Often, when mainstream society considers people with disabilities, it is with a combination of pity and admiration. Pity for having their disability, and admiration for living with it. Few outside of the disability rights movement realize how flawed and harmful this view of disability can be. The reality is that it is not the disability that is the issue, but rather society. Specifically, our culture’s negative reactions to people with disability, including but not limited to, job discrimination, inaccessible public and private spaces, exclusion, fear, and a lack of awareness and reluctance to be educated.
Thankfully, steps are being taken to address these issues. Many organizations have had impactful successes, such as the role of the Paralympics in raising awareness of the capabilities of athletes with disabilities. However, when a campaign forgets that it is not a disability that is the issue, but rather society’s struggles to accommodate it, such work can become more harmful than positive.
In a recent article for The Mighty, Why I Will Never Say I ‘Fight’ My Disability, Karin Hitselberger explains her personal experiences with this issue. Using the example of an awareness campaign that proclaimed, “I fight cerebral palsy. What’s your superpower?” Hitselberger explores the negative feelings evoked by campaigns that target disability. She states, “‘Fight cerebral palsy?’ I thought. ‘How would that even be possible? How could I constantly be at war with something that is so intrinsically a part of me, and why would I even want to fight a battle that could never really be won?’” For Hitselberger, that campaign did not inspire a sense of accomplishment or positivity, but rather served as a reminder of her struggles with self-acceptance and past longings for a different body. Instead of fighting cerebral palsy, instead of fighting what is, according to Hitselberger, “a very important part of me,” Hitselberger states that she would like to fight ableism, prejudice, and lack of access, stigma, ignorance, and discrimination. And she intends to fight to make the world a more accepting place, where children with disabilities “are never told or led to believe their bodies are a problem.”
Admittedly, Hitselberger seems to base the morality of the campaign, “I fight cerebral palsy. What’s your superpower?” on her interpretation of it. Most likely, the campaign is trying to convey that people with cerebral palsy face challenges that many others do not. However, by putting the blame on cerebral palsy rather than on society for failing to accommodate cerebral palsy, the campaign places fault on an integral aspect of people with disabilities – the disability – that is out of their control, that they cannot change, and that for some is a positive source of power and self-identity. On the other hand, society has been proven to be innately capable of change and constantly evolving, making it a much better focus for reform.