“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 



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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40 replies

  1. How true, Dr Pegoda. I think of the difficulties that people have are ways to develop survival skills. Those who have had fewer or lesser problems did not need to develop quite the survival skills of a disabled or otherwise non-“normal” person. It’s not necessarily extraordinary skills that these non-“normal” people develop, in order to be extraordinary people, but to survive where others do not have to work quite so hard to survive. However, there are still the “boy geniuses” around us, in reference to one in particular, and not necessarily meant to leave out those of other genders/types.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting and thought-provoking post. I think one reason I have ordinary students writing extraordinary pieces/essays/papers/poems/stories is because regardless of their capabilities I “judge” them not on ability but on the product and its own merits. Everyone, whether a sixth grader or a graduate student deserves a fair critique and encouragement to develop fully whatever idea/project they propose.In trying to treat all people the same, I have made friends with all kinds of people who are mentally challenged, disabled, elderly, or young children. Each one has so much to offer, and if we meet them as and where they are, we are the receivers of the blessings offered by friendship.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ah, Dr. Pegoda, you tend to attract some very fascinating people.

    Liked by 1 person

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

    Andrew, I agree with everything you have said in this post, except the above. Those statements are too blanket, too “always, or never,” too close-minded. As a person with a significant hearing loss, I’m well aware of the assumptions made by those with normal hearing about me, but I don’t rule out the possibility of learning something from them, even something about my disability.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy New Year! Thanks for your perspective. The specific part in question above was designed to be a mini poem of sorts, so meant to represent a different kind of “truth” or point of view. Each line has five words and the structure goes back and forth. Although, I do stand by that normativity is always dangerous – especially as it’s more of an ideal of sorts and does not actually “exist”

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    • OK, so what you’re saying is not that “average” is awful, but more like “only valuing that which is average, is awful.” And who could disagree with that. But your meaning was unclear.

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    • I actually agree with the post and this excerpt:

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

      I can understand were EB is coming from, but for me the resonates positively. I also feel the word “Comfortably” would work in place of Normaitivity. – Phoebe Caudill

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have to agree, our differences are what make us see the world differently and have different experiences. My experiences will give me different perspectives than another person. I have Disabilities of my own that are not visual to a person but going through these experiences have affected the way I speak, write, and think. But I also Do not consider them to be disabilities, I dont Think they hinder my ability to be productive and create thought provoking work and actually I think It does quite the opposite, it helps me create and think differently than someone who has never been through my experiences. These traits and experiences have molded me into who I am But that doesn’t mean I am Extrordinary because another person didn’t experience or doesn’t have a disability. And I may Have to work harder than some but that doesn’t make me any better than the next person or more qualified. It just means, I put In the necessary work to accomplish these things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stephanie, I like the way you think! I too (like everyone else) am going through certain situations. But your outlook on your experiences have encouraged me to see mine the same way rather than moping around in my own despair. Thank you for your encouragement whether you meant it or not. 🙂

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  6. This is very true, we don’t really overcome our disabilities rather they remain being a part of our lives. Going through such experiences allow us to have a much wider perspective from those who don’t go through it or as severely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good comment Melissa! Sometimes if that person has had a certain disability for a long time, it becomes who that person is. It reminds of a video that I saw, where a blind man who has been blind since birth described that he never gets upset over being blind and not being able to see the world because, that is his normal way of living and it is a part of him.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. That is very true, we don’t really ever overcome our disabilities rather they remain part of our lives. These experiences allow us to have a much broader perspective than that if we didn’t go through them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All of our disabilities help us become the people that we are today, and with these differences, we have to learn to adjust to different people having different differences than we do. This may sound confusing, but I think it makes sense that people are different than we are, and that’s what makes society so interesting. With everyone being the same, the world would be a very boring place. As I saw some other commenters saying, grading based on these differences and disabilities helps that student because if a professor takes the time to understand the disabilities a student has, they can grade more accordingly and help the student to succeed more.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I really love the perspective that this concept came from, as it addressed all possible points of view on the matter, while still generalizing in a neutral way. We all have our own types of struggles that can dampen our productivity in accomplishing things. These struggles can be physical, mental, or something as big or small as a temporary setback.

    To claim how plausible an individuals accomplishment is, in reference to what they had to or did not have to go through in order to achieve it is an act of ableism on both sides. As somehow who knows many people with a broad spectrum of mental illnesses, this is especially evident. If there is a family of 3 children, for say, the one with a learning disability will often receive more praise for doing well in school, in contrast to the child with no learning disability and doing well in school. Just because we all have our individual journeys that require more or less strenuous obstacles along the way, does not mean that the credibility should differ accordingly.

