“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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 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”


    • 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.

      Liked by 1 person

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