Individuals with disabilities are faced with stigma and discrimination from the society where they live. Most people look down on them and treat them as special. Disabled people may find it hard to socialize with members of the society. This can lead to depression as well as self pity, if not checked.
Most celebrated achievers were born into a life of privilege, complete with family connections and a “stiff upper lip” upbringing, another common theme we see when it comes to talking about disability. Disabled people are expected to be sunny and optimistic, to not whine and to be, as some call it,supercrips. Disability rights activist Paul K Longmore, for example, was pushed to pursue an academic career and warned that failure would reflect poorly “on all people with disabilities”.
To describe disability as something that must be “overcome” and something a person will go on to succeed “in spite of” is an oppositional framing. It implies that being disabled is a negative thing, and yet suggests it will not hold you back if you try hard enough – that disabled people who fail in life have only themselves to blame; they should have tried harder, shouldn’t have “given up”, should have had a fighting spirit.
If the lives of disabled people are portrayed in this way it risks being used as a stick to beat those disabled people who are not sufficiently cheerful, who do not have enough “motivation”, and fail to complete certain tasks.
After all, if Helen Keller could go on to be a successful author and radical socialist activist, does that mean the homeless man in a wheelchair on the corner is just lazy? As disabilities like Christopher Reeve’s paralysis are depicted as inspirational, other disabled people are blamed for their lack of success when the real obstacles they face are largely economic and social, and not dependent on their personality traits.
While there has been tremendous progress in the area of disability rights, people with disabilities still face a number of barriers put in place by society, not by their “afflictions”, as the media puts it. Disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to face discrimination in the workplace. These barriers are social, not personal, and cannot be “overcome” through sheer force of will.
What’s notable about many of the high-profile people with disabilities we see in the news isn’t that they “overcame” their disabilities. They overcame the social obstacles presented to disabled people, and many did so largely thanks to a happy accident of birth, or as a result of success before becoming disabled, as seen in the cases of many disabled athletes. They attended excellent schools, had jobs ready-made for them in the family firm in some cases, had family members with the time and resources to provide accommodation when it wasn’t made available and to fight for equal access, had the earnings of distinguished careers to use in modifying homes and buying mobility devices – opportunities not available to your average disabled person.
In other words, they succeeded not only because of their “brave” qualities, but because they were provided with every advantage in life – something all disabled people should have.