    As for “overcoming” these disabilities, this context that is so often used should just be completely annihilated in general. It is not the act of overcoming it, but the journey of learning how you function as an individual and how you can aspire to do and be who you want to be, as that individual.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dr. Pegoda, I did not quite understand your blog but I am going to try my best to answer my opinion.Our differences as human beings make us who we are. Even some people are not able-bodied tend to make some tremendous accomplishments. Like for example The Olympics and The Paralympics. Same structure as one another but one is not able-bodied than the other. Not being able-bodied should not have a person feel defeated from not striving for their goal. While in this case is a world champion in the Olympic and Paralympic games. Another example is Stephen Hawkins. Stephen Hawkings was one of the smartest scientists on the planet even though he was disabled at 21 years old. Overcoming your disability is something you should feel comfortable doing even when you feel like it is not going to help you.

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    • Love your thought. Not because you are a disability that you can not do anything. There are still the whole bunch of people out there that can conquer themselves to pursue their dream, like your examples.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m not sure were I stand on this either, i do understand that some people wouldn’t like special treatment or to be treated any differently, but I also understand that some people getting to a certain point is a lot more challenging for others. I have never faced any kind of physical disability so i cant speak from experience, but I do remember having to work through all of high school to pay bills and help around my house. Unfortunately, my grades suffered a lot back then and i had to work not just twice as hard with work but also with school just to catch up. and i wonder how my life could be different now if some of my circumstances where different then or if my extra effort outside of school would’ve also been evaluated as part of my struggle and not just the number and statistics on a sheet of paper. surely my effort to catch up would’ve been worth a little more than a kid who never worked a day in his life and had no stress other than what school presented him with.

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    • and this is just with an example I can relate to I know there are bigger struggles out there than my own and I wish they would also get the recognition they deserve.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I also share the same approach as you. Some people actually need assistance and aid to help them to overcome many factors in life, but sometimes theses special treatments end up disable the others. From my learning experiences back in Vietnam, students who face financial difficulties, disabilities, have to work to support family, even belong to a minority group of people allow them to have 5 extra points for each disability they have. So if they, the ones with disabilities, score an 85 but end up with a hundred, I find that this very special treatment to be unfair for ones without disabilities.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I agree that you never overcome disabilities but relating that to there academic success I feel is acceptable. Someone who has a disability who has achieved something great that another able bodied person has done with out the disability has done better than them because if they didn’t have the disability they could have possibly done better than they had done with the disability. Of course there is going to be criticism among able bodied people who believe that it’s not fair but it’s also not fair that the playing field is many even.

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  12. Stories of “inspiration” are often the intended purpose in my personal experiences. Throughout my business ventures people have put me on a pedastol for accomplishing what anyone who “puts their mind to it” can accomplish. The “inspiration” never seems to last for people that hear these stories and the excuses for not being able to accomplish the same thing continue to pile up.

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  13. I agree with this post. I think “overcoming a disability” can be a myth. It’s those experiences that shape and frame the way you think.They can give you a different perspective and for that it shouldn’t be thought of or labeled.Everyone has different experiences but you are able and it’s up to you and what you do with your experiences. Take the positive out of every experience and grow from them. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree! In fact I believe a disability of any kind makes a person appreciate the opportunities and circumstances even more. A very simple example is when children are being housed and catered by their parents they don’t realize the importance of money or how fortunate they are to attend the school without being worried about how to pay for it , whereas the students who have to overcome their disabilities financially. Physically, emotionally or even academically have to struggle more to achieve , thus they probably value their achievements more realistically then the students normative lifestyle.
      Shazia F.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I agree with this post as well! I believe that it is our disabilities that make us all who we are. With out those differences we would all be the same person. There would be no variation in the way people act or think. I don’t think there is a way to “overcome disabilities” and I don’t think anyone should want to. That is what makes you who you are.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I would like to disagree with the notion to “abandon” overcoming disabilities. As a type 1 diabetic who was diagnosed late-onset at 15, I enjoyed a period of “normalcy” in my life, and I don’t personal see myself as having “gained” anything from my disease. Every time I read about a potential medical breakthrough, my eyes light up a bit because I would give almost anything to go back to a time when I didn’t constantly have to prick my fingers for blood sugars, or take insulin before eating/drinking ANYTHING with carbs/sugars. The scientific breakthroughs achieved in my lifetime alone are incredible, and it is a very real possibility that I may see a significant jump in diabetes research that may lead to something like cell replacement therapy to let me go back to a “normal” life. While the experience of having “been” a type 1 diabetic would never leave me, I believe it is certainly possible to “overcome” my disability through medical innovation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll have to agree you with on that point Jackson. I don’t have diabetes so I can’t truly understand the readjustments you’ve had to make in your life to be able to cope with it. However, as someone who has very recently been diagnosed with ADHD, I’ll have to say that I truly wish I didn’t have it. It might one of the most commonly diagnosed mental conditions in the country, but that doesn’t change some of the drastic effects it could have on a person’s life. The inability to concentrate, the inability to maintain a healthy relationship, the constant feeling of under stimulation and restlessness, all coupled with dealing the drop in self esteem as you sit there and ponder why you’re not as smart on everyone else can really weigh someone down. With that being said, I think I’d prefer a life without ADD.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I can absolutely relate in ways – I would love to have a new body, one without NF!

