Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

On Normalcy and Identity Politics

I used to be quite enamored of identity politics. My main exposure to the concept came from Tobin Siebers’ Disability Theory — a book in which he makes the compelling argument that identity is a form of social theory (Siebers 2011, 33).

For Siebers, our identities are neither fixed nor merely personal. Instead, they provide evidence for the ways in which we navigate the social environment, and they serve to highlight all of its bigotries and injustices. In looking at social and political issues through the lens of identity  politics, Siebers suggests that we avoid seeing bodies as merely individual and look at the construct of the archetypal body for whom our culture is designed — the body that can easily enter public spaces, that has the right to consensual sexual activity, that embodies human worth (Siebers 2011, 85, 124-125). Thus, racial identity, queer identity, disability identity — any minority identity — has the potential to call out inequities with respect to rights, social treatment, and inclusion. I find this outlook a very powerful one.

But I’ve come to feel frustrated by identity politics. Issuing social critique from a number of different perspectives is absolutely necessary, but I’ve found that these perspectives start to clash in ways that subvert the whole notion of solidarity. These clashes happen in a number of ways. Sometimes, when people discuss one form of oppression, they reinforce another — as when people protest racism but insist that homosexuality is a perversion. At other times, the hyperbole starts to fly, with people in different identity groups vying for who has it worse. At still other moments, people focus on one form of oppression while essentially telling other people to wait their turn.

Whenever I see these conflicts happening, I feel very stymied. I understand why they happen. I understand that people in all oppressed groups are laboring under so much invisibility and so much dismissal that it’s very difficult to cede the floor. I have watched this impulse in myself. While my overriding interest is in how different forms of oppression work to reinforce one another, I have often felt something along the lines of, “Enough about your oppression! Let’s talk about disability. It never gets any airtime.” Given how little airtime most of us get, I daresay that most people in most minority groups feel similarly.

Part of the reason for my general disillusionment with identity politics is that I’ve come to feel that the overriding category that governs all others is not race, not class, not ability, not gender, and not sexuality, but Normalcy. As Lennard Davis points out, the concept of Normalcy only entered the cultural imagination in the mid-nineteenth century as a statistical average of human qualities that became the image of a non-existent “average man” (Davis 1995, 26). From there, European and American society embraced the notion that “average” was synonymous with “normal,” and that anyone who did not fit the demands of Normalcy was deviant and dangerous (Davis 1995, 29). Disabled people became associated with others who had “abnormal” traits, such as criminals and the poor, and their bodies were said to threaten the health of the body politic (Davis 1995, 35-36).

Today, under Normalcy, anyone who is not cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, white, and middle class is “abnormal” — a word that is often code for disabled and criminal. People who are criminal are almost always seen as disabled, and disabled people are routinely portrayed at the extremes of human experience: morally pure or criminally dangerous, asexual or sexually deviant, bitter crips who are a burden to all or super crips who need nothing from anyone. Historically, many different classes of people have been thrown into the category of “abnormal,” usually with reference to disability. People of color have been marked as unintelligent, queer and trans* people as pathologically ill, and women as weak and unstable.

“Normal” is what most people strive to be, and this striving accounts for why people in different marginalized groups are so willing to throw one another under the bus — and why so much of respectability politics has to do with normalization. It’s why you see ableism, misogyny, racism, classism, fatphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, transantagonism, and homoantagonism rearing their ugly heads even among people who labor under oppression. Most people flee anything that doesn’t look “normal,” even as they know that they can never meet the strictures of Normalcy. Because it is nothing more than a statistical fiction, Normalcy is the ultimate unattainable ideal, but there are powerful internalized forces at work that keep it in place. These internalized forces fulfill the purpose of herding people into a very narrow idea of what it means to be human.

The goal of attaining Normalcy does not drive these forces for the greater good. If we want to dismantle racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and every other form of systemic hatred, we must begin by dismantling the notion of Normalcy. Only then can we free ourselves from the limitations of a construct that cannot possibly reflect human experience in all of its diversity.


Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London, England: Verso, 1995.

Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

On Insults in Dialogue

Here I am, late to the party, but this article on Skepchick got me thinking. Apparently, last month, there was a big blow-up about ableist language used in another post, and this Skepchick article addresses the issue. I don’t agree with much of the article, and I don’t hang out in the Skeptic community, but all that is really beside the point. What I find so interesting is the amount of words spent — both in the article and in the comments section — on the whole problem of whether it’s okay to use an ableist insult, whether anyone should care whether people are triggered, and whether we should all just get over being offended.

