Writing Disabilities, Part 2: The Nullification of Disabilities

I was first introduced to disability studies through a critical literary studies class, a basic requirement for English majors where students learn different theories or “lenses” for analyzing literature. This includes theories such as deconstructionism, Marxism, Colonial and Racial studies, among several others. But I noticed that we weren’t assigned to read the last chapter of our textbook, which was about contemporary fields of study and included a small section on disability studies. Naturally, I was curious and read it. While the scant twelve pages had a lot of interesting points to ponder, I found it disappointing. The reason I was disappointed was that it failed to explain trends I have observed over the course of my life about characters with disabilities. I ended up creating my own theory to explain these trends and presented it as part of my final presentation for the class. Since then, I have been revised it countless times. Today, I’m proud to finally share it with you!

This theory is called the nullification of the disabled experience or the nullification of disabilities for short. The gist of it is to examine the relationships between power and disabilities. Because disabilities are associated with many harmful stigmas and with the lower class, disabilities and power are not presented together. Take for example the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom I mentioned in a previous blog post. Roosevelt had polio and was paralyzed from the waist down, thus used a wheelchair and other mobility devices. However, he refused to be photographed with his wheelchair because of the stigmas associated with being disabled. He wanted to appear as normal as possible so people would take him seriously and not assume he was weak and feeble. He would use braces under his pants and walk with the aid of a family member to help hide his disability from the public, even though his disability was common knowledge. Roosevelt was essentially trying to “nullify” his disability in the eyes of the public to maintain power, trust, and status.

Roosevelt serves as a good example of how disabilities and power have conflict. Anyone can tell you that the appearance of power is important. The way disabilities are present in stories is equally important. Because of the conflicts between disability and power, they are often not presented as coexisting. When one appears, it often nullifies the other. This can happen in several ways. For example, if a character has a disability, then gains power—the disability becomes ignored or washed away. On the flip side of the coin, a character can be in a position of power, from which they are removed when they acquire a disability. Or another common narrative, a character seeks a cure or must otherwise overcome a disability in order to be powerful enough to defeat the big bad evil force of the story. But the simplest way a disability becomes nullified is when the limitations of a disability are ignored.

The last one is probably confusing to you. After all, isn’t part of the reason I run this blog is to help people see past the limitations of disabilities? This is true; I run this blog is to fight against the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding disabilities. But fighting against stigmas is a little different than acknowledging limitations. (Granted there is an overlap). The point here is that acknowledging and remember the limitations of a disability is a sign of respect. Ignoring limitations silences our struggles and denies that discrimination exists. But going too far to the other side by letting our limitations take center stage, will also encourage stereotypes and stigmas, which further results in overshadowing the capabilities and contributions of those with disabilities.

Think of it this way. I am a deaf person. My coworkers acknowledge the limitations of my disability by making sure they get my attention before speaking to me. They make sure to pull their face masks down so I can lipread. When I worked in a factory, my coworkers would stop machines to eliminate background noise before communicating with me. By taking these steps and accommodating my needs, they are being very respectful. It is an act of empowerment to acknowledge, accept, and respect my limits. Whereas if they don’t pull down their face masks or take steps to communicate better with me (ignoring my limitations) comes off as disrespectful.

Interestingly enough, this is the critic’s argument against the social model of disabilities. The medical model focuses only on limitations through the person’s body whereas the social model only looks at society and cultural factors. The social model doesn’t acknowledge the limitations of individuals’ bodies.

Bringing the idea of acknowledging limitations into the field of literature, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen disabled characters in TV shows or movies portrayed so accurately and amazing in the beginning, but as time goes on their limitations are ignored more and more. Which ends up nullifying the disability because the character is doing things that they shouldn’t be able to do. For example, lipreading. Lipreading is extremely inaccurate and yet, most Deaf characters I have seen on the screen can lipread every single word flawlessly. It drives me crazy! Lipreading is so much more complicated than it is presented on screen and it encourages stigma. (Check out this four-minute video that explains the complexities and issues with lipreading so much better than I ever could).

Representation like this is a slap to the face for the disabled community. Disabled individuals do not have the luxury of choosing when our limitations apply and when they don’t. By ignoring limitations when they become inconvenient, writers and directors end up nullifying the disability. It’s like saying, “We are representing a minority community—but they’re only sometimes disabled because being able-bodied is much more convenient and powerful for the story.”

