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The Problem With Saying a Person 'Overcame' Their Disability

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In numerous media articles about disabled people, usually promoting some form of inspiration porn, it always confuses and irritates me when the writer, who is usually non-disabled, claims that the disabled person has somehow “overcome” their disability by completing some great feat. How do you overcome something by simply doing something anyone else would be congratulated for? Can’t disabled people simply be congratulated for what they have done without their impairment being part of it?

I differentiate between impairment and disability because I follow the social model of disability. According to the social model, an impairment is something you are born with or acquire, such as spina bifida, whereas a disability is how social structures disable a person with an impairment. The language we use to describe and write about disability can be a disabling factor. It would probably make some non-disabled readers uncomfortable to know that my disability is not the fault of my body, as they are led to believe, but is socially created.

As a woman with dwarfism, if I was to ever overcome my impairment, I would wake up as an average-sized person and find that my spinal stenosis has somehow disappeared. But that will never happen, so I will carry on with my life and any achievements will be alongside my impairment, as opposed to a way of overcoming it. It may be more difficult to fulfill the achievement, but that’s because I encounter an inaccessible built environment and unwanted attitudes, including employment discrimination, not because of my dwarfism itself.

If a disabled person does something impressive, such as winning a medal at the Paralympics, they are not overcoming their impairment as the disabling experiences associated with their impairment will still be experienced. For example, a wheelchair user will still encounter an inaccessible environment even if they win at sports. What they are doing is proving that with the right accommodations they are capable of doing great things, providing of course that they put in the effort like anyone else. This no doubt conflicts with non-disabled people’s notions of disabled people being incapable and thus they have overcome a disability by being capable. In other words, we must remove the impairment to be capable.

If a Paralympic was to overcome their impairment they would be competing in the Olympics the next time around, and then what would they need to overcome? Nothing of course, because a non-disabled person does not have to overcome anything related to their body, because their bodies are not perceived as problematic and in need of fixing. It is the accommodations that overcome the disability, as disability is socially created.

So-called inspiring articles also often claim the person “suffers from [insert name of the impairment].” I do not suffer from dwarfism, however I do suffer from daily abuse from people who find my dwarfism amusing and believe it makes me inferior to them. I am acceptable to mock, to stare at, to laugh at and to photograph by other members of the public. Some of my “suffering” is a consequence of “dwarf entertainment,” such as when someone hires people with dwarfism to portray stereotypical and humiliating characters at their party, making it seem acceptable to mock us.

These articles, which somehow think they are educating the public about disabled people, are actually reinforcing problematic stereotypes that construct having an impairment as undesirable, as opposed to exposing the discrimination disabled people suffer from. Constructing an impairment as something people suffer from implies that we want to escape our impairment through trying to overcome it. However, I want to escape the abuse I encounter, not my dwarfism.

No matter what a disabled person does, as long as we are told we suffer or need to overcome, we are not fully accepted members of society. Our bodies remain stigmatized. Our bodies, a part of our identity, will continue to be seen as undesirable.

When a disabled person does something to be proud of, it should be used to promote a positive awareness of disability, but that is not fully possible without the right wording. Instead of “suffer,” writers should say “has.” Instead of “overcoming,” the writer should show how a disabled person has “challenged” a disabling society.

Getty image by SportPoint.

Originally published: March 20, 2019
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