To me, words like “idiot” and “moron” and “stupid” are ableist, so I think that people were absolutely right to raise the issue. However, I think that there is something quite — I don’t know, odd? — about arguing over what kind of insults are allowed in dialogue. The whole problem could be solved by sticking to content, respecting the dignity of other people, and staying away from insults altogether, yes? Then you’d never end up with an ableist insult coming out of your mouth or off the keys of your computer.

The purpose of an insult is to hurt, to shame, and to demean. So is it any surprise that people who are uninvolved in the argument end up as collateral damage? Is it any wonder that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism start creeping in when the insults start flying? After all, if an insult is meant to hurt, to shame, and to demean, then what better way to do it than to make implicit comparisons to people who are already hurt, shamed, and demeaned?

This is why I do my best to stay away from insults and why I’m not interested in anyone coming on my blog and launching them. It’s not just painful to the people involved; it has the potential to add to the marginalization of already marginalized people. And no, I don’t think we ought to be compiling lists of non-bigoted insults. I think we ought to be able to talk to one another with dignity about how to fix the problems in the world we live in.

But obviously, I’m a dreamer. Being harsh and cruel is so acceptable now that I often wonder why I even write these kinds of words. And then I remember that I write them so that others who feel as I do will know that they’re not alone. I write for people like myself, who would rather have an insult be a rare event and not a common and acceptable mode of communication.

I hope our culture can move back to valuing respectful dialogue. Of course, there is no reason to romanticize the past. It’s true that there have always been all kinds of disrespect and indignities visited upon millions of people, and respectful dialogue was not the experience of the many. I’ve experienced disrespect, indignity, and assault in my own life, and I come from a people that experienced it for many centuries. What I remember, though, from my earlier years as an activist, is that people who wanted to create a just world valued respecting people. They valued raising up people who were not respected into the light of dignity. They felt that the only way to create peace and justice was to model it. What I see now is exactly the opposite — that we’ve given into the idea that, because the world is a brutal and violent place, it’s somehow all right to be nasty with each other.

I don’t see our society valuing respectful dialogue any time soon — perhaps not even in my lifetime. I’m realizing that what I’ve worked so hard to do all of my adult life — to engage in civil dialogue while staying rooted in all of my emotions — is no longer of value to most people in the society I live in. This realization saddens me more than words can say.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

What Do You Mean By “Civilized”?

I’ve been distributing lunches to homeless and hungry people for six months. After a night and a morning of driving rain, I brought food today to people living under the Water Street bridge on either side of the river. Two things struck me:

1) I have no idea how we can call our society “civilized” when we allow people to live under bridges, in parks, and on the street.

2) I continue to be amazed at how kindly, how respectfully, and how courteously I’m treated by people who have nothing. Only occasionally have I been met with disrespect, and it’s generally by people who are traumatized and mentally ill. Everyone else? They are so kind that they put people who have everything to shame.

The contrast was very apparent today. After distributing lunches and having some really wonderful contact with people, I headed home. I was standing at the corner, across from my apartment building, when  a large truck came into the intersection and then stopped just before the crosswalk. I made eye contact with the driver and he let me know it was okay to cross. Once I was across the street, an older gentlemen saw fit to mansplain to me about traffic laws, saying, “That truck had the right of way. He was already in the intersection. You shouldn’t have crossed.”

I have no idea why people think it’s a public service to police the behavior of other pedestrians on a public street, but it’s happened to me before — again, after someone driving a vehicle stopped, made eye contact, and let me know it was fine to cross in front of them. I find this kind of behavior annoying. So I interrupted him and said, in my most cheery and assertive voice:


I can’t wait to get back to the park to distribute lunches on Monday.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Autism, Homelessness, and Kindness

A few weeks back, I was walking in the park, delivering lunches, when one of the homeless women there asked a young man if he wanted a lunch. The young man said yes, and he came over and got one. We smiled at each other, and then the woman and I kept walking.

“Paul* is autistic, you know,” she said. “He won’t ask you for anything, but if you go up to him, he’ll respond to you.”

“He’s autistic?” I said. “Homeless and autistic? That’s got to be rough. He’s especially vulnerable out here.”

“I know,” she said. “That’s why we watch out for him.”

It was such a simple exchange, and yet it broke down every stereotype about homeless people out there — that they’re all lazy bums, that they’re all criminals, that they’re all dangerous, and that none of them are fit to be in community with the rest of us. I have not found the average homeless person to be lazy, criminal, or dangerous; in fact, I have met a number of kind, caring, and thoughtful people. I’ve had conversations about politics, religion, disability, and art, and I’ve seen more than one example of people looking out for one another.

