See Disability

Image: A white badge with the words “See My Disability” in capitals – the ‘Dis’ is crossed out…

This meme always makes me want to scream. When I see it posted by disabled people themselves it makes me want to swallow my own eyeballs…

March is Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month. I don’t know when this was decided or by whom, and awareness of this in itself is patchy, but I have noticed this growing over the last four or five years. Typically this means that I see a lot more parents and family members of CP kids with profile pictures incorporating the green CP ribbon. Again, I don’t know who made the decision that green was the CP colour but in this case it’s something I support.

I also see variations on a meme.

The picture above is a textbook example, the message is clear and simple, ‘See my ability, not my disability. This is often but not always accompanied by descriptions of CP ‘warriors’ (this is usually from parents and family members but sometimes from the CP person themselves). I find this completely understandable but it also makes me deeply uncomfortable. Growing up with CP, and parenting a child with CP, can make things into a battle whether we want it or not. A fight for acceptance, for access, for independence, for being taken seriously, for being treated as people. The framing of disabled people as ‘warriors’ isn’t anything new and in an environment where everything can feel like an uphill struggle it makes a lot of sense. Even the words I’ve used above, ‘fight’, ‘battle’, ‘struggle’ – are indicative of the mindset that people are often forced to adopt when living in the disability sphere. I think this is often how memes like this one are created and arrived at and picked up on, they speak to the uphill push – especially to be treated as ‘normal’. See my ability, might be better written as ‘see my value’. Having worked for a number of years with disabled children in a previous job, it really brought home to me how much of a battle bringing up a disabled child can be. A battle not with the child but with the system and society that doesn’t expect disabled people to participate fully. Be that in education, social lives, romantic lives, work lives, sports – any number of things. In talking to parents of disabled children, it always struck me that the kids who tended to do well, came from home and school environments which were aspirational. Where they were encouraged to be whatever they wanted to be, encouraged to think big, dream big, and to not let disability stand in their way.

To be clear, I absolutely support this. My problem comes when it spills over into negating disability and getting to a place where the ‘dis’ is crossed out as in this meme. It moves from aspiration and celebration, into inspiration porn. That is a massive issue, because at that point we run into problems and this meme illustrates them very well.

Because this meme gives me big problems. The best place to start with this is, disability is not a dirty word. If you cross out the ‘dis’ in disability, you inherently devalue and make disability into a negative – in this construction it is something to not be seen. I often wonder how people can share memes like this while also supporting the idea of disability pride and identity. My disability is a part of who I am, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it and I’m on a long (probably lifelong) pathway towards full acceptance of it, having grown up and lived in a world where disability is seen as a negative. The idea of disability as something to be overcome, where there is an abled norm which is to be aspired to. I want people to see my disability. Firstly because, it’s a vital part of me and my experience, and that deserves to be acknowledged, seen, heard and integrated and valued. Secondly because it’s honest. It’s offensive and narrow to have the idea of ‘not seeing’ race, or gender, or sexuality or age. Yet somehow the disability community and its allies consistently tell the world it’s OK – indeed preferred – to say ‘I don’t see disability’. If we want a less prejudiced and more open culture, we need to see difference in order to treat it as it deserves. Inclusion actually means acceptance of difference rather than wilfully ignoring it.

As well as this, the idea of See my ability not my disability sets up a position where ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ are in opposition. I feel like this comes from a legacy of the medical and charity models of disability where disabled people are dehumanised or made into problems to be solved. But disability and ability don’t need to be a contradiction or opposition at all, and disabled people and their allies do themselves a disservice by giving this opposition any credibility whatsoever. I am disabled, but I am also a musician, a writer, a friend, a mental health worker, a volunteer, a writer, a nerd, an aspiring satirist….I have abilities too. Some of them are influenced by my disability to a greater or lesser extent, but they are not in spite of my disability, or something which had to bypass my disability to be appreciated. Most of the hurdles that disability brings come from societal and internalised ableism, but focusing on ability at the expense of disability, only reinforces that ableism rather than breaking it. If you look to see the ability not my disability, you actually uphold the ableist status quo that disability isn’t fully accepted. It’s not a matter of ‘see my ability’, it should be a matter of ‘disabled people can’, and normalising that to such a degree that it becomes unremarkable. When disabled people are visible in everyday life and it doesn’t bring comment, that will be a mark of a barrier being well and truly broken down.

We need to see both the ability and disability, we need to teach disabled children aspiration, but do so in a way that doesn’t make them want to negate their disability and their identity that is part of that. Disability fundamentally affects one’s understanding and view of the world, reducing it to something to be overcome to the point nobody notices it, is to reject part of the disabled person. In many ways the ‘dis’ is a great example of how disability is made into a negative, the prefix ‘dis’ is to reduce something – it reduces ‘ability’. In reality, disability and ability are not opposites at all. Disability may bring barriers and obstacles which are to be worked out or adapted to, but it isn’t anything to feel bad about. It is part of who we are.

So I hope you do see my disability. Because that means you will see a fuller picture.

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