The Myth of Disability ‘Sob Stories’

October 2, 2017

Pasquale Toscano is recent graduate of Washington and Lee University. He is a Rhodes Scholar who started his first year Oxford University this fall. In this essay for the New York Times Disability series, he writes on the damaging idea that people with disabilities play up their impairments to gain unfair advantages.

Last November, a surprise announcement changed my life. I had been selected as a 2017 Rhodes Scholar. It was exhilarating news. Several days later, however, I got another, less pleasant surprise. A professor at my university stopped me in the hall and said, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but now that you won the Rhodes, will you throw away your cane and your brace?”

I did nothing to solicit this comment. Nor had I ever joked with him about needing ambulatory assistance and an ankle-foot orthotic since suffering a spinal cord injury in a serious accident three years before.

On July 5, 2013, a pickup truck collided into me while I was riding my bicycle. One of my lumbar vertebrae burst, and I had emergency spinal-fusion surgery the next day. It was successful, but the injury left me paralyzed below the waist. With a month of inpatient therapy and six more of outpatient, I slowly relearned to walk with the cane I use today. My left ankle, though, remains immobile (hence, the foot orthotic), and I continue to experience reduced sensitivity in some parts of my body and sometimes find keeping my balance a struggle. The medicine prescribed to enable normal bladder function, the shower chair I use and all the other mutations in my life seem almost second-nature now, to the point that I can hardly remember what life before was like. I sometimes forget that to others, these changes nonetheless remain “abnormal.”

So it was arresting to hear this otherwise-brilliant scholar’s question. What was the logic behind it? Why did he suggest that people with disabilities might harness, and even affect, impairments to realize their far-flung desires? Somehow, he conferred upon me the near-supernatural ability to persuade — no, pull one over on — seven judges and to shortchange the 12 other district finalists competing alongside me.

Of course, the idea that disability begets preternatural abilities is nothing new. The Greek seer Tiresias’ blindness gave him access to the spiritual sphere in Sophocles’ “Oedipus Cycle.” (As students of literature, we associate a similar capability with the blind poet Homer.) And so it goes for our modern mythologies: In “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the blindness of Chirrut Îmwe, played by Donnie Yen, seems to connect him with the Force; Sofia Boutella’s character, Gazelle, likewise wears prosthetics that double as lethal blades in the spy thriller “Kingsman.”

But I don’t feel like some “super-crip” — a supernaturally endowed disabled character — on nights when I can’t focus because of muscle spasms, on afternoons when I can’t spend time with friends because they’re playing disc golf, and on mornings when I remember how the nurses would catheterize me six times daily during that month I spent in the hospital, until they taught me to do it myself.

Whenever people ask me whether I would relive the day of the accident to change the outcome, however, I suddenly become uncomfortable because I know what they expect to hear: a resounding yes. In a country that mythologizes rugged individualism, in a world where fewer Americans vote in presidential elections than watch the Super Bowl — that idealization of brawn — it would seem absurd to argue that you would not do everything you could to reverse your disability.

Indeed, a part of me wishes I could relive that day.

Still, another part of me is thankful for the opportunity to journal and read and think about my new identity over the following semester I took off from college. It was then that I wrote a novel inspired by my experience, and it was then that I began reading 17th-century poets like Robert Herrick, whose exhortation to “make much of time” motivated me to view my hiatus as a revelatory experience highlighting humanity’s fundamental dependence and neediness. I soon began to grasp a fuller sense of the extent to which literature can become an empowering means of coming to terms with our often trying lives. Impassioned, I wanted to share this realization with others; I wanted to continue writing about my experience. And so, I realized that I wanted to become a professor — rather than a lawyer, as I had anticipated since eighth grade.

I also began to consider how best to convey the epistemologically enriching experience that learning to live with a disability can be. I discovered the work of people like the scholar David Bolt, whose article on “positive stereotyping” left a lasting impression. He argues that depicting disability as the source of supernatural capabilities troublingly obfuscates the accomplishments of impaired individuals who must navigate stressors and barriers unknown to others.

It’s an important point because, as I found out, even if we’re no longer perceived as prophets or Muse-inspired poets, many are still convinced that people with disabilities command superpowers — of a sort.

After all, ours is an era obsessed with applications — for college, for jobs, for scholarships — which often ask whether you have a background the review committee should know about. Perhaps then traditionally disadvantaged individuals are the most advantaged of all because they wield access to additional attention — and guilt their way into positions with captivating, if pitiable, “sob stories.” Just watch the “Seinfeld” episode “The Butter Shave” to see what I mean, as George Costanza delights in special privileges while feigning an injury far longer than it has actually lasted.

Donald Trump’s victory evinces that many Americans are indeed frustrated by how various groups seem to be reaping the benefits of their “otherness.” Certainly, a number of the president’s comments, including his crude imitation of the journalist Serge F. Kovaleski, who lives with a congenital joint condition, underscores that minorities can’t expect preferential or “politically correct” treatment any longer.

This way of thinking tends, problematically, to attribute the entirety of a person’s success or failure to her disability. It is probably safe to say that people like Franklin Delano Roosevelt (polio), Harriet Tubman (narcolepsy) or even the Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin (deafness) succeeded both despite and because of their impairments. Do I think that disability made an impact on these figures, that it offered up a unique brand of understanding and metamorphosed into a kind of Muse for them? Of course.

But most people with disabilities will not be remembered by history. They are usually living challenging lives with little to show for it: Unemployment rates are disturbingly high, health care costs are often debilitating, and the emotional toll of living with an “aberration” can rend families apart. The only thing that a fidelity to positive stereotypes accomplishes, then, is to absolve society of maintaining commitments to the disabled, like making places more accessible, since it would be ridiculous to aid people who already have a leg up with added perks.

And yet it is not a “perk” to take the elevator when your friends walk up the stairs or to park in one of the handicapped spaces or to use a capacious bathroom stall or to be wheeled to the gate when you fly. It’s not just convenient either. It’s essential. This is the challenging, needy underbelly of living with an impairment that positive stereotyping can obscure. Accommodations serve the invaluable purpose of ensuring the human dignity of people with disabilities — our ability to participate in society as completely as possible without being de facto quarantined for “defects” in a world that prizes fitness and forgets that disability is the most fluid identity category of all.

Believe me, I, too, sometimes wonder whether my scholarship is predicated upon pity. I can’t help it. After all, words are easily said but not easily cast aside. It’s true that I discussed disability in my personal statement — but focused not on the “triumph” of learning to walk again, but on how that experience affected the life I want to live. My spinal cord injury has given me the insight that challenges in life often provide, not inroads to a charmed existence.


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