Book Report: Disability Visibility by Alice Wong

Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Published June 30, 2020

Brief Summary
Disability Visibility is a short story anthology by people with disabilities, published a few months before the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act which established civil rights for those people disabilities. It is a celebration of what it means to be disabled and does not shy away from difficult topics. It gives a glimpse of the rich complexity of what it means to be disabled. It also provides a huge list of works by people with disabilities for further reading including podcasts, blogs, essays, videos, websites, poetry, other anthologies, fiction, nonfiction, and more.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Hello Listen Up readers! Welcome to another book report! In last week’s article I talked about the disabled identity and what it means to be disabled. To go along with that, today I will be talking about Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. This is a powerful book of stories by people with disabilities about what it means to be disabled. When I started reading, I had a brand new highlighter in hand. By the time I finished the book, my highlighter was dead. There is not a single page of my copy without highlighting, underlining, or writing in the margins.

“To my younger self and all the disabled kids today
who can’t imagine their futures.
The world is ours, and this is for all of us.”

Alice Wong, Dedication of Disability Visibility

It was difficult to narrow down all the stories to a selected few I could talk about in a single blog post. This book does not shy away from difficult topics such as eugenics, infanticide, abortion, assault, erasure, language deprivation, among others. Content notes are provided at the beginning of each story so that readers can choose whether or not they want to read the story.

One of my favorite stories in this collection, “Unspeakable Conversations” by Harriet McBryde Johnson, is also one of the most powerful. It is the first story in Disability Visibility for a good reason, it changes the reader’s perspective toward disabilities. The story follows Johnson, a disability rights lawyer, as she participated in a debate with Professor Peter Singer, a popular modern philosopher who argues for infanticide and assisted suicide of people with disabilities. I could not imagine being put in a position where I have to argue for the right to exist as a deaf person. As Johnson says, “a participant in a discussion that would not occur in a just world” (17).

Harriet McBryde Johnson

“Preferences based on race are unreasonable. Preferences based on ability are not. Why? To Singer, it’s pretty simple: disability makes a person ‘worse off.’

“Are we worse off’? I don’t think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.”

Harriet McBryde Johnson (10-11)

Johnson went to the debate to provide a different perspective and hope that she could show the students who attended the debate that people with disabilities were people just like them. But Johnson also faced backlash from the disabled community. Some were upset that she agreed to do the debate at all, as being seen with Professor Singer could be interpreted as endorsing his ideas of genocide. Disabilities get so little representation, thus every representation is important and powerful so that is why some people are so critical of Johnson’s actions.

Johnson’s story shines a light on the modern debates taking place today. It is a real question whether or not people with disabilities will be allowed to continue existing in the future. If my deafness was detected before I was born, would my life have been nothing but a statistic? Would I have been “put out of my misery” before I had the chance to live a fulfilling life? Yes, living with a disability means living in a world that doesn’t want me. But living with a disability doesn’t automatically mean that I cannot live a wonderful, fulfilling life and positively impact and contribute to the world.

The second story, “How to Make a Paper Crane from Rage” by Elsa Sjunneson is a story about rage, something that is near and dear to my heart. When I was a teenager, I had a problem with managing my anger. My parents forced me to go to a therapy place near our house. I made little progress. Within a year and a half, I had already been passed through three different therapists. If anything, I got better at hiding my emotions and dodging questions I didn’t want to answer. My fourth therapist, however, had an advantage the others didn’t. She had previously worked with deaf kids like myself.

I remember my first meeting with her and the awkward silence as she flipped through the pages of my file, reading about all my shortcomings and flaws from past therapists who gave up on me and passed me to the next person. At last, she shut the file and tossed it aside.

“You’re fine.” She said.

“What?” I was confused.

“You’re fine. You have every right to be angry.”

I had never in my life been permitted to be angry. It was so profound and so unexpected that I began to cry.

She explaining that anger was a normal part of being disabled. How the world is unfair to us and that the constant fighting to be heard and to be seen builds up. Every deaf person she had ever met had “anger management issues” but in reality, we had every right to be angry. She continued on and on, putting things into words I had always known but couldn’t explain. How was it that an able-bodied stranger knew more about being deaf than I did? She went so far as to encourage me to be angry.

