Disability Informs Personal Identity, Politics

Auden Granger, Production Staff Member

I’m disabled. If this article already makes you feel un­comfortable, you’re not alone.

Disability is the kind of subject you’re expected to deal with privately and secretly. You’re not supposed to talk about it — unless you’re “overcoming” it, preferably in a hyper-visible way that makes for a good motivational poster. Or unless you’re a beautiful, ever-patient, innocent creature who exists to teach a lesson to the nondisabled protagonist about living life to the fullest and appreciating what you have.

This is despite the fact that the 2010 U.S. Census puts about 20 percent of the U.S. population firmly within the category of disabled, making “disabled people” the largest minority group in the U.S. In a recent campus-wide survey on disability and access at Oberlin, 18 percent of respon­dents identified as having a disability. And those numbers are likely conservative estimates, because even on the cen­sus or anonymous surveys, people often aren’t willing to identify themselves as disabled.

It’s hard to claim an identity that you’ve been taught all your life was something you needed to hide, to ignore, to pretend wasn’t there, to pretend didn’t impact you. It’s hard to come into a sense of self as a disabled person when dis­ability is something you’re not supposed to look at; when disabled people are something to be pitied, then ignored; when your aim is to pass for nondisabled as well as you can at the cost of your health, your happiness, your learn­ing and your safety. Even if you can’t pass, you’re supposed to pretend that being disabled doesn’t impact your ideol­ogy, that ultimately you still think and act and interact with your own body and brain like a nondisabled person. Espe­cially if you go to a prestigious college. You’re not like them.

Oh, yes, them. There’s another major media trope of dis­ability besides the inspiration porn, the object of pity and the human lesson, and this is the one that I eventually sort of fell into. It’s the bitter cripple trope, and you’ve probably seen it in action.

We’re usually supervillains or grumpy background characters. Frequently, we rage against society. We might be awkward, autistic-coded evil geniuses, or we may turn menacingly toward the protagonist in a high-backed wheelchair. The medical equipment we use only serves to emphasize the physical strength and beauty of the heroes. In some versions of this trope, it’s our own disabilities that we hate, but mostly it seems like we’re pissed at the society that’s made being a villain feel like our only option.

I claim the supervillains because that’s the representa­tion that I have, because I’m angry and I’m unapologetic. I mark disability as a political identity, as a social identity, and I take up space. When they make me superheroes, I’ll claim them too. It’s why I care about Marvel’s Daredevil so much: not only is Daredevil disabled, but his disability directly informs his heroism, even down to his weapon of choice, an adapted version of his cane — and you can’t tell me that someone who sloughs off his mild-mannered, sup­posedly helpless persona to beat criminals nearly to death isn’t bitter.

My disability informs my experiences and my perspec­tive, my passions and my approaches, my sexuality and education and identity. If that means I’m labeled a bitter cripple, well, there are worse fates.

If disability makes you uncomfortable, maybe it should. That means we’re talking about it. It means we’re doing more than giving furtive stares to people we pass in the grocery store, doing more than admiring celebrities for tak­ing pictures with sick kids and using disabled survival as a prop for our own inspiration. It means we’re moving past simple tropes into recognition and celebration.