I recognize this may not be the intention of the writers and directors, but it happens regardless. This is why—to be inclusive—there needs to be more people with disabilities involved in the workforce and especially in the creation of characters with disabilities. They are the ones who are going to spot inconsistencies and inaccessibilities that nullify what it is like and what it means to have a disability.

Maysoon Zayid, an actor, writer ,tap dancer, disability advocate, and comedian

As I was writing this post, I recalled a hilarious TEDtalk given by Maysoon Zayid who has cerebral palsy: “I got 99 problems . . . palsy is just one.” In college, she participated in the theater program. When the theater announced they were going to put on a play where the leading role was a character with cerebral palsy, Zayid thought she had been born to play it. She went through the whole audition process and didn’t get the part. Instead, it went to an able-bodied peer.

Understandably upset, she met with the director to ask why. He gently explained the reason she didn’t get the part was because she couldn’t do the stunts.

“Excuse me!” she said. “If I can’t do the stunts, then neither can the character!”

This illustrates an important point in the representation of disabilities. I briefly mentioned this in a previous blog post about the representation of disabilities in Hollywood. 5% of all roles in Hollywood are for disabled characters. Of that 5%, only 2% of those roles go to disabled actors. The other 98% are played by able-bodied actors. This means that the disabled community (which comprises about 30% of the US population and well over a billion people worldwide) is being represented by .001%.

Because disabilities are often invisible and because anyone can acquire a disability at any given time, Hollywood gets away with able-bodied actors in disabled roles. Whereas other minorities—people of color, women, and those with alternative sexual orientation or gender identities—usually have visible characteristics, so Hollywood can’t get away with it as easily. Respecting, remembering, and acknowledging the limitations and the capabilities of those with disabilities is an act of empowerment. And the best way to learn about those limitations and capabilities is to learn directly from us.

So that is how disabilities can be nullified by ignoring limitations. Another way nullification happens is when a disabled person gains power, their disability will disappear—or vice versa, when a person in power gains a disability, their power disappears. Naturally, this sends several problematic messages about disabilities. A great example of this comes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dr. Steven Strange.* Strange starts off being in a position of power as a genius (albeit arrogant) surgeon. Later, he gets in a car crash which destroys his hands and ends his career. Strange’s life is presented as hopeless, dark, and dreary. Thus, when he became disabled he lost his power and his status—nullification of power by acquiring a disability. In pursuit of a miracle cure, Strange ends up in Nepal training in the mythic arts where he struggles a lot and blames his inability on his hands. When he does finally get the hang of magic with the use of a sling ring, from that point onward, we never see him struggling with his disability again. He appears able-bodied. So when Strange regained power, his disability seemingly disappears. That’s the nullification of disability by power gain, which results in ignoring the limits of his disability. The next time (and I believe the only time) his hands noticeably shake following his gain in power isn’t until several movies later in Avengers Endgame when Strange hands over the timestone to Thanos.

I have so much more to talk about with Dr. Strange, so look out for a blog post in the near future where I will dive deeper into everything I said above and more!

*September 2021; Writing on this character has been my most difficult blog post yet. Originally, I was planning to use this film as an example of my nullification of disability theory. In preparation, I rewatched the film and realized while this film does have moments of arguable nullification, as a whole, the film does an amazing job at acknowledging Dr. Strange’s disability. Check out my revised take on Dr. Strange here!

Image: Marvel Studios

The message that this sends is that a person with a disability cannot hold power or be in a position of power. Furthermore, it reflects an expectation that a disabled hero cannot accomplish the same thing as an able-bodied hero.

To go further, the nullification of disability by gaining power is also common with temporary disabilities. Even an injured character—an example of a temporary disability—is often quickly healed or cured of anything that could make them less powerful or seemingly incapable of achieving their goal. For example, most science fiction and fantasy tend to have technology or magic with the ability to instantly or almost instantly heal injuries.

I think a big reason behind this is that when a writer has a character with a disability because they haven’t been taught very much about disabilities or have lacked access to the subject, they think of the disabled character as “useless.” Thus, finding a way to restore that “usefulness” quickly and reliably takes precedence.

I will admit this is something that I struggle with as a fantasy writer. Injuring characters is a great way to ramp up the stakes and build tension in a scene. For example, in one of my works I have a high-stakes chase scene with a character who ends up taking an arrow to the shoulder. Originally, I had planned for the healer on the team to instantly restore him to an able-bodied state because he has to fight in another big battle shortly after the chase. Without that instant heal option, I have to think about my story differently. How long a wound like that would take to heal naturally? I could give him a minor flesh wound (so he has time to heal naturally) or he could be fighting with his injury—which might not be such a bad idea because I can see it adding tension if done right, especially if he ends up having to sneak around the King’s patrols.

