New York City has begun using a new design of the international symbol for disabilities this week. (See above.) Featuring a forward-moving, self-propelling wheelchair user, the new symbol has garnered praise from the mayor’s office and Professor Lisa Wade of Occidental College for portraying disabled people as “active and independent,” instead of “passive and helpless.”
I support the move 99% because it signifies the changing perceptions of what it means to be disabled. Altering our default descriptions of non-ambulatory people from “wheelchair-bound” to “using a wheelchair” sheds much-needed light on the fact that many disabled people are indeed differently abled. Wheelchairs, sign language, and Braille are not just substitute ways of moving and communicating but means of moving and communicating that require skill. If you’ve ever witnessed someone try to use a wheelchair for the first time, you know it’s like watching Bambi on ice.
That said, I am hesitant to embrace any idea that insists that physically “active” is preferable to “passive” at the risk of impugning those who cannot help but be dependent. Just as Little People of America’s motto “Think Big!” inadvertently suggests something undesirable about being small, an over-emphasis on being active—and defining “active” as the ability to physically move yourself forward—inadvertently suggests something humiliating about the thousands of medical conditions that preclude physical independence. All people have agency, and this absolutely bears repeating when we talk about human rights and portrayals of disability. But not all of us are independent.
Disability reminds us, perhaps like nothing else, that we can never hold every member of the human race to the same standard. This does not mean we cannot demand everyone strive for excellence, try their hardest, or be their own toughest critic. But it does mean we should be wary of promulgating rigid definitions of excellence.
As a friend with lupus once said, “What’s wrong with being weak? What’s wrong with trying to do something and doing it badly?”
Competitive cultures wince at weakness and I must say that America can be a very competitive place. Even the most progressive human rights movements have embraced competitive, grandiose language when talking about empowerment. Two years ago on Love Your Body Day, Chloe Angyal of Feministing wrote an article wherein she wanted to “ take a moment to appreciate the things my body can do.” She went on to list her favorite things:
My body can stitch itself back together when it gets cut. This never ceases to amaze me.
My body has an organ in it that can stretch to accommodate a small human being. I don’t want it to do any stretching or accommodating any time soon, but the capacity is there, and that blows my mind.
More than a decade after it was cool (was it really ever cool?) my body still has the muscle memory to do the Macarena. That one is kind of embarrassing, but still kind of great. Mostly embarrassing.
My body can orgasm. Enough said.
My body can do [a flip], and for that, I love it.
What can your body do?
I had been, and still am, a huge fan of Angyal’s writing. As a feminist, an athlete and someone who has struggled with disordered eating, her contributions to the discourse on body image have been invaluable. But this time around, I wasn’t inspired to join in her Love Your Body Day exercise. I hesitated to say so because I understood the noble intentions behind her article, and what kind of person wants to rain on a Love Your Body Day parade?
Apparently someone like me, because I ultimately couldn’t help but write this response:
I realize the very good intentions of your post: celebrating our bodies as they are. But the emphasis on what you can “do” (= ability) still made me quite uncomfortable as someone with disabilities.
Usually when one writes a piece meant to buck oppressive, judgmental thinking and celebrate the way we are, the author writes about a quality that is ostracized – a skin color, sexuality, a body size, physical features considered to be deformities, etc. It’s the honesty of the author in spite of adversity that inspires. You instead decided to celebrate things about your body that mainstream society does not ostracize at all, but in fact agrees with you are wonderful. So for those of us who cannot dance, have children, heal cuts, or do gymnastics, this post simply reminds us of this and it’s hard not to take it as bragging. (I know that wasn’t your intention.) You did invite us to list our own things we love about our bodies, but I don’t think there’s anything my body can do that yours can’t…
Angyal wrote back to me personally and apologized. From there we started a dialogue that resulted in my writing guest posts for Feministing and our exchanging lots of praise for each other’s work. I had been frustrated by the lack of disability awareness on leftist forums and simultaneoulsy self-conscious of appearing too negative or narcissistic. This made her response to my critique all the more inspiring. She has both privileges and experiences of marginalization that I do not, just as I have privileges and experiences of marginalization that she does not. The same goes for those who can move their own wheelchairs and those who cannot.
Overlooking our privileges and inadvertently denigrating others happens all too easily, as all 7 billion of us strive for excellence and recognition of our various capacities for excellence. Trying to include everyone in the conversation, all the time, can be exhausting. But admitting the danger of these missteps is imperative to the idea of truly universal human rights because that idea insists, over and over again, no matter what the circumstances, that everybody matters. There is no way around it if we want to move forward.