A Review of Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century

September 23, 2020 § 1 Comment

By Adam Hubrig

At the heart of In Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century is a sense of disabled community. Editor Alice Wong describes finding other disabled voices in print and gathering file folders of clippings of disability stories that spoke to her. Wong writes “My collection led me to community” (xvi). The collection of disability stories Wong collects here similarly leads me to community, and Wong’s work as editor of this volume extends her legacy of disability activism through the Disability Visibility Project.

As a reader, I am bored with disability stories that cast disability as a monolith. Disability Visibility features an immersive cross-section of disabled experiences in 38 essays, each sharing embodied crip wisdom in bursts of nonfiction. While the invocation of “disability” much-too-frequently means white disabled experiences, this collection shines in bringing intersectional representations of disability to light, which helps provide a glimpse into the  expansive vibrancy of disabled lives while presenting a range of disabled experiences that include disabled perspectives on Muslim faith (Maysoon Zayid), indigenous chronic illness (Jen Deerinwater), being deaf and incarcerated  (Jeremy Woody, told by Christie Thompson), parenting with a disability (Jessica Slice), and many others.

The volume is organized around four sections, “Being,” “Becoming,” “Doing,” and “Connecting.” “Being,” the first of these sections, captures different aspects of being a disabled person. As a disabled reader, I appreciated the thoughtful approach these writers took in detailing the difficulties of disabled lives, in ways nondisabled readers might not expect. Often, these difficulties are the assumptions of nondisabled people. “The peculiar drama of my life has placed me in a world that by and large thinks it would be better if people like me did not exist,” Harriet McBryde Johnson writes in the first essay in this section.

While pop culture disability representations often center “overcoming” narratives analogous to bullshit “motivational” posters like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude,” these essays capture a complex range of feelings about disability. The second section, “Becoming,” centers the lived experiences of disabled people who, as Sandy Ho writes in the section’s “Cafei to Canji,” “more often than not survive along its outermost edges.” These essays capture a range of disabled voices expressing the depth of meaning of their own disabled existence, and features a range of expressions of that meaning in rage, in acceptance, and in joy. As Keah Brown writes in “Nurturing Black Disabled Joy” midway through this section, “My joy is my freedom–it allows me to live my life as I see fit.”

The third section, “Doing,” revolves around the labor of amplifying disabled voices and experiences. In “The Antiabortion Bill You Aren’t Hearing About,” for example, Rebecca Cokley addresses the disingenuous invocation of “disability” by a political agenda that seems profoundly disinterested in disabled peoples’ well-being. In “Lost Cause,” Reyma McCoy McDeid describes the ableism leveraged against her as a developmentally disabled person, as well as her advocacy efforts. This section demonstrates how disabled advocacy–for ourselves and others–is just as diverse as disability itself.

“Connecting,” the book’s final section, features essays reflecting on disability as community. In “Disability Solidarity: Completing the “Vision for Black Lives,” the Harriet Tubman Collective writes “any struggle against white supremacy must also address all of its interrelated flaws–including ableism and audism.” As a section “Connecting” is disabled finding disabled roots and starting grassroots disability movements, from contributor Eugene Grant who finds a dwarf role model in Benjamin Lay to the disability justice collectives of Black and brown disabled folks described by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

As I continue to seek out community as a multiply disabled reader, this collection of disabled perspectives is everything. I reflect on “The Beauty of Spaces Created for Disabled People”–the final essay in Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century –where s.e. smith writes about the importance of having spaces crafted specifically for marginalized people. Frequently, smith writes, disabled people are often made to feel isolated because of ableist policies. in sharing space with other disabled people a different kind of space is created–“crip space, a communal belonging, a deep rightness that comes from not having to explain or justify your experience” (272). For me, this volume is a portable crip space, a space where I can join other disabled people in their joys and their struggles.
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Adam Hubrig is a multiply disabled caretaker of cats. His writing has appeared in Typehouse Magazine and The Lincoln Underground. He currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.

This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

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