Now, I am not saying that no one should write stories with an “instant heal” or “restoration of able-bodiedness” option. If that is where your imagination takes you, I encourage you to follow it. For me, it has become a personal choice not to have instant heal as an option because I am so interested in exploring the disabled experience on the page. My intention in sharing this side of the coin is to show that there are other options. Instant heals, I feel, are something that has been done over and over. It has become something of an expectation. It’s been ingrained in stories since writing was invented and was probably around for thousands of years before that through oral storytelling. (Fun fact: the Bible is based on stories originally written in cuneiform, the oldest discovered writing system in the world which was first used around 3400 BC).

I, for one, refuse to believe that disabled characters cannot be in positions of power, nor that they cannot participate and play valuable roles in high stake plots. Writers haven’t been taught to explore the perceptions of power in regards to disabilities. Since literature embodies, reflects, and critiques culture, based on what I have seen, there seems to be a deep fear within our culture about disabilities. It is time to start exploring that fear, to question it, and to make apparent what we are really afraid of. What will happen when disabilities are allowed to linger on the page and be seen? What happens when disabled heroes are allowed to save the day?

At this point, hopefully, you are starting to see possible applications of the nullification of disability theory. If you feel that you are struggling with the concept, that’s okay. Critical literary theory usually makes more sense in application than in explanation. This post is meant to serve as an introduction. Over the coming weeks, I will be applying the nullification of disabilities theory to several different works of literature.

Don’t forget to like this post and/or leave a comment below!

FOR FURTHER READING

Goddess in the Machine – discusses a disabled character who is in a position of power and how the limitations are acknowledged

Netflix’s The Dragon Prince – nullification by ignoring limitations

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini – nullification by overcoming a disability and power gain

James Cameron’s Avatar – is it nullification?

Book Report: Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist by Judith Heumann with Kristen Joiner

Genre: Autobiography
Published February 25, 2020

Brief Summary
Judith (Judy) Heumann has been front and center throughout the disabled civil rights movement in the 1960s and forwards. She talks about what it was like growing up as a disabled person, from being denied an education, denied access, and denied her teaching license because being in a wheelchair was considered a fire hazard. Judy went on to become one of the leaders of the Section 504 protest—the longest sit-in of American history. This book tells her story in her own words.

The original cover

Good morning Listen Up readers! This week I am excited to introduce you to Judy Heumann and the Section 504 protest!

Judy holds a very special place in my heart. When I first started learning about the disabled community, disability studies, and relearning what it means to be a disabled person, I came across Judy’s TEDTalk, “Our fight for disability rights—and why we’re not done yet.” As I was listening to her talk about growing up and the protests she participated in, I was overcome with emotion. It was the first time in my life that I heard my history. In school, the disabled civil rights movement was never mentioned. I had no idea how or why I had rights. Judy’s talk was the first time that I heard the names of protesters and the stories of the protests. This history, these stories, are my heritage. And getting that heritage at the age of twenty-two changed my life. Especially as someone who has spent half my life wishing I was dead. I realized that there were thousands of people who fought for me, who thought I was worth fighting for, and they succeeded. Now, I run this blog about disabilities, literature, and culture. I imagine it’s the first step of many I will take in fighting against historical silencing and oppression.

The new paperback cover, released February 23, 2021

Section 504 was part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It was a tiny section created by a few supportive senators who wanted to sneak in a civil rights provision into the bill. It is important to note that disabled people had been left out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was legal to discriminate against someone with a disability. Businesses didn’t have to accommodate disabled employees or customers. Schools refused to teach disabled children. There were unethical laws such as the “ugly laws” (which outlawed the appearance of a “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed [person], so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” But the worst thing that was going on, society was in complete denial that this discrimination existed. Basically, if you were a person with a disability, you were not seen as a person.

“School is how we pass knowledge, skills, and values on to children–for the good of society. In America, school is considered so important, that, since 1918, it has been compulsory.
“For everyone except us.”

Being Heumann, page 21

Section 504 reads “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, as defined in section 7(6), shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” It not only acknowledged that discrimination against disabled people existed, but it would force any organization receiving federal funds to become accessible and not discriminate against disabilities. This meant schools, universities, city streets, police stations, hospitals, the government itself—all these things that had been cut off from the disabled community would have to be accessible.

