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”.]

Meeting Myself in a Book for the First Time, Again

The first time that I met myself in a book, I was a little girl–young enough to relate to 6-year-old characters, and to view 12-year-old characters as being practically grown ups.

It went something like this, and here I’m going to quote an abridged passage from an earlier blog post I wrote on meeting myself the first time, entitled “Me, The Bobbsey Twins, and Switched at Birth“:

“For years it is missing and you don’t even notice. …. Not because you don’t miss it, not because you don’t yearn for it, but because you don’t realize that it’s possible to have a world in which it exists.  … And then, one day, it happens. … And you turn the page, and it happens. Your heart seems to skip a beat and then beats again, faster than before.  You freeze, staring at the page, watching as the whole world opens up all around you, richer and more tangible than ever you knew.  … [F]or the first time in my life, I’ve just met me in a book.  Because Flossie’s friend is a little deaf girl like me. Just like me.  Here is me.  At last.”

Except then, it went like this: after a series of puzzling “lip reading” errors not at all consistent with the type of lip reading errors likely to happen in real life, Flossie’s friend says that she is “all mixed up”.  And instead of recognizing that she must be frustrated and in need of some other communication strategy, Flossie and her mother simply laugh at her.  Again, quoting from the earlier blog post:

“Slowly and reluctantly,  after talking with my parents about the book, I started to understand.  No, the little girl’s deafness wasn’t there for me.  ….  No.  The point of this scene was … See how funny these communication difficulties are?  Here I am in a book.  For the very first time in my entire life.  And the only point of having me there … was so others could laugh at me, at a little girl like me having trouble understanding what Flossie’s mother said.”

So I had finally met me in a book.  And almost wished I hadn’t.  And I’m 46 now.  And that first time still hurts.

Yes, I did eventually meet other deaf, Deaf, and hard of hearing characters in books and TV programs and movies.  And, yes, it helps.  A lot.

But here’s the thing.  None of them is the first time, because by definition you can only have that once.  And then it’s over and you can never get it back and fix it or do it better.  You can never put “first time” and “again” together in a sentence.

Except.

Then one day, this happens.

(And, sorry, there’s going to be a bit of a spoiler for the book mentioned in the next paragraph.)

One day you’re reading a book.  To be exact, it’s To Stand in the Light by Kayla Bashe.  You’re 45 years old at the time this is happening and you still read voraciously, so there are probably thousands of books behind you now.  And you like this book.  It has girl characters, and non-binary characters, and characters with PTSD, and characters who are lesbian or bi.  And they have adventures and they do brave things.  And they’re also human and complex and not at all perfect, because who is?  Some of them are kind of messed up, in ways that make your heart ache and make you want to crawl into the book and tell them that it’s all right, they’re good just the way they are, and they deserve love, and they should have love, and they will have love, because they already have it if they’ll just look again.   And you like these people.

And there’s one of the main characters who is starting to feel a bit like you in certain ways.  Not exactly like you, but close enough that you can understand why the things she finds hard are hard (even if they’re not exactly the same as the things you find hard).  Close enough, that you can remember being her, before you knew why the hard things are so hard.

And you turn the page, and it happens. Your heart seems to skip a beat and then beats again, faster than before.  You freeze, staring at the page, watching as the whole world opens up all around you, richer and more tangible than ever you knew.  And you’re sitting there on the subway train, crying.  Because the character, Bean, has now been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder–just like you.

You see, it took 45 years, but it finally happened.  This was the first time I’ve met a character in a book who was a girl growing up with ADD, just like I once was a girl growing up with ADD.

I’ve now met myself in a book for the first time in my life … again.  And this time, it doesn’t hurt.  This time, the character was written partly for me.  Here is me.  And I’m okay.

Kayla Bashe–thank you for writing this book.  May you always keep on writing more!

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