“There’s something horrifying about realizing people don’t see you as an adult when you are in fact an adult. There’s something angering about it, too, that people assume based on the kind of body that you live in, or the sort of marginalization you carry within yourself that you can be an adult only if someone helps you.”

Elsa Sjunneson (135)

Getting that permission to be angry, to be told that it was okay to be angry and that I should be angry, changed me. I started getting better at managing my anger because I understood where it was coming from. In addition, my therapist got me involved in a local deaf basketball team. It was a life-changing experience for me because it was the first time I ever got to be surrounded by people like myself.

This rage is what “How to Make a Paper Crane from Rage” is about. Rage is common among those with disabilities. I would say it is a part of the disabled identity. We are angry at the social discrimination that we face daily. We are an angry people because society expects so little from someone with a disability that we aren’t expected to achieve anything. We are angry because we are kept isolated. This story puts so many aspects of this rage into words.

But rage also gives us power. Rage helps us push back against barriers and provides fuels our fight for a better world. It helps us to be resilient and encourages creativity. While I no longer struggled with my anger in the ways that I used to, I found new ways to use it. This blog, for example, rises from a place of personal rage over the lack of representation in literature and the lack of discussion about disabilities in the classroom. In other words, when a person has a disability it is not only important to be angry, but a necessity.

“I burn brightly with my rage and I show it to the world when it suits me, when it’s appropriate. When the world needs to know I am angry. . . . my rage isn’t a fire stoked by those who would harm me—it’s a fire fed by social discrimination, by a society not built to sustain me. . . . a disabled person has a right to be angry, not just at the specific blockade in their way but at a society that creates those blockades.”

Elsa Sjunneson (138)

The last story I have time to talk about is “Why My Novel is Dedicated to My Disabled Friend Maddy” by A. H. Reaume, who discusses many of the barriers in publishing and writing that disabled writers face. It is common knowledge that there is a severe lack of disabled voices in the world of literature, despite the fact that more than a quarter of the population of America identifies as being disabled. Why is it that these voices are not being recognized?

Reaume was finding it difficult to finish her book as her disability meant staring at a computer screen took all mental willpower and focus. If she printed out a manuscript and edited it, she then had difficulty in switching back and forth from the paper to the screen. It seemed impossible to finish her book. Then she met Maddy, who was also recovering from a brain injury and needed some work. The partnership that stemmed between the two allowed Reaume to complete her book, highlighting an important point; many disabled writers don’t have the assistance they need to physically finish a book on their own. “Why My Novel is Dedicated to My Disabled Friend Maddy” talks about the need for interdependence and further explains why there aren’t more books by people with disabilities being published.

“Independence is a fairy tale that late capitalism tells in order to shift the responsibility for care and support from community and state to individuals and families. But not everyone has the personal capacity, and not everyone has family support. And the stories we tell about bootstraps tell us that it’s the fault of an individual if they don’t thrive. They’re just not trying hard enough.

“The myth of independence also shapes what literature looks like and what kind of writing is valued. . . The story of disabled success has never been a story about one solitary disabled person overcoming limitations—despite the fact that’s the narrative we so often read in the media.”

A. H. Reaume (155-157)

Publishers often refuse works by those with disabilities because they think that disabilities are unrelatable so that the book won’t sell. Or they think the market is too small for stories about disabilities. In addition, works by disabled authors may have more rough edges as in the case of Reaume. This also causes editors move on because they aren’t willing to put in the extra work required. But the fact remains that there need more stories told by disabled voices. Our stories are relatable and they are important.

There are so many more wonderful and powerful stories in Disability Visibility. I almost decided to make this a two-part blog post. I didn’t get a chance to touch on the intersectionality that is also part of the collection. There are stories about being black and disabled, being queer and disabled, how religious practices can cause conflict with a disability, and the subject of heritage. The three stories I have discussed are only a scratch on the surface of all Disability Visibility has to offer. This collection shines a light on the disabled experience that the media doesn’t portray or get discussed in classrooms. So many of these stories moved me to tears as I found a part of myself reflected on every single page. I have never heard so many different disabled voices in a single place.