The sneaky tactic worked. The bill passed, but it still needed a signature from the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. When Section 504 was understood, it made a lot of people unhappy. No other civil rights act had involved costs before and people didn’t see why the world needed to be made accessible. In 1977, four years after the bill had passed, the disabled community decided to take action.

“In general, institutions don’t like change because change takes time and can entail costs. In particular, the institutions didn’t see the need for spending resources to adapt their buildings, programs, or classrooms for disabled people. It would be too costly, they argued, an unfair financial burden–and how many disabled people really went to university, or participated in x, y, or z specific activity anyway?
“Right there was our catch-22: because the country was so inaccessible, disabled people had a hard time getting out and doing things—which made us invisible. So we were easy to discount and ignore. Until institutions were forced to accommodate us we would remain locked out and invisible–and as long as we were locked out and invisible, no one would see our true force and dismiss us.”

Being Heumann, page 80

Community is a really strong theme throughout this book. In fact, on the first page of her book, Judy says “for any story of changing the world is always the story of many.” The disabled community is very unique because our community isn’t built on blood. For colored people, they have friends and family that share the community experience. Religious groups too. I grew up in a Mormon household and was part of a large Mormon community. But the disabled community isn’t typically bound by blood (granted there are some cases where things like deafness runs in families). We come from every background. Some of us are black, some of us are gay, some of us are Muslim, some of us are atheists—there is no boundary that disability hasn’t crossed. We are the most diverse community on the planet. This intersectional nature of the disabled community played a big role in getting Section 504 signed.

“For too long, we have believed that if we played by the rules and did what we were told, we would be included in the American Dream.
“We have waited too long, made too many compromises, and been too patient.
“We will no longer be patient. There will be no more compromises.
“We will accept no more discrimination.”

Judy’s speech at the Section 504 rally; Being Heumann, page 92

Judy and her friends hosted a rally in San Francisco, near the office of Health, Education, and Wellness who was in charge of enforcing Section 504. They decided to march into the building and talk to the Regional Director, Joe Maldonado. Unfortunately, Maldonado had never even heard of Section 504, meaning that the government had zero intention of ever enforcing it. Our rights were such a low propriety that even the people charged with enforcing them didn’t know about them. Judy addressed the crowd behind her, “We need you to stay with us in the building until the government signs the regulations for 504!”

“For people with disabilities, a sleepover is not as simple as tossing some sandwiches and a toothbrush into a backpack. In addition to personal assistance, a fairly high number of us also require various types of daily medications and have things like catheters that need to be changed, or the need to get turned at night to avoid bedsores. Many people of course had come without a personal attendant, any kind of food, or even a toothbrush.”

Being Heumann, page 98

Seventy-five protesters committed to staying on the first day. Now, this was a coordinated event. Section 504 rallies and sit-ins were happening around the country in Washington D.C., Boston, Seattle, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, and Denver, but the San Francisco protest is the only one the held out. Others were starved or waited out by officials who used tactics such as fake bomb threats, cutting off the power, water, access to food, and communication.

“We were being talked about as if we were a foreign army. The public was stunned. People weren’t used to thinking of us as fighters—when they thought about us at all. And I don’t say that in a bitter way, but in more of an honest way. We were a people who were generally invisible in the daily life of society. I mean, think about it. If you didn’t see us in school, because we weren’t allowed in; or in your place of employment, either because we couldn’t physically access it or because we couldn’t get hired; or on your form of public transportation, because buses and trains weren’t accessible; or in restaurants or theaters, for the same reason—then where in your everyday life would you have seen us?”

Being Heumann, page 103

So why was the San Francisco sit-in successful? The truth is that it wouldn’t have been successful without the help of other minority communities. For example, when government officials cut off access to food, the Black Panthers fought their way past security to bring food and mattresses every single day. This was an incredible sacrifice on their part since they didn’t have a whole lot of funding, but here they were dedicating time, money, and resources for a cause that wasn’t their own. When asked why they replied “You’re fighting to make the world a better place. That’s what our goal is too.”

In addition, there was a local church group that held an ongoing vigil outside the HEW building. Since the protesters couldn’t be seen in the building, having a vigil outside gave news crews something to film and talk about, while bringing awareness to the importance of getting Section 504 signed.

At last, Judy and the other protest leaders were invited to meet in Washington D.C. with various senators to put pressure on Joseph Califano (the current Secretary of HEW) and President Carter to sign Section 504. On Thursday afternoon, April 28, Section 504 was signed and the news spread the next day. On the morning of April 30, well over a hundred protesters walked out of San Francisco’s HEW office.

