Our campus discourse around disability shifts between uncertainty — “What should I say to her?”, “Does he need any help?” — and pity. We assume that living with a disability is inherently difficult, and this automatic association defines disabilities as undesirable and abnormal, a sign that a body isn’t functioning properly.
Certainly it’s more difficult to cross an intersection while blind or to operate a vehicle from within a wheelchair. However, the problem is that we look at these facts and conclude that having a disability means struggling to complete daily tasks. Because people with disabilities may need “extra assistance” in order to complete these tasks, we perceive this assistance as compensating for the lack of something: a lack of muscle control, a lack of sensory perception or a lack of mobility.
Our culture portrays people with disabilities as deficient and fundamentally lacking in their capacity to perform. When we appeal to this flawed logic, we imply that a disability itself causes adversity and generates obstacles. In other words, we blame people with disabilities for their own struggles, absolving ourselves of responsibility.
According to Rosemarie Thomson, a professor of women’s studies at Emory University, “disability arises from the interaction of embodied differences with an unaccommodating physical and social environment.” Thomson shifts our attention from the individual to society. She challenges discourse that stigmatizes disability, suggesting that people aren’t lacking, but rather their environments.
An understanding of people with disabilities as incomplete relies on the assumption that being disabled prohibits you from fully engaging an environment. What if we were to make our society more accommodating? Imagine, for instance, if every staircase were accompanied by a ramp. With this, having a wheelchair would no longer be a disadvantage.
Bodies are simply ways that we navigate our world. Some people see with their eyes and others perceive with their hands. Some people walk with their legs and others move using a wheelchair. They’re achieving the same goals, but even our language implies that only certain ways we use our bodies are “normal.”
It’s deeply problematic when we begin to assign values to our bodies. For example, condemning homosexuality, some would argue that heterosexual intercourse is appropriate while homosexual intercourse thwarts the body’s original design.
It’s ridiculous, don’t you see? Bodies are bodies. They come in all shapes and sizes, and some function differently than others. However, nobody has the right to push moral judgment onto a body, to dictate what is normal or abnormal, desirable or undesirable.
On one hand, I want to leave you with the message that disability is normal. I want to challenge you to understand people with disabilities as normal people with normal bodies.
On the other hand, I want you to deconstruct what it means to be normal. Few things in life are monolithic. For example, people might say that walking is normal, but what does it mean to walk? Some people take big steps, and others take small ones. We skip, we sashay, we point our toes inward and drag our heels.
All bodies work differently and express a wide range of abilities. Using the word “normal” devalues this diversity, initiating the construction of a false binary between able-bodied and disabled.
Don’t pity people with disabilities. Instead, recognize their bodies as legitimate and complete. We must work toward creating spaces that accommodate, rather than exclude and stigmatize, people of all abilities and backgrounds.
Derek Siegel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.