Utah Eagles of the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind
I am number 42, top left and sitting behind Coach

It reminded me of the days on my deaf basketball team when I was surrounded by others like myself. My team was able to fly to Washington state for the West Regional Basketball Championship to compete with other deaf teams from across the western United States. It was amazing. The houses we stayed in had lights that would flicker when someone rang the doorbell. The crowds would stomp their feet so hard when someone made a basket, the court floor felt like it was a trampoline. Some teams had drums too that they would bang so loud, I was forced to turn my hearing aids off. And everywhere I went, there were deaf people too. All the restaurants nearby were used to communicating with deaf people and there was no trouble in communicating our orders. It was as wonderful as it was overwhelming. I spent the whole first day in a daze of culture shock.

That’s the experience I had while reading Disability Visibility. I still feel that I have so much more to learn about myself and my disability, things that I never had the chance to learn in school or were missing in books. Disability Visibility showcases so much about what the disabled identity and the disabled experience is. It talks about so many things that made me angry, sad, and happy. It was an empowering read. This is one book that I highly encourage readers to add to their reading lists, because unlike most media, this portrays the reality about what it means to be disabled.

Is Disability Visibility part of your reading list? Is there another story about a person or character with a disability that you love? Leave a like or a comment and let me know!

Defining Disabilities, Part 2

The Disabled Identity

I was born six years after the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This act is what granted disabled people civil rights. What this means is that I am part of the first generation not to be denied access to education and protected against discrimination in public services and employment. This particular group is called the “ADA generation.” Our society is at something of a turning point in history where the ADA generation has grown up, graduated college, and is now employed in the workforce. They are bringing new perspectives and new ideas to the table because previously they weren’t allowed, which is why it is becoming more common to see the story of disability being brought forth.

Of course, there is still a lot of progress to be made. When I learned about the history of the disability civil rights movement and the importance of the ADA generation, it taught me a lot about my own disabled identity. In part one, I discussed how difficult it is to define what is and what is not a disability. Everyone has different disabilities in the same way that everyone has different abilities. But that doesn’t mean everyone has a disabled identity.

Identity is a complex construction made up of many different parts. I find it helpful to think of identity as being a city. Each block is a different part of your personality and experiences. Within the blocks are buildings, which are the people, moments, and memories that contribute to who you are. Some things are bigger parts of you than others, thus they will take up more space in your city. Maybe you have an entire neighborhood dedicated to your religious experiences. Maybe you are an athlete and you have seven soccer fields all within one mile of each other. Everyone’s city is unique.

To make things even more complex, your city is always under construction where new parts of yourself are being built up. And there are parts of you that have abandoned or grown out of, which remain in various states of decay and marred with graffiti. There are intersections in your city where parts of your identity overlap. The roadways of being a mother overlap with the roadways of being a daughter. Intersections where religion crosses with your heritage. This concept is called intersectionality, referring to the overlapping of socially constructed categories that converge in each individual.

Sometimes intersectionality can cause a person or a group to experience more discrimination than another. For example, I am a woman and I have a disability. Both groups face certain amounts of discrimination, and I experience discrimination on both counts. For another person, they may be a Christian and transgender. A third example, a person of color who was born and raised in Germany, who has immigrated to America. In each of these examples, the people have major parts of their personality that seem to conflict in the outside eye.

I consider these things to be roadblocks. Let’s take one of the previous examples. Susan is a transgender Christian. She’s driving around her city then has to slam on their breaks because somebody put a road-block in their way. “You can’t be Christian and be transgender at the same time,” the stranger says, “It goes against the scriptures.” Susan is forced to take an alternate route, but again, the same thing happens, so she has to take another detour until she finally reaches her destination. Roadblocks are things that society puts in place to try to get people to be a certain way or because society doesn’t acknowledge certain overlaps in identity.

Coming back to disabilities, a good example is how being disabled crosses over with sexuality. Many people assume that disabled people can’t or shouldn’t be attractive or in any way sexually expressive. This shows up in things like adaptive clothing. Adaptive clothing is designed for those with physical disabilities. For example, shoes that use a zipper or velcro for someone who finds shoelaces challenging to tie. Or for someone that struggles with buttons, there are magnetic closing shirts instead. Or clothes with specially placed holes and pockets for a medical device and tubes.

