“You come across as too angry.” “You’re making us look bad.” “Don’t be too negative when you talk to them.”
These are phrases that I’m quite used to as a disabled person. Until very recently, I went through life believing that I represent all other disabled people, so I need to present well and “behave myself” lest I put people with disabilities in a negative light. I believed that I should always maintain decorum and never lose my temper, lest I be considered “one of those” grumpy disabled people. I believed I should be moderate in my approach when I am unhappy about something, because nobody would listen to me otherwise. If I want to be treated with respect, I must be everyone’s friend, and I must “ask nicely”. I still believe in adopting a moderate approach, and in treating people with the respect with which I want to be treated. However, I don’t buy into that idea of being the “model disabled person” anymore.
Respectability politics is essentially the notion that people in marginalised groups should conform to certain mainstream behaviours and standards of appearance to be respected, taken seriously, or even thought of in a positive light. You might have heard of it pertaining to race, gender and sexual orientation, but it is incredibly prevalent in the disability space, and is even espoused by many disabled people. As mentioned, I used to espouse it in certain ways myself.
Especially when I was still at school (which was a school for the blind), it was hammered into my head that, when out in public, I need to be a respectable blind person, or else I would be putting my whole school, as well as all blind people in a negative light. I should always be immaculately groomed, so that people wouldn’t think that blind people can’t take care of their appearances. I should always be upbeat, positive and inspirational in how I speak, or else people might think I’m self-pitying and bitter. In general, I should never, never make nondisabled people feel uncomfortable, and in fact, I should appear as nondisabled as humanly possible. This is especially the case at fund-raising events, because talking about issues (unless it is done to trigger feelings of pity or guilt) doesn’t bring in funds. Inspiration does.
I remember being at an event once with many other blind people, and I was absolutely dying of embarrassment because some of them had had a bit much to drink, and because they were being loud. “What will the nondisabled people think of blind people now?” I asked myself. “Can’t these idiots see that they’re ruining the attempts of the rest of us who are trying to change perceptions of disabled people?” I wonder why I didn’t consider the many events to which I had been where the nondisabled people had been inebriated, or had been loud? They didn’t carry the reputation of anyone besides themselves on their backs, yet, we as disabled people are expected to do so.
In another example, I was very embarrassed and almost apologetic when someone mentioned to me that they had approached a blind person in a shopping mall, and he rudely swore at them and walked away. Heaven forbid that this person might think that we’re all that discourteous. Well yes of course, this blind person in particular had acted like an absolute ass, but why did I feel responsible for his behaviour?
I recently read an ethnographic article written by an acquaintance of mine (Dr Heidi Lourens), in which she told the story of how she was treated with absolute disapproval by a shop assistant when she had been buying not only one, but get this, two bottles of wine! She was an adult, and far above legal drinking age, but society seemed to expect her to stay in her little box and conform to their idea of what a “proper” disabled person should be. Innocent and pure, and therefore very measured in their alcohol use, or whatever other constructs are tied to that specific image of purity. I can mention many other articles detailing similar experiences, but if I did, this post would go on forever.
At this point, I would like to tie my issues regarding the construct of “socially acceptable disabled people” to the concept of toxic positivity. I’m not against the idea of being positive, and I don’t consider myself to be a pessimist. I see the glass as both half full and half empty (light is a particle and a wave, right?) and it just is what it is. I call myself a hopeful skeptic, although I have recently recognised the need to place a bit more emphasis on the “hopeful” side and tone down the skepticism. This is because I recognise the benefits of positivity. Research has shown that it can hold benefits for mental health, achieving success in reaching one’s goals, and developing coping skills such as resilience. However, when positivity is seen as a cure-all and becomes an obsession, it can swing to the other side, and literally become too much of a good thing. In short, the point at which positivity becomes toxic is when it is inauthentic or fake.
Maintaining a facade of positivity in the face of all circumstances can silence the expression of negative emotions and cause avoidant behaviours towards issues that people might not have the courage to face. We all experience negative emotions from time to time, and whilst it is unpleasant, they need to be faced openly and dealt with too. Toxic positivity can prevent people from seeking help, and from discussing issues arising in relationships. It can cause feelings of guilt when someone is unable to maintain positive emotion, as if they just aren’t trying hard enough. Using platitudes such as “everything happens for a reason”, or almost any sentence beginning with “well at least”, minimises people’s very real and legitimate emotions of loss, grief or disappointment, and just isn’t helpful or supportive. In addition, when we live in denial of all negative feelings, they don’t just go away. They build up, and are bound to escape eventually in what could at worst end up being a complete mental breakdown. Finally, fake positivity can cause us to lose touch with reality.
