Am I a 'Disability Writer'?
After penning numerous articles about his gender transition, writer T. Wise, a.k.a. Little Boy Blue, grew weary. He wanted to write about other things, things other than transness. But every time he tried to create something new, he couldn’t help but circle back to the topic of gender identity.
The above was the dillema at the crux of a story I came across in Man Repeller (RIP), several years ago. It’s called Outgrowing the Personal Essay: Can I Create a Voice Bigger Than My Trans Identity?, and it recently resurfaced in my head as I pondered on my own experiences as a disabled writer.
Until very recently, I wrote about my disability because I felt like I had to. My disability can be obvious at times, and writing articles about it was my way of looking squarely at the elephant in the room and saying that I’m going to take that bastard down. It wasn’t just a symbolic thing, either. I knew that if I didn’t explain my disability, someone else would, and that’s where things go horribly wrong. So much depends on my ability to accurately inform others, and I felt that I would be denying myself of all that I deserve, if I stayed quiet, even if I donned the veneer of a cool, collected bravado: so what? I don’t care what people think about me. And so I glued myself to my laptop and churned out articles after articles about disability. This was about self-preservation.
Thankfully, it worked. In many ways, addressing my disability propelled the shift from surviving to thriving I kept talking about. Though I couldn’t possibly expound on every little nuance of my disability, I got to debunk some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding my disability, and that gave me closure. A wave of relief washed over me and I began to explore the topic from different angles, not just from an informative one. Most importantly, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I had the room to care about other things. With both my feet into thriving territory, the joyous clamor came from all directions: write about me! I felt inspired to write about all sorts of things — silly, serious, and everything in between. It felt really fucking good to lean into the expansiveness of my craft.
While I was having these revelations about myself, I was also approaching my second semester of my sophomore year. I began to hear more and more of this question: what do you want to do? Now was the time to cut out distractions and zero in on my career goals. Everyone told me that I needed to establish a personal brand, a cohesive professional identity, a good elevator pitch.
I mean — I knew for a very long time that I wanted to be a writer. I declared a journalism major before I officially enrolled in TCNJ, but I made it clear, from the very beginning, that I wasn’t interested in doing hard news — I wanted to do personal essays, human interest stories, and maybe a bit of gonzo journalism. And yet, I bewildered everyone when I told them that my ideal brand identity wouldn’t feature “disability advocate” front-and-center.
I could understand why. I’ve been involved in disability advocacy for years, and not to toot my own horn, but I was pretty damn good at it. When I was a freshman in high school, I petitioned my teachers to start a disability advocacy club and served as the president until I graduated. As soon as I came to TCNJ, I joined their disability advocacy club and quickly earned myself a leadership position. I’ve made presentations, given speeches, and participated in panels. If I like writing and disability advocacy, why not make a living writing about disability?
But I didn’t want to. And I most definitely didn’t want to work in the disability field. It’s an important field, but I didn’t think any of its options would be a good fit for me. I’m too irreverent and sharp-tongued to do PR for nonprofits. I’d rather build bridges on a larger scale than edit for niche, speciality publications. And really, I didn’t want to be a voice for the disability community; I wanted to dissect pop psychology, share useful life hacks, and talk about the ups and downs of adult life. Some of my favorite sentences from my journal entries had nothing to do with disability. It was abundantly clear to me that my source of strength lied in the craft of writing, rather than in advocacy.
In a move that refuted expectations, I began coming up with story ideas that weren’t about disability. And yet, every time I tried to write about something other than disability, the narrative arc brushed up against my disability. I was under the impression that I could swerve away from it, somehow evading the laws of gravity, but that’s not how this works. In a Her Campus article I wrote about leaving my hometown, my disability served as an explanation of why I barely had any friends there; when I wrote about time management, I found myself reaching for my ADHD diagnosis to assert my credibility: Tell me about it. I’ve probably gone through much worse. I didn’t want to be a walking, talking awareness campaign, and yet, here I was, constantly ambushing those who come near with facts about my disability.
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Recently, I remembered that a writer had grappled with similar dilemma in regards to his transgender identity. I went on my phone, typed in Man Repeller trans writer on Google and pulled up the article. Turns out, what Blue wrote was more relatable than I had remembered.
How can I write about childhood without wondering what loneliness is a kid’s existential inheritance and what sinks into their skin as a result of being kept from significant self-knowledge? How can I write about my lovers without considering why they love my body and how I have used them as both an escape and a homecoming? Can I write about my father without considering if he would hold my hand in public had I been born his son?
When I read these sentences, a parallel train of thought ran in my head:
How can I write about the intricacies of interpersonal relationships without delving into the ways my disability impacts the way I socialize? How can I write about self-love and confidence without acknowledging that my disability changes the way other people treat me, even in most mundane interactions? How can I write about the power of creative expression without exploring the ways in which my disability makes it hard to express myself otherwise?
And just when I thought he couldn’t have articulated it better, Blue wrote:
For me, it is a blessing and not a burden that I will always see through my trans goggles. I want to write about everything through that layered lens, but can I write about them without writing about the lens itself? I want my identity to enrich my work, not always serve as the topic of my work.
I was stunned, because I had exactly the same thoughts about what makes me “different”: my disability.
