Open Letter to People Writing Articles About Successful People with Disabilities

Open letter to people writing articles about successful people with disabilities:

Yes, that’s right, [insert disability here] completely failed to stop this person from [insert ordinary accomplishment here].

Do you know why their disability did not stop them from doing well with the thing?

Here, let me help you. The reason why their disability didn’t stop them? Is because there’s no reason why it would! Because having this disability doesn’t have anything to do with the success that you have described!

The negative assumptions that other people make about disabled people? The prejudice and discrimination that people with disabilities have to deal with? The accessibility barriers in our environment? These things can slow us down. Sometimes these things can even stop us altogether. But nine times out of ten, articles about successful people with disabilities aren’t talking about these things when they say, “[disability] did not stop this person from [accomplishment]”!

You may think you are doing a good thing in sharing stories that help bust stereotypes about disability. You are helping show that people with disabilities can be successful!

Yes, this is good. But the way you frame this matters. When you say that the person accomplished X despite having disability Y, you help reinforce the concept that disability Y should normally be a barrier to achieving accomplishment X. These kinds of statements can actually reinforce negative assumptions about disability. This can imply that the person’s success is a rare exception that other disabled people might not achieve. And often that implication is incorrect.

If you really want to help break stereotypes, then please don’t do it like this. Instead, please help your readers understand that,

  • Yes, this person with a disability is successful!
  • Because lots of people with similar disabilities are also accomplishing great things!

Help employers and other gatekeepers understand that, very often, the only thing standing in the way of the next successful disabled person is the lack of opportunity. And they’re in a position to offer these opportunities.

Thanks.

Signed, Annoyed Reader with Multiple Disabilities Who Sometimes Gets Tired of Seeing the Same Tropes in News Stories About People with Disabilities

[Note: I originally posted this “open letter” at my Tumblr.]

[Disclaimers: Yes, I recognize that sometimes disabilities are the barrier. I do not intend to erase the experiences of people for whom disability is the primary challenge to meeting conventional definitions of “successful”. However, in a high ratio of media coverage, disability in and of itself is not as much of a barrier as media purveyors seem to assume. Also: Yes, I absolutely agree that people do not have to be employed to have value as people, or to be defined as “successful”. Hence, “and other gatekeepers”.]