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  16. I sincerely loved this particular blog! How true it is that “overcoming disabilities” is not exited. I personally might not be considered as a disability, however, I have been taking medicines for my sickness since I was born, and I experienced this life different than people who do not have to take medicine for most of the time in their life. More than that, I have a question! Does “being raped” is listed as a considering type of “disability”? Since, I again personally have to take medicine to overcome the fear (maybe for the rest of my life), even though I don’t think it works but it helped me feel safe and force myself to believe that I’m ok.

    not only “overcoming disabilities” should be abandoned, other types of overcoming should be considered to be abandon as well! It’s not easy to overcome even with efforts!

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  17. I liked your closing statement, “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”. I agree with this statement because I think that it is important to acknowledge others’ disabilities because many times these disabilities can greatly affect lives and actions that people take. Additionally, even if someone has ‘overcome their disability’, that disability has still caused certain actions and experiences and just because they have ‘overcome’ it, that does not mean that those experiences are not valid anymore, because those events that stemmed from the disability have still shaped their life.

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  18. Just three days ago, I was discussing how to approach letters of recommendations with a health professions adviser, so it feels like a strange coincidence reading the opening of this article. One thing my adviser mentioned was that because some science professors receive such a high volume of requests for rec. letters, the only thing these professors can truly speak for is the student’s academic competence of the course in question. At the time, this to me seemed normal however after reading this article, it really seems unfair to receive a similar rec. letter from a professor as another student that may not have had to endure some of the things you have endured.

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  19. Is truly a standard for being normal because this post is correct we are all completely different in our own ways. Maybe being disabled is a social construct because everyone has different issues that they may have to deal with both physically and mentally. Me being different than my neighbor is a good thing because the two of us being different allows the world to be more unique and diverse.
    If everyone were the same the nothing would get done, no one would outshine the other and we would not have creativity. Being different is what makes us, us.

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  20. The term “disability” was first coined to describe those in society that are not “able” to contribute to early consumerism due to the standards of the norm and what is considered normal. Due to this negative connotation, the ideas of what are considered disabilities are seen as great obstacles to overcome in the quest for normalcy or doing anything considered to be an accomplishment that all “able-bodies” are expected to achieve irregardless of any minor disadvantages, which are automatically viewed as minor in comparison to the greater disadvantages of being disabled.

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  21. Though the use of “overcoming disabilities” may be well-intentioned, I agree with your argument that it is also problematic. Recognizing a person’s disability in relation to their accomplishments is sometimes both appropriate and helpful, such as letters of recommendation and stories of inspiration. Using terminology that recognizes the limitations or challenges associated with having a disability and the ways in which the person was able to work with those challenges does more justice to their story. One can overcome challenges or expectations placed upon them because of a disability, but the disability, in some form, remains a part of a person forever. -Jake Hayes

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  22. I completely agree with you Dr. Pegoda! I have been through some pretty rough familial, and a few medical bumps that have truly paved the road to who I am today. Although during the very difficult times, I saw myself ‘overcoming’ these issues, I now realize that these things were character-builders, and I was still able to preform in school as well as I had before, if not better. After these experiences, I realized why I needed to be more motivated in order to become successful!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. This reality of disability is something that I’ve had more and more to face with a recent standing and life long medical condition that very much limits my capabilities physically. I do relate to having my reality shifted by the medical challenge that was the cause for my identifying with being disabled but I don’e really connect with the word in the way I should, more accurately I’d be willing to identify as less-abled as I can function on my own under most conditions. As to how this affected my psyche, I always think of it as a branching tree of possibility within what you will be able to partake in the future of your living, and so when I endured this huge physical change in the shape of first diagnosis and then “accident,” if even that, I looks at that tree branch of the many things I was going to be able to do in the future and see its branches dying of narrowing my pathways further. If anything in a more practical sense it makes many of these possible examples that much more difficult to accomplish. On another note I’ve recently seen this car commercial that shows a blind individual as a tour-guide for a couple on vacation, and it exemplifies very clearly the different reality which he experiences as through one of sound, and just really liked the execution of the ad in making visible something very unique through a disabled person.

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