I’ve never felt any shame about acknowledging my disability, even though some people look away at its mention, because they think that being disabled, and talking about it, means that I’m sad and bitter. There’s something innervating about bringing a topic that many people wince about and waving it in front of their face, because fuck your stigmas, fuck your shame, fuck your hush-hush sensibilities…
At the same time, having to acknowledge my disability can feel othering — a reminder that I’m an anomaly. Neurotypical people can write about their feelings, observations, and their mental state, without pointing out every second that they’re neurotypical, because their experiences are considered the default; the benchmark. It’s kind of unfair that I can’t talk about my life with the same ease and fluency, isn’t it? At what point does the constant labeling, disclaiming, and qualifying feel like an apology coated in the language of education, just another way of saying: oops, that’s my disability talking?
I also wonder if the labeling, the disclaiming, and the qualifying serves any purpose at all, when I’m speaking for myself, and not on someone else’s behalf. As the main character of my own story, I get to narrate not just what I do, but what I’m feeling and thinking on the inside. If my readers are privy to my internal landscape, do they still need the label of disability in order to see things into context, and to arrive at the right vantage point? Why can’t I just be, and let my being be the light? My creative writing teacher used to tell me: show, not tell. I live my truth every day, isn’t that enough?
Still, I worry that my readers will get lost. And I know that it’s not a good look to insinuate that I don’t trust my readers. But as wonderful as you all are, we all live in a society where disability awareness is in its infancy. Besides, even if everyone was equipped with accurate information about disability, I will always have to take it upon myself to clarify certain things, because no one person with a diagnosis is the same. I don’t want to shy away from acknowledging that my life looks a lot different from many people’s lives, and from naming what kind of differences are at play. And I want to be able to talk about how I fit — and not fit — into the bigger conversation that’s happening around disability. It’s not like I live in a vacuum.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the delicate dance implicated in my creative identity. And as with many other problems I have encountered in my life, I feel that the solution is to write more, not less. I look forward expand my portfolio with different pieces — some pieces that are about disability, some pieces that aren’t about disability but mention it, and other pieces that has nothing at all to do with disability; some pieces where disability is explicitly stated, and others, where it is demonstrated. I can be more than one thing.
What I know to be true is that I’m not as much a disability writer as I’m a lifestyle, culture, and wellness writer, who demands that disability is included in conversation about all of these topics. Disability, to me, is a perspective that I write from. It’s not always the main topic of my articles. And it’s definitely not a literary genre. I, however, thoroughly embrace the identity of a disabled writer. Not only do I just so happen to be disabled, I’m greatly influenced by it. It’s shaped my life experiences, and just as importantly, the way I write about said experiences.
And to be completely honest, I don’t always know when I want to be referred to as “disabled writer” and when I want to just be referred to as a writer, point blank. I’m wary of being tokenized, but tokenization as a concept isn’t clear-cut, at least in my opinion.
When I think about the grey areas of tokenization, I think about the women in the music industry. I listen to quite a lot of alternative, pop-punk, and modern rock music, and I’ve read and watched tons of interviews with cool, kick-ass frontwomen in the scene. Many of them talk about how rock n’ roll was a boys’ club for a long time, and how they had to confront sexist attitudes. They recount being repeatedly mistaken for groupies, written off as novelty acts, and bombarded with creepy comments. What I find interesting is the fact that these women have conflicting, and often ambivalent, feelings regarding gendered language. On one hand, broaching the topic of gender creates oppurtunity to tackle injustices, and talking about “female-fronted” bands can bring exposure to artists who have been ignored and written off. On the other hand, the emphasis on gender is a double-edged sword. After all, when was the last time a man asked what it’s like to be a guy in a band? Or have their music labeled as “male-fronted”? Do these words contribute to a double standards that diverts attention from the music and once again, reinforces the message: you don’t belong.
I bring this all up because it points to a question, one that is particularly relevant in today’s society: when do attempts to rectify stereotypes turn into an inadvertent legitimization of it? As I try to rise above sterotypes, assumptions, and negative associations attached to my disability, I constantly find myself grasping for that fine line.
As with many other things, I don’t have all the answers, but I have some thoughts.
I don’t want all my headlines to follow the formula of “What It’s Like to [do thing] While Disabled” or “As a disabled person, I Think [insert statement].” I want editors to know that a passing reference to my disability doesn’t warrant an immediate renaming of an article. We all come from different life circumstances, and my disability is one element, not the end-all-be-all.
At the end of the day, I’m just a person writing about her life. Even when an article directly, explicitly deals with disability (i.e, when the word disabled or disability is on the headline, when I’m writing for my other page or another disability-focused platform), that doesn’t mean that the piece only pertains to a disabled audience. One of the best things about writing is getting to connect with people from all walks of life, and I embody my value by sharing my thoughts, feelings, and idea in an accessible manner, no matter where I’m getting published.
Blue wrote another thing that I resonated with, in that respect:
Sharing any art publicly requires a strong belief in your individuality and a sense of trust that your specific humanness will remind everyone else of their own … You do not need to give yourself a testosterone shot every two weeks to feel the vulnerability of needing help to become whole. You do not need to be transgender to understand how harmful it is when someone tells you who you are or who you should be.
And here I am, looking to his article about identity and its role in writing, even though he was talking about being trans and I’m talking about being disabled. How cool is that? And I hope that my story can be helpful to someone else in the same way Blue’s story was helpful to me… despite all our differences.
Disability, like all the other attributes I possess, is a part of who I am and a part of being human. I don’t know where this journey will take me, but I won’t — and can’t — stop talking about disability. Thankfully, there is no number of strikes that can revoke my “I’m more than my disability” card. I strive to both be a beacon of disability visibility and a good writer in my own right. Just watch me.