“Overcoming Disabilities,” Normativity, and Rhetoric – Hidden Power of Words Series, #28

Earlier today I was writing a letter of recommendation for a student. Through the process of describing their academic abilities and experiences, it finally occurred to me that all-too-often how we talk about academic success–for students with any type of difference–is completely wrong.

As professors we often think of how much more impressive our outstanding students are when they also have had learning or medical differences or have had unusually large family or work experiences, for example. I have made this mistake. I have also had my own accomplishments deemed “particularly amazing” because of my never-ended medical problems countless times. (For details on my adventures with Neurofibromatosis, please click here.)

Such frames experiences and uniquenesses exclusively in the terms of normativity.

Such fails to consider that such success is possibly entirely because of said differences. People with the opportunity to exist in states of cripness (or in states that actively resist normativity) excel where they do because they experience things in an entirely different reality, not because they have overcome and transitioned into some state of normalcy.  

Without all of the medical problems I have had, I wouldn’t be able to see and critique the world in anywhere near the same way, if at all. People who live comfortably within normalcy, more often see the world as comfortable, equitable, and unworthy of critique. 

Normativity never accomplishes anything meaningful.
Normativity always defines and confines.
Normativity never subverts the normative.
Normativity always blinds and deafens. 

In addition, no one ever “overcomes disability.” Whether its memories, social pressures, or on-going and new medical issues, issues of ability and disability are life-long processes.

Of course, at this point, we should note that ability/disability (and normativity) are socially constructed notions, and we all are somewhere in between the very long spectrum of 100% able-bodied and 100% disabled. Additionally, intersectionality matters. People all have races, genders, sex, religions, etc. that create who they are. Given the pervasive nature of identity-based oppression, there are plenty of “opportunities” for people to see the world more clearly and to live in different realities.  

So, let’s abandon any notions of “overcoming disabilities.” It’s a myth: At the very least, the experiences stay with us for a lifetime. Everyone is “disabled” in some way or another, or will be. And for those lucky enough, there’s no need to overcome something that enables our talents.

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda