Keep Telling #DisabilityStories
In the weeks leading up to the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, social media was abuzz with disability stories. The National Museum of American History even organized an international Twitter conversation on #DisabilityStories on July 15, 2015. For the remarkably successful daylong event, people from across the globe engaged in conversations about representations of disability in art and popular culture, the lived experience of disability, and historical accounts and artifacts.
For people with disabilities and disability rights advocates, this anniversary occasions both celebration and reflection. Accessible spaces, biomedical technology, and assistive services have made the world a more habitable place for people with disabilities. At Boston College, where I attend school, student have rallied around the cause of disability, fighting for a campus as accessible as it is beautiful. The Disability Awareness Committee of Boston College has made accessibility a critical issue on campus, documenting the ways in which the built environment and institutional policies at Boston College—for instance, steep pathways marked as wheelchair accessible—disempower them.
Disability advocates in Boston marked the anniversary with a celebration in Boston Common.
The ADA has been a remarkable success, but we must not forget the work left to do. William Peace, who attended the event, perhaps sums it up best: “[The ADA] has succeeded legally, but socially it has a long way to go.”
Securing the civil rights of and equal opportunities for these citizens is, bottom line, an issue of representation. People with disabilities are daily disempowered and isolated by institutions and individuals that pass over, erase, or ignore the realities of disability. It happens when a conference is held in an inaccessible building. It happens when a path is marked as accessible but is, in fact, unnavigable. It happens when a vision resources workstation provides no resources, when the sign for the workstation isn’t even in braille.
People with disabilities are often invisible in some parts of everyday life, such as in the workplace. In 2012, only 33.5% of working-age people with disabilities were employed. In the media and popular culture, individuals with disabilities appear less often than able-bodied individuals. When they do appear, their portrayals are often limited.
The unflagging stigma and underrepresentation of disability halts the progress of the ADA. If people with disabilities continue to be forgotten or perceived in problematic ways, then the ADA will fail to achieve its ultimate goals of accessibility and inclusion.
Stories are the answer to this crisis of representation. Which stories get told and how those stories are circulated determine how disability is understood socially and culturally.
We need to move away from disability as burden and the “super-crip” stereotype. While these two overarching narratives seem compassionate or inspiring, they both portray disability as a tragedy, and life with a disability as inferior and unsatisfying.
Disability cannot be reduced to a single narrative of pity, overcoming, or empowerment. Disability, as with all lived experience, is complex, multi-faceted, rich, individual. It resists a single story.
As a society, we should listen more to the stories of individuals with disabilities. To the stories of their everyday life, of their successes and their struggles, the minutiae and the monumental moments. Disability is an innumerable range of stories—told, retold, to be told.
Telling stories of disability is vital to making visible and giving voice to individuals with disabilities. Hearing stories is a way of acknowledging the reality of disability and empowering people with disabilities. By acknowledging similarities, differences, and singularities, we connect ourselves with stories.
So let’s keep sharing #DisabilityStories beyond the 25th anniversary of the ADA. The success of the ADA is about more than ramps, web accessibility, or public services. It’s about making everyday life accessible, inclusive, and fulfilling to people with disabilities. It’s about changing our attitudes and assumptions toward disability once and for all.