When My Professor Asked If People With Disabilities Would Rather Be Able-Bodied
As a senior in college graduating this May, I have had the opportunity to take incredible classes on varying topics throughout my four years of school. In one of my courses this semester, I recently participated in an interesting class discussion on a topic I rarely ever discuss in a classroom setting: disability.
In the course of our daily discussion, my professor brought up disability theorist Robert McRuer, who has written several fascinating pieces on ability and on the representation of ability/disability in the media. The piece my professor was discussing is entitled “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence,” and it discusses the ways in which people with disabilities and members of the LGBT community share certain stigmas because both are groups that do not fit into certain social standards of able-bodiedness and heterosexuality, respectively.
In this piece, McRuer discusses what he considers to be one of the major struggles of living as a person with disabilities — the standard of “compulsory able-bodiedness” that upholds able-bodiedness as not only a social standard, but as a social ideal all people should reach. And if they cannot reach it, then they should at least spend their lives trying to reach it. He writes:
“[Our] culture… assumes in advance that we all agree: able-bodied identities, able-bodied perspectives are preferable and what we all, collectively, are aiming for. A system of compulsory able-bodiedness repeatedly demands that people with disabilities embody for others an affirmative answer to the unspoken question, Yes, but in the end, wouldn’t you rather be more like me?”
My professor brought up this point, and then posed the question to the class, asking if they also felt all people with disabilities likely wanted their disabilities to go away, wanted to live a life of able-bodiedness. The answer, to my surprise, was a resounding “yes.”
A student in the class raised his hand and began telling the story of one of his family members, who lives with a disability. He mentioned how many hours of surgery and pain she had been through and concluded she must wish she did not have a disability because of all of that pain and all of the things she cannot do because of her disabilities. Several of my classmates agreed with him.
That was the moment when I decided to raise my hand.
I very rarely discuss my disabilities when I am at school, mostly because it doesn’t ever come up and partially because, admittedly, I do not want my professors and classmates to view or treat me differently. In this conversation, though, I chose to speak out, because I find this opinion — that all or most people with disabilities wish they were able-bodied instead — to be not only widespread, but also potentially very harmful.
My disabilities have brought an incredible amount of pain to my life throughout the past 10 years. Unfortunately, that’s what chronic pain is — painful. Like my classmate’s family member, my disabilities have placed me in the hospital for hours on end and at times have prevented me from doing the things I want or need to be doing. They have cost me a significant amount of time, money and energy. All of these things are true, and it would seem that by virtue of these things being true my disabilities would be something I would resent or hate about myself. It would seem almost obvious that, if given the choice, I would — anyone would — choose to live without pain, without surgeries or medical expenses, and without boundaries.
But this is not what I would choose.
My disabilities are a part of who I am. Because of this, I have learned it is counterproductive to harbor negative feelings about them or wish they would just go away. But, more than that, my disabilities have helped to shape me into who I am. Living with pain has taught me to appreciate moments of happiness that much more; living with the boundaries created by my disabilities has taught me how to break down barriers and fight for the things I want. Without my disabilities, I wouldn’t have my incredible service dog, Simon, in my life, or the hundreds of Facebook friends I’ve met in online “spoonie” groups. Being disabled has taught me about empathy, compassion, advocacy and accessibility, and it has shown me the importance of friendship, love and listening.
My disabilities have brought me pain, this is true. But it is equally true that, in their own way, they have brought me happiness as well. And because of this, I just had to speak out.
I just had to tell my classmates, and anyone else who would listen: Actually no, I wouldn’t rather be like you. I would rather be who I am — disabilities, pain, happiness and all.
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