So how does this relate to disability and respectability politics? Well, expecting disabled people to always put on a socially acceptable face, to never express anger, and to always just be “inspirational” promotes toxic positivity. Aside from suppressing and oppressing people with disabilities, it also draws attention away from important societal issues of discrimination and exclusion that must be addressed.
I attended a disability colloquium a few weeks ago. Disability and unemployment was the main point of focus. A government official or two spoke (amongst other people), and a few tone deaf statements were made that made it clear that they were not particularly well informed about international disability rhetoric. For example, one of these assertions was that an advantage of employing a wheelchair user is that they won’t feel the need to get up from their desks to stretch their legs, are comfortable in a chair, and would take fewer breaks from work as a result. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Sadly, I wasn’t especially surprised.
However, the chairperson of an important provincial organisation for people with disabilities was also a speaker, and he gave what I considered to be a very straight-forward and to the point talk on what it is that we as people with disabilities really require from the government when it comes to disability and employment. He pointed out some issues that are largely ignored or glossed over (such as inaccessible transportation to and from a workplace), and his was by far the talk that resonated with me most.
A university professor made some closing remarks at the end of the colloquium, and she essentially summarised everything that had been said up until that point. The only person’s talk that she did not summarise was the above mentioned talk by the chairperson of the provincial organisation. She just said that it wasn’t clear to her what he had been trying to say, and apologised for not commenting. She recapped every single honey-sweet proclamation from everybody else that spoke to how working together is mutually beneficial, and how there are amazing resources out there that we as disabled people should utilise. Her talk was longer than that of many of the participants in the colloquium, and yet it was the talk in which usually glossed over issues were brought up that she either didn’t pay attention to, or that she chose to ignore. I saw this as a good example of toxic positivity in someone’s mindset when it comes to disability.
So what lessons have I learned from my musings on respectability politics and toxic positivity?
- That respectability politics and toxic positivity repress people’s authentic emotions, as well as their personalities. They reduce us to homogenous cardboard cut-outs, fail to acknowledge that people respond differently to their experiences, and fail to acknowledge that as disabled people we are diverse. Some of us are nice, and others are not, but we are all human.
- That we are not responsible for the reputation of all disabled people as a group. We do not need to “behave”, in case some idiot generalises and attributes some negative quality to the disabled community, and inverting this, we do not need to apologise and take it upon ourselves when some other disabled person has acted in a way in which we wouldn’t have acted, or of which we disapprove. If a nondisabled individual makes an unfavourable generalisation about all people with disabilities based on what they see one disabled person do, then they are the ones at fault, and they are demonstrating prejudice and closed-mindedness.
- That we don’t need to walk on eggshells to ensure that some poor fragile nondisabled person remains entirely comfortable and doesn’t get offended. By no means are nondisabled people “the enemy”, and we should absolutely treat them with respect, but true allies understand that our comfort also matters, our annoyance or anger is also valid when we are offended, and we have the right (as does everyone else) to expect respect.
- That sometimes, being overly positive glosses over important issues which need to be faced head-on in order to resolve them. It’s okay to acknowledge that not everything is sunshine and rainbows, and that there is work to be done. It’s okay to be angry if we experience discrimination, exclusion, or prejudice, and if our rights are being violated. It’s okay to express frustration at a society that is not changing rapidly enough whilst we are getting the short end of the stick. It’s okay to actually experience and express feelings other than constant relentless optimism.
In the spirit of ending on a more hopeful (instead of a skeptical) note, I’ll say this: Reflecting on the above-mentioned learnings over time has caused me to grow in terms of boundary-setting, becoming less judgemental, discovering a sense of freedom, and coming closer towards owning my own rights.
Although I’ve always been bad at setting boundaries (something that I think I share with many disabled people who were brought up believing that they should ask for as little as possible and just patiently “take it with a smile”) I have taken an important step towards being a better boundary-setter after thinking about these things. This is because I realise that sometimes I can step out of my pretty little box and say “no, this is not okay” when a boundary is being crossed, without worrying about whom I might upset. I have learned to be a less judgemental person towards my fellow disabled people, because I realise that their behaviours are their own, and have nothing to do with me and how I am perceived. I have discovered a sense of freedom in the knowledge that I don’t have to conform to what society expects from me in order to protect other disabled people from being seen in a poor light. Finally, although I think it’s important to control my emotions, I don’t need to repress them to deserve consideration, because I have a right to be listened to and for my feelings to be respected, simply by virtue of being human.
See? This is an example of something positive coming from facing, and dealing with the topic of what might be perceived to be some negative societal constructs: Growth, and a little more self-respect.