“I was told there was jubilation on the fourth floor of the San Francisco Federal Building—victorious shouting, hugging, laughter, and, ultimately, crying.
“Because, as it turned out, people didn’t want to leave the building.
“They’d made friends, had fun, fallen in love, and felt fully free to be themselves. And in the process, something magical had happened. In the cocoon of the building, a metamorphosis had occurred.
“’We all fell in love with each other,’ CeCe Weeks explained to a reporter.
“’I’ve discovered that I count as a person,’ a protester told another reporter.
“’Instead of seeing myself as a weak person, I found my strength reinforced by others like me,’ said another.
“. . . They decided to spend one last night together in the building to celebrate.”

Being Heumann, page 147

The Section 504 protest remains the longest sit-in of American history, beginning on April 5 and lasting twenty-six days. It marked the beginning of major social change. It also happened to be the first piece of civil rights legislation for disabled people in the world. Section 504 then paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the official bill of rights for disabled people in America, which was another global first. In 2006, an international treaty based on the ADA was adopted, called the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD established civil rights for disabled people by any country that signed it. Currently, the CRPD been signed and ratified in more than 163 countries.

“Section 504 had redefined disability. Instead of looking at disability as a medical issue, it had made disability a question of civil—and human—rights.”

Being Heumann, page 159

This is how Section 504 changed the world. Disabilities are universal. No matter where you go in the world, or where you are from, no matter what culture you come across, no matter the color of skin or religious practices, you will always find people with disabilities. Section 504 is not the only event Judy talks about in her book. She also talks about the Capitol Crawl and more current events, such as during the Trump administration trying to weaken the power of the ADA. Sadly, disabled civil rights are constantly under fire.

A recent example of this (which is not in Judy’s book): when Covid-19 first hit America, several states began to draft triage legislation for use in the case that hospitals were overrun. This legislation would help to take pressure off the doctors on deciding who could receive care when resources are scarce. The two groups at the bottom of the list for care were 1) people over the age of sixty and 2) people with disabilities. When I learned about this, I was shaken to my core. And I was angry that my government, who is supposed to support and protect my rights, had decided that I, and millions of other people like me, were expendable in a time of crisis. I was terrified of getting sick and being turned away at the hospital for being deaf. And I had no idea how I could raise my voice and fight against that discrimination. When I told my family about what was happening, they didn’t believe me. “Oh, that’s not going to happen,” they said. It’s that denial that ableism exists that has kept disabled people segregated from participating in society for centuries. All of these things combined made me feel invisible and small—like an ant in the wrong place that somebody was trying to crush under their foot.

I am not currently aware of any triage legislation that has been enforced in America during the pandemic. When these first drafts came to light, several independent law agencies across the country took a stand against it, recognizing that it was a violation of civil rights for both the elderly and disabled. But in other parts of the world, this kind of legislation has been and currently is in use.

Ableism is a very serious matter. A life-and-death matter more often than you think it would be. And before you dismiss that, remember that the problems and issues of disabled people have been dismissed time and time again. So listen, listen up to disabilities. We are fighting to be made visible. We are fighting for the recognition that our problems do, in fact, exist and our needs to be addressed because the world so often dismisses us. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world and we are the most underrepresented. Our stories are not being told. America loves the narrative that we are charity cases, weak, rare, and a source of objectified inspiration. But we are not charity cases. We are not rare and we are not weak. We are people with dreams and families and lives. We are people that love doing things, even if we do them differently than you’d expect.

Because, above all else, we are human beings.

Don’t forget to leave a like or a comment below. I love hearing from you guys. Thank you for all the support! Being Heumann is a great read for an overview of disability civil rights movement and learning about the disabled identity.

Book Report: All the Way to the Top by Annette Bay Pimentel, Jennifer Kellan-Chaffins, and illustrated by Nabi H. Abi

Genre: Children’s Nonfiction
Published March 10, 2020
2021 Schneider Family Book Award Young Children’s Honor Book (American Library Association)

Brief Summary
Jennifer has been a disabled rights activist from the age of six years old. It started when she wasn’t allowed to go to school, then when she could go to school, she was barred from eating in the cafeteria with the other students. She wanted to make the world a better place and starting joining protests, leading up to the Capitol Crawl which was the protest that forced the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Follow Jennifer on her true story to crawl all the way to the top!

