and cleaning and exercise? Myriad explanations come to mind, and they all lead me to the same destination: tasks don’t diminish in meaning just because a blind person can do them and a sighted person can’t.
I’m reminded of some of my more brilliant blind friends—the ones who laughed at the words “can’t” and “never” and achieved things any sighted person would be immensely proud to accomplish. One of my friends has more or less mastered physiotherapy, cat breeding, and cooking. She has starred in a documentary, travelled Europe on her own, and is currently teaching herself to sew. At thirty, she has achieved more than most sighted seniors I know, and I don’t think anyone can honestly say that all of the skills she’s acquired are less impressive simply because she happens to be blind.
Other blind friends are published authors, admired public speakers, skilled carers, talented designers, and exemplary instructors. They attain great things because they have the necessary passion, desire, and talent, not because great things aren’t really as difficult as they seem. I would never allow anyone to cheapen the hard work and exceptional talents of my disabled friends on the basis that anything a disabled person does mustn’t be all that hard.
What is your excuse, nondisabled person? I certainly hope it’s something reasonable like being too tired, or too busy, or too preoccupied with living your life.
I hope you motivate yourself by being authentically and respectfully inspired by those around you, for the right reasons. I hope you motivate yourself with passion, desire, hard work, and discipline. I hope you chase your dreams because you desperately want to, and not because some blind person did it first and inadvertently shamed you into it. I hope you recognize the accomplishments of disabled people as important and impressive because they are, and not because disabled people don’t normally succeed. Most of all, I hope you admire disabled people not for getting out of bed, or cooking a basic meal, or doing what all grown-ups are expected to do. I hope you admire us for our unique, personal, hard-won achievements, and nothing less.

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 disabled and nondisabled 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, guilt-assuaging content that reminds them 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 (boring, tragic) disabled person is a battle, and these unicorns 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 treatment.

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 life wrong. We’re “surrendering.”

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 work hard and weather fierce storms along the way. I admire and respect their strength, knowing 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 celebrate with them when they win big, and hold space for their anger when society fails to recognize who they are outside the default disability narrative of struggle. 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 expectation that demands we remain brave and heroic at all times. Living our lives does not necessarily require heroism, and 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 judged 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 of us will live quietly and contentedly, just like the majority of nondisabled people. 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.