I responded in frustration to ‘The Ten Best Books on Disability’ in The Guardian last week:
‘I don’t believe you have to experience something in order to write about it, I wrote. ‘I’m a female playwright who writes male characters; I don’t advocate the old adage ‘write about what you know’. Writing is all about imagination, making things up, telling lies, entering the skin of a being who is similar to, but absolutely not ‘you’. It is audacious, limitless, empathetic, fictional… So why am I so frustrated at books written by predominantly non-disabled authors being chosen, yet again, as ‘The Ten Best Books About Disability’?
Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the impaired body being used as a metaphor for the non-disabled. Maybe I and many of my friends, family, and colleagues are fed up with the same old preconceptions and misrepresentations being peddled as ‘truth’, when these perspectives often have very little to do with the reality of living with a physical, sensory, or intellectual impairment.
There has been a long tradition of assigning meaning to the impaired body. Since Aristotle, impairment has been used as a vehicle to explore notions of frailty, mortality, evil, pity, change – the human condition. What perhaps galls me and sends me hurrying for the right to expand this focus is the sense disability is consistently viewed from within the troublesome and limited stance of ‘normalcy’ – a place that gives little value to human variety, whilst often inviting prurient curiosity (TV reality ‘documentaries’ – the new freak shows? Discuss).
There are certain disability narratives that have been circulating for millennia, and others since the Industrial revolution when humans became commoditised and valued according to their efficacy as a workforce.
We are tragic but brave. We are evil personified. We are weak and pitiful, deserving of charity and pity. We are cheating wasters who contribute nothing. We are wise, with supernatural powers. We are kinky freaks up to no good. We are inspirational figures who ‘overcome’ our limitations.
They’re all good storylines, and many can be viewed regularly in the media, like last year during the ‘Superhuman’ Paralympic coverage and currently in much of the spin around ‘scrounging’ disability benefit cheats. As a writer I can appreciate their pulling and lasting power. But I want something more – something which makes me perceive existence in a different way, which subverts and challenges notions of what it is to be human. And there is a rich body of this innovative, award-winning work already available, written by Deaf and disabled writers, which is why perhaps I am frustrated when more of this work isn’t included in round-ups of ‘The Best’ about disability.
Disability arts and culture in the US and the UK grew out of a civil rights movement, believing it is society with its ideologies, values, prejudices and love of inaccessible architecture which is disabling, not the impairment. This is a radically different stance from the majority of depictions in work by hearing or non-disabled writers identifying the character through diagnosis, putting the body at ‘fault’. Disability culture takes a different perspective, celebrating difference and informed by the phenomenological, embodied experience of being in a disabling world.’
I’m delighted to say I was commissioned to write a more user-friendly version of this for their book blog, which was published this morning on the following link. I’m encouraging others to add their books (I have many many more book titles to include which friends recommended. These weren’t included in the article owing to lack of room – but I shall add those on a different blog post).
Have a look and add your comments:
As a ps, can I say the final line of the Guardian post about ‘what books have opened your eyes?’ was not written by me. As a visually-impaired woman, I would not use such a comment based in normalcy – which is actually what my original feature was all about….