Unfortunately, adaptive clothing is often designed without any sense of style. They look like medical clothing, unattractive, or the adaptation is painfully obvious. This means that some people with disabilities don’t have clothes with which they can express their individuality or sexuality. Imagine going through life without ever being able to wear something that makes you feel pretty or handsome? That’s the reality for some people. Society throws road-blocks in disability city saying, however unintentionally, “Whoa, stop. You are disabled. You can’t be attractive. You can’t have stylistic clothes to express yourself.”

In my city, some of the frequent road-blocks I experiences are when I go to the movie theater, only to find out that they don’t keep their closed caption devices charged. Roadblock, I have to take an alternate route. They start charging two. When the first one runs out of battery, I go to get the second one, which thankfully lasts for the rest of the movie. Another roadblock is when I’m checking out at the store and the cashier asks me a question. I have no idea what they are saying. I have to ask them to pull down their face mask so I can lipread or I ask them to write down what they are saying on a piece of paper—that’s a detour I have to take regularly. When I hang out with a friend and I happen to be driving, I can’t carry a conversation in the car and drive safely at the same time. I have to detour, explain to my friend I can’t understand them while I’m focused on another task, and we wait until we reach our destination to continue our conversation.

Members of the disabled community are used to facing roadblocks and detours every day. We adapt ourselves to a world that wasn’t designed for us. The deaf in a hearing world, the wheelchair user in a society that relies on stairs, the blind in a world that caters to those who can see, the mentally disabled who are ignored and shunned by those who don’t acknowledge or understand that everyone’s minds function differently. Constantly dealing with roadblocks is a large part of the disabled identity.

Another part of identity is pride. This is the flag of disability pride. It was designed by Ann Magill, a woman who wanted something to express her pride in being disabled. The black field represents those who have suffered from ableist violence, rebellion, and protests. It also represents how disabilities are kept in the dark. The five colors represent different types of disabilities and the wide variety of needs and experiences that divide them. The zigzags represent how people with disabilities must constantly adapt and overcome barriers that society puts in our way. The parallel strips represent that even though every person with a disability has different experiences, we also share a lot of the same barriers and experiences. Essentially it says “we are not alone because we have each other” and “we are stronger together than we are apart.”

Disability pride is something that I have struggled with throughout my life. There are some days that I’m proud to be deaf, to be different, and to be an example. I feel like that when I talk about disability studies or when I take my hearing aids out for sparring at karate. But there are moments that I feel ashamed for being deaf too. Like when I can’t understand my two-year-old niece asking me for water until someone else gets it for them. I feel ashamed when I can’t understand the cashier and I end up holding the line. One of my favorite quotes about disability pride comes from Eli Clare, a disabled, queer writer, and activist. “Pride is not an inessential thing. Without pride, disabled people are much more likely to accept unquestioningly the daily material condition of ableism: unemployment, poverty, segregated and substandard education, years spent locked up in nursing homes, violence perpetrated by caregivers, [and] lack of access. Without pride, individual and collective resistance to oppression becomes nearly impossible. But disability pride is not an easy thing to come by. Disability has been soaked in shame, dressed in silence, [and] rooted in isolation.”

I didn’t gain any pride in my disability until I was in my later teenage years. It started with taking a sign language class in high school. Then I got involved in the Deaf community for a short time, playing on the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind basketball team. For the first time in my life, I connected with others like me and my disability was cast in a whole new light. I realized I wasn’t alone and I was a part of something bigger than myself because of my disability. When I first learned to spar in karate, I was uncomfortable taking my hearing aids out. It is a side that I never let others see.

When the time came for me to attend my first belt test where sparring was required, I was afraid of being yelled at by instructors who didn’t know about my deafness and being punished for not following instructions I couldn’t hear. I decided I needed to mark my sparing helmet in some way so that my Sensei could point me out to the other instructors. But at the same time, that felt similar to Jews being marked with a star of David during WWII. I didn’t want to label myself as different.