Welcome, Listen Up readers! Thank you for your patience as I wasn’t able to post last week. I was super excited to introduce this book about the Capitol Crawl on March 13, the thirty-first anniversary of the event. Even though I missed the deadline, I’m still excited to share this book with you! All the Way to the Top is written by Annette Bay Pimentel, a forward by Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, and illustrated by Nabi H. Abi. This book tells the true story of Jennifer Keelan-Chaffin and her involvement in the Capitol Crawl. The Capitol Crawl was a disability rights protest that took place on March 12-13, 1990. Over 1,000 people took part in the march from the White House to the U.S. Capitol to demand that the government pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which would establish civil rights for people with disabilities.

At the foot of the Capitol, several of the protesters dropped their crutches or slid from their wheelchairs to crawl up the steps. For some, it took the entire night to crawl up the steps. It was a physical demonstration of inaccessibility in action that showed exactly why the ADA was needed. People with disabilities were discriminated against in employment, in education, in public services, and even in architecture—all because they were left out of the civil rights act of 1964.

The Capitol Crawl forced the hand of the government and the ADA was signed within four months. But the protest may not have achieved its end goal without Jennifer. Some protesters suggested that Jennifer not do the crawl, as images of a child crawling up the steps could incite pity rather than serve as a call to action. All the Way to the Top follows Jennifer’s journey in experiencing discrimination, learning about the Disabled Civil Rights movement, becoming an activist herself, and finally, her participation in the Capitol Crawl.

On the day of the protest, Jennifer felt a sense of duty. She needed to crawl up the steps for all the kids like her. For all the kids who were barred from school. For all the curbs that prevented her from going places. So she got out of her wheelchair and made for the steps. She accidently cut her lip on the first step. The news crews who were filming the protest turned the camera lens to Jennifer. The image of an eight-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, bleeding, slowly fighting her way up 365 steps to advocate for her rights and other children, was shown all across the country. It was that image that finally pushed congress into passing the ADA. You can hear Jennifer talk about her experience here on Youtube.

The ADA changed the world for people with disabilities. Architecture was required to be accessible, so curbs were cut and textile markers were laid down. Buildings were required to have wheelchair ramps and elevators. It was illegal to fire someone or refuse to consider them for a job if they had a disability. Handicap buttons were installed to open doors. Braille was added to signage. Schools especially had to be made accessible too.

While for most of my life I’ve been completely oblivious to the fact, I’ve benefited from the ADA in many ways. When I went to school, making sure that I had appropriate accommodations was a big deal. I was given a seat at the front of the classroom so as to have a good view of the teacher’s lips. I also had a neck loop system, which linked my hearing aids directly to a microphone the teacher had pinned to her shirt. It also included speech therapy. Parent-teacher conferences were follow-ups on how my accommodations were working out. Now that I am in college, I have transcribing—meaning a person is in the room typing up everything that is being said for me to read on an iPad at my desk. There is a bit of a delay between something said and when I get to “read” it so it is not perfect, but it works for me a lot better than a neck loop. I honestly don’t know how I got through school without transcribing.

Without the ADA, I likely wouldn’t be allowed to go to school or college. I would have a hard time finding employment. A lot of businesses and services would turn me away simply for being disabled, such as the gym, the bank, my karate studio, and even busses could deny passage for a disabled person.

Reading with a couple of my nieces and nephews

When my nieces and nephews are a little older, I’m excited to share Jennifer’s story with them. They are not quite ready to graduate from board books yet, but they’ll be there soon. My feeling about this story and all of its beautiful illustrations can be summed up in a quote from the foreword of the book:

“I recognized that I had a very important responsibility placed upon me. I wasn’t just representing myself, I was representing my generation and future generations of children with disabilities who also felt left out as they struggled for the same rights as everyone else.”

Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins, Forward of All the Way to the Top

It is our responsibility to teach the next generation to continue to fight for a better world and for better rights. For me, I feel a sense of purpose that I’m suppose to help educate others on the subject of disabilities. Everyone benefits when we focus on making the world accessible to a wider range of people.

All the Way to the Top is available on Amazon.

What are some accessibility requirements that you’ve experienced or noticed in the world around you?

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!

Book Report: Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson

Genre: Young Adult Science-Fiction
Published June 30, 2020

Brief Summary

Earth is dying. Seventeen-year-old Andromedia “Andra” Yue Watts is put into cryosleep with hundreds of other colonists to travel to a new planet. The trip will take one hundred years, but when Andrea wakes up, it has been a thousand. Her friends and family are long gone and the people around her keep calling her Goddess. Meanwhile, Zhade, an exiled prince is planning on using Andrea to lay claim to his throne. Zhade and Andrea team up to save the city and find out the mystery of why Andrea was left in stasis.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Welcome Listen Up readers! This week I’m excited to talk about Goddess in the Machine. What I loved about this book is the way it mixed science-fiction with fantasy. The book alternates between Andrea’s perspective, who sees the world around her constructed by science and technology, and Zhade’s perspective, who sees everything that Andrea does as a form of magic. It blurred the border between the genres of fantasy and science-fiction.

