One of the more difficult things to sort through in disability discussions is that the topic often seems to be full of contradictions.
Depending on our personal situations and objectives at any given time, people with disabilities often express what appear to be conflicting ideas and opposite messages. This isn’t evidence of confusion, dishonesty, or calculated rhetoric. On the contrary, these apparent contradictions are true to disabled people’s actual lives.
The key to understanding conflicting disability messages is to recognize that they usually aren’t contradictory at all.
Here are three examples of ideas the disabled community tries to communicate about ourselves, and that would-be allies try to argue on our behalf, that can on the surface seem incompatible:
Resilience and adaptability
We say …
People with disabilities are strong. We can endure hardship and adversity, and overcome challenges that others think are too much for us. We are also great at adapting to difficult situations. We have to be to survive and achieve our goals.
In many ways, this is all true. It does take inner strength and innovation to live well with a disability –– even just to survive. It’s also a message that can help counteract negative stereotypes that cast disabled people as weak, delicate, lazy, complacent, and dependent on others to solve our problems.
But we also say …
Many of us are wounded and traumatized. Physical barriers and social prejudices really do hurt us. We aren’t invulnerable. Many of us are not okay. And we can’t survive on ingenuity and pluck alone. We need accessibility, accommodations, and sometimes material support to live freely and successfully.
Most of the problems of living with disabilities are imposed on us from the outside. Resilience and adaptability can only get us so far. Most of us at some time need help –– sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Being admired for stereotypical versions of resilience and adaptability may be encouraging, but it can quickly become first an expectation, then an obligation. It’s also a convenient “out” for people and institutions that don’t want to assist us or change their own ableist habits.
It may seem like a contradiction for disabled people to declare our strength, ingenuity and self-reliance one minute, then ask for or demand help, accommodations, and support the next. It’s not a contradiction. Part of being disabled is having endurance, and the ability to go it alone in many ways, while also seeking and using the tools and services at hand to enhance our independence. And sometimes, that means insisting on those tools and services when they should be available to us but aren’t. And making those demands is itself a sign of strength and integrity, not weakness or dishonesty.
Normalcy and relatability
We say …
Disabled people are just like everyone else. We are easy to get along with, fun, and interesting. So relax, and don’t turn away!
Having disabilities doesn’t make us fundamentally different from other people, even when those disabilities are very apparent and affect us powerfully. Most of us want the same things, and have the same range of emotions and reactions other people do. We are not puzzles to be solved or set aside. We are people. In a sense, it really is that simple.
Plus, deliberately projecting an image of normalcy, and carefully putting others at ease, can help smooth our path to full social integration and healthy relationships.
But we also say …
We are different. Understanding and getting along with disabled people sometimes requires extra effort and different approaches.
Although we are people, just like people who aren’t disabled, our disabilities do at least partly shape our personalities, and affect how we relate to others. Some of us simply aren’t able to make ourselves more “normal.” And others of us with disabilities who maybe could “pass” for “normal” often find doing that to be draining and ultimately corrosive to our sense of self. We want to be accepted, respected, and integrated. But we don’t want our disabilities to be overlooked, ignored, or dismissed in the name of some flattened version of “equality” where everybody is supposedly treated the same, regardless of our actual needs. Fitting in and getting along is one thing. Making it a life’s exhausting work to conform to others’ expectations is quite another.
Equal opportunity and human respect isn’t the same as being treated the same as everyone else. And “normal” very much includes all kinds of disabilities. So it’s not a contradiction to say that we are normal and relatable, while our disabilities are also very real and important aspects of who we are.
We say …
Disabled people are able and eager to work! We just need a fair chance!
Most disabled people can do productive work that’s worthy of fair pay. And a great many disabled people have strong, marketable talents and skills that are underused because of the deeply held and persistent perception that disabled people aren’t good or reliable employees. Far too many disabled people can work, want to work, but don’t have the opportunity.
The simplest, most direct message the disability community can send about this is that disabled people can work and want to work. This message is both true and specifically aimed at increasing opportunities for disabled job seekers.
But we also say …
Some of us lack key assets for employment, both directly and indirectly due to our disabilities. Others are ready to work, but need accommodations. And for many of us, paid work is simply not our immediate top priority.
The combination of our disabilities and the ableist habits and assumptions of the job market mean that a lot of disabled people are unable to work for reasons we can’t immediately change. Also –– and this is a critical distinction –– most disabled people at one time or another find that working for pay isn’t a top priority. Sometimes we need to take time off to take care of our physical and mental health. Other times our finances can be more stable if we aren’t working than if we are –– because of outdated and unjust systems that nevertheless can’t be changed overnight. And there are situations where forcing ourselves to continue working doesn’t make sense. This is especially true in physically or emotionally harmful workplaces, including those which consistently fail to accommodate our disabilities or curtail ableist abuse.
It’s essential to keep reminding employers that disabled people are woefully underutilized in the job market. It’s equally important to remind everyone that a job is not always and forever the most important goal of every disabled person at any given time. Those of us who aren’t working may have good reasons, and shouldn’t be judged for it. Nearly every disabled person could do valuable work for pay, with or without accommodations and supports. That doesn’t mean that we should all be expected or obligated to work, or that any of us should be shamed or penalized for not working from time to time.
The fact that many disabled thrive in work should never be used to disparage those who aren’t working at the moment. Likewise, the fact that many disabled people aren’t working should never be taken as an indicator of other disabled people’s job and career potential.
These ideas only seem like contradictions on the surface. They are opposite, but equally valid, truthful, complimentary sides of the same disability experiences. Disabled and non-disabled alike, we make more mistakes when we fail to embrace these apparent conflicts that are really just multiple layers of truth.