At my request, my brother made me a special sticker to put on the back of my sparring helmet. The words I had chosen were “DEAF PRIDE.” At first, I was embarrassed, but later found it empowering. Every time I put on my sparring helmet, I knew I was representing an entire community. I knew that such a mark would make people watch me and judge me, how they would think of me as a charity case, how I was excepted not to amount to anything because I was disabled. And despite everything that everyone thought about me, I was still here. And I was proving them wrong.

January 2020 Tournament, 3rd place Sparring

The last thing I want to talk about today is stereotypes. They are one of the most harmful things when it comes to disabilities because they are unique for each individual—no two individuals have the same experience even if they have the same disability. I have found that the best definition of a stereotype comes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TEDtalk The Danger of a Single Story. She says, “the single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

For example, stereotypes about being deaf will tell you that I am nonverbal, rely on sign language, and if I talk, I have a heavy accent. In reality, I rely on verbal communication, have no accent other than my Utah one, and while I do have some knowledge of sign language, I am far from fluent. At best, I might be able to communicate with the skill and finesse of a three-year-old in sign language. I do rely a lot on lipreading, which is steeped in many stereotypes on its own. For one, lipreading is extremely inaccurate. This is because most sounds of speech are made inside the mouth, nose, and throat. I can only “read” what happens at the front of the mouth. Even the best lipreaders in the world can only understand a third of what a person says.

At the same time, because I don’t fit the stereotype people assume that I’m not deaf or not disabled. I had that happen once, back when I was working at a local fudge factory. We were working on hand-wrapping fudge slices and I was talking something about being deaf. A coworker of mine pipped up, “But Rachel, you aren’t really deaf.”

“What?” I said. (It would be helpful here to say that I have two kinds of what; “what” as in, “I didn’t catch what you said and could you please repeat that” and then I have “what” as in did you really just say that?)

My coworker, thinking it was the first kind of “what,” repeated herself. “You’re not really deaf.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“Well, you have hearing aids. And you talk just fine. You aren’t really disabled.”

I set my fudge slice aside and made eye contact with her. “I have hearing aids because I am deaf. Hearing aids do not correct hearing in the way that glasses correct vision. Hearing aids function like a cane helps someone walk. Not a cure, not a correction, just there to help. Just because you don’t know my struggles and you don’t see the things I have to do every day because I am deaf, doesn’t mean you get to label me as not deaf. What you mean to say is that I don’t fit the stereotype of deafness, which really, doesn’t fit anyone at all. Plus, the reason I talk so well is that I went through years of speech therapy. I was taken out of English, math, and science classes because learning to pronounce “star” was more important than knowing how to do my times tables. People like you-” I stop abruptly, trying to get my temper under control. It takes a moment before I continue. “Listen, I understand that I might not seem disabled. It reflects well on you that you don’t see me as disabled. But most disabled people are people just like me. You shouldn’t believe in stereotypes. Every stereotype I’ve ever heard of is wrong. I am deaf, through and through, whether you believe it or not.”

Disability pride and identity come with being seen and with connecting with others who are like us. The disabled community differs from others because anyone, at any moment, can become disabled. When we refuse to talk about disabilities in classrooms or represent them in books and movies, we are not preparing people to become disabled. We are not teaching that it is okay to be disabled or that it is normal to have a disability. Oftentimes, a character or a person becoming disabled is presented as an “end of the world” or “worst-case scenario” kind of thing. In a way, it is an end. But it is also the beginning of another world. The construction of a new block in a city.

Each and every person who has a disability comes to understand it in a different way. It is a life-long journey. I remember feeling lost as a child, wrestling with the complicated intersections of being deaf. I experienced shame and embarrassment for being different and it wasn’t until I started learning that there were others like me out there that I began to overcome those thoughts and feelings. In writing characters with disabilities, something that is important to think about is their sense of identity and pride. Where does their pride come from? What experiences have they had? What is the disabled community like in your world? Thinking about these things can help writers develop more well-rounded characters. Disabled people are not usually born proud of who they are. It takes a long time to redevelop your sense of identity when you have or develop a disability. It’s a story that isn’t often discussed or written about. I think it’s time we changed that.

What are some experiences that have shaped your city? Comment below and let me know!