Another intriguing aspect of the book was the language. Since language changes and adapts to the needs of its users over time, and Andrea was asleep for one thousand years, language has evolved to a point it is unfamiliar to Andrea. Think of it as if Shakespeare was put in cryosleep and was woken up today. He would likely see our way of speaking strange. I read this book shortly after finishing a class on linguistics and saw a lot of connections to the things I learned about language and how it evolves.

Now, onto the disability analysis. This might seem strange as my first book report since neither of the main characters are presented as having a disability. Like many other science fiction works, GITM assumes a future where disabilities of all kinds have been eradicated. I discussed in a previous blog post, Defining Disabilities, how disabilities are constructed by cultural barriers rather than from a medical standpoint so that there isn’t a way to eradicate every single disability in existence.

Besides those facts, near the end of the book one of the side characters, Kiv, turns out to be deaf and needs to lipread. While Kiv is not a main character, he provides an example of representation that is better than most. Oftentimes characters with disabilities are there for comedic relief; such as the deaf storekeeper who is busy getting the characters onions they did not ask for. Another common pitfall for characters with disabilities is being killed off, sending multiple messages including; disabilities are weaknesses and that disabilities need to be eradicated.

Kiv breaks the mold differently by being in a position of power—tasked with being the Goddess’s bodyguard. Since the people believe that Andrea will save them and others want her dead, it stands to reason that they wouldn’t let just any soldier be her bodyguard. Only the best of the best. This breaks the mold of what I’ve seen a lot of other books do.

Oftentimes when a disabled character is involved in a story, they are in a position of low power. It is similar to the way that even after the Civil Rights movement of 1964, people of color struggled to be represented in positions of power. For years, they were presented as side characters or as servants, but they never got to be the hero.

This is why certain moments in films are so powerful for the minorities they represent. As an example, in Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker Finn and Jannah ride orbaks (commonly referred to as “space horses”) and lead a battle charge onto a star destroyer, resulting in a powerful moment. These characters are in a position of power where the minorities they represent traditionally are not portrayed as being leaders. Another example of this is the Black Panther movie, which flips the traditional white narrative. A black superhero, who is king of the most technologically advanced civilization on Earth, and protected by an exclusive team of warrior women, outfitted in proper armor that doesn’t fall prey to the male gaze. Few white characters are included, the most prominent one being Agent Ross who quickly finds himself overwhelmed by the technology of Wakanda.

In another Marvel film, Avengers: Endgame there is powerful moment for women, that shows all the female superheroes working together. This particular scene caused a lot of controversy. The superhero world is dominated by men and the male gaze. This moment was powerful because it shows women with superpowers, dominating the battlefield, in a group the same way male superheroes are regularly portrayed. The scene made some people uncomfortable because it is not something they are used to seeing.

Currently, I am not aware of a similar moment in a book or movie the replicates a similar empowering moment of disabled people. Unless counting the few documentaries that recorded the Disabled Rights Movement. While these documentaries are empowering, it is not the same as seeing it in a work of fiction.

Coming back to Goddess in the Machine that’s why Kiv stood out to me. He was in a position of power. This was made even more powerful when Andrea suggests to Kiv that he could be “cured.”

Andrea looked up, studying Kiv—the way he watched Lilibet, reading her lips.

“You’re deaf?” she asked, before she remembered she wasn’t suppose to be listening. It made sense now. Why he never spoke, rarely responded in any way how Zhade would sometimes give him physical cues . . .”Why are you hiding it? Someone could have helped you. I’ve seen the modded arms and eyes here. The sorcerers know what to do. The med’bots—uh, angels, could have fixed you.”

Kiv watched her mouth as she formed the words, his expression hardening.

“I’m not broken.” he said. “. . . I am me. I don’t need to change for you.”

Goddess in the Machine, pages 315-316


I love how Kiv gets a moment to push back against the ableist narrative. Many people with disabilities do not see themselves as needing to be cured. It is a longstanding “ethical” debate within our culture. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people today that believe disabilities need to be eradicated, and methods under discussion range from assisted suicide, infanticide, genetic modification, and laws to make it illegal for disabled people to procreate. All of these, in my not-so-humble opinion, are unethical.

Kiv stands in the midst of these arguments and has probably had to prove himself many times over to the same ableist arguments Andrea makes. In addition, Kiv is involved in a relationship. Interabled relationships are another thing that is rare to see in stories, rarer than seeing characters with disabilities.

One of the things that I am commonly known for among my friends is my anti-romance stand. Romance is something that has always bored me and I have no idea how people can fall in love with someone and commit to a life-long commitment within a few months of first meeting them. However, I have also never seen a person like myself reflected in a romance. As a child, this reinforced my struggles with my disability and identity because in having a disability, I believed I was unlovable. Sometimes I can’t help wondering if I am truly disinterested in romance or if it is a barrier of internalized ableism that I have yet to overcome.

Coming August 24, 2021

All in all, Kiv stands out by breaking a lot of the molds that are common in writing disabilities and I suspect that we will be seeing more of him in the sequel, Devil in the Device, which is currently scheduled to be released in August of this year. I appreciate the inclusivity done by the author because even though Kiv is such a small part of the novel, it was thrilling to see a disabled warrior doing something that mattered, involved in a relationship, and who chooses to remain disabled in a society where disabilities are frequently eradicated.

Was this article helpful to you? Comment below and let me know!

Welcome to Listen Up

An Introduction to the story and the person behind the blog

Hello Reader!

My name is Rachel Spencer. I am a Deaf writer and aspiring author. I started this blog in my senior year of college to help writers and educators: learn more about disabilities, why representation is so important, and how to incorporate disabilities into their writing. But I hope there’s something here for everyone.

Each week* I write and post an article. Every other week the article will be about disabilities in general and how to apply disability studies into your writing. In between these articles, I write a “Book Report” analyzing a book, movie, or TV show under a disability lens. These posts will serve to provide teachers with examples of disabled literature that they can include in the classroom. For writers, they provide different ways to incorporate (or how not to incorporate) disabilities into their own works.

I started this blog because I notice that the subject of disabilities rarely comes up in the classroom. In addition, I experienced growing up without stories or heroes that were like me. The lack of representation had a severe impact on me growing up.

Like many who are born or become disabled young, I grew up isolated from the disabled community. I thought I was alone. I remember searching the library for stories with characters who were deaf like me, but not being able to find anything. At eleven, I remember sitting on the steps at recess and wondering what my future would be like. Would I be able to have a career? Would people see me for the things I could do or would they see my limitations instead?

How was it that at eleven years old, I could already feel and describe the effects of ableism in my life? I believe it was because I never had a hero like me to look up to. I never saw myself in a Disney princess or in a superhero. I never saw myself in the dolls on the shelves at Target. Not in any advertisement. Nowhere. I thought I was the only deaf person on the face of the planet. You can imagine how lonely that feels.

All that changed the first time I came across a deaf character. I bawled for an hour straight. To sweeten the deal, the character was in the best series I had ever read. I was so happy that I couldn’t see the words on the page through my tears. Here was someone like me. For the first time in my life, I had a hero. For once—I didn’t feel so lonely. It was something that should have changed my life for the better.

Five pages later, the deaf character was killed.

That’s when a lot of things clicked for me. First and foremost, deaf people weren’t worth writing stories about. That was the only conclusion I could come to. Second, that meant I was worthless because I was deaf. Third . . . while it wasn’t the first time, I considered suicide.

All of these, of course, I now know to be lies. Deaf people, or a person with any kind of disability, are more than worthy to be in stories. My experiences prove that, in fact, it is a necessity to write stories with disabled characters. I firmly believe that if I had characters I could relate to and look up to, who were like me, I wouldn’t have spent years of my life battling depression.

Over the last several years I have been learning more and more about what it means to be disabled. I still feel new to all of this and I imagine some part of me will always feel that way because of how much there is to learn. Of course, I never would have had the courage to start this blog if it weren’t for a good friend of mine, Stephanie Hurzeler, who once said to me something along the lines of “Because you taught me so much about disabilities, I wasn’t so afraid when I got my own.”

So here I am, learning, and I hope that I can help you learn too. I want to give writers more tools they can use to include diversity and I want to give educators a place they can learn about disabilities to bring up the subject in the classroom. I can’t build a better world by myself. It’ll take all of us working together.

*As of May 23, 2021, I have switched to writing one post every other week instead of weekly. This allows me to have a better work-life balance, enable me to work on other writing projects while continuing to write quality blog posts for you. Thank you for your understanding and continued support!