It always takes my breath away when people in crisis look out for one another. It reminds me of the goodness of people, and how we can care for one another, even in dire circumstances. I wish we did more of it. The world would be a kinder and more life-affirming place.

*a pseudonym

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Why Is My Cane a Topic of Elevator Conversation?

Apparently, questioning my use of a cane has become a go-to topic of conversation when I’m riding the elevator in my building. You’ll remember that it happened a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, when I got home from vacation, an older gentleman walked into the elevator with me and said, “You walk awfully well to be using a cane. You sure you don’t just use it to beat off the guys with a stick?”

Okay, so I got the two implied compliments: you seem to be able to walk well (although why that’s the source of a compliment actually escapes me) and you’re so good looking that you have to defend yourself against too much attention. I can’t say I was offended, exactly. That would be too strong a word. The guy was just trying to make conversation. What I felt was more like boredom mixed with annoyance: boredom because people need to start changing up their themes when it comes to making small talk with me, and annoyance because I was really floored by how free he felt to talk about something as personal as my body.

Now, I don’t mind if someone I know well says, “I see you’re using your cane today. Are you having difficulties with your hip?” or “I see you’re not using your cane today. Is your hip doing well?” And by someone I know well, I mean someone who would visit me in the hospital if I were sick and bring me flowers. Those folks can comment. Everyone else is just breaking a boundary.

Anyway, after I heard this latest iteration of “What do you need that cane for?” I just paused, looked at the guy, and said very seriously, “The cane helps me.” I didn’t really care whether he thought I meant “helps me walk without pain” or “helps me defend myself.” I just cared that I said something to deflect the intrusion.

Next time, I might just roll my eyes and then stare silently at the person until we get off the elevator. These comments are getting old very fast.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

The New Derrick Coleman Duracell Ad Gets It Right

Every time that a new ad featuring a person with a disability comes out, I get ready to cringe. So when I learned that Duracell had released a video ad featuring Derrick Coleman, a fullback for the Seattle Seahawks and the first deaf offensive player in the NFL, I had to get myself in a good mood before I watched it. And certainly, if you look at how others are talking about the video, you’d be apprehensive, too. Hollywood Life ran the video under the headline Derrick Coleman: Watch The Deaf NFL Star’s Inspiring Commercial, and HuffPo crowed Deaf Seahawks Fullback Derrick Coleman Will Inspire You With This Commercial. The comments under the HuffPo article are painfully predictable, with people getting all inspired and teary.

So before I watched the video, I was bracing for inspiration porn. But that isn’t what I found. In fact, I thought that the commercial did an excellent job of showing that among the worst of the barriers that disabled people face are the ways in which we’re ignored, dismissed, and discounted. And, appropriately enough, it’s captioned. Take a look and see what you think:

From the beginning, the ad talks about the ways in which Coleman has been mistreated in his life. The ad doesn’t imply that being deaf is an impediment to being an athlete; in fact, it keeps the focus squarely on the people who discouraged Coleman on the basis of his deafness. “They told me it couldn’t be done. That I was a lost cause. I was picked on. And picked last.”

In fact, rather than saying, “I couldn’t hear” as the reason for his being ignored, the voiceover shifts the responsibility to the people who didn’t know how to communicate with him: “Coaches didn’t know how to talk to me.” To my mind, this is an absolutely stunning line. Whether anyone who put the ad together knows it or not, it comes straight out of the social model of disability. I was so amazed to see that line there that I played the ad several times, just to hear it.

And then, there is the double entendre of using “listen” to mean both “hear” and “take to heart”: “They gave up on me. Told me I should just quit. They didn’t call my name. Told me it was over. But I’ve been deaf since I was three, so I didn’t listen.”

There is great wordplay going on here. Not only does the double entendre work well, but being deaf metaphorically becomes an asset rather than a deficit. It’s his deafness that keeps him from listening to the voices of discouragement and believing in himself. In other words, in the logic of the video, he’s not in the NFL despite his deafness, but because of it. That twist on the mainstream narrative just floors me. And now that Coleman has been able to ignore the dismissals and the discouragement, he can hear the applause, the support, and the people on his side: “And now I’m here, with the loudest fans in the NFL cheering me on. And I can hear them all.” A deaf man saying that he can hear the crowd is a great way to confront the idea that being deaf is always about not hearing at all, and it makes Coleman a person with agency, not a passive victim of fate. He decides when he listens and when he doesn’t. No one else makes that decision for him.

The video ends with a tagline that could easily be read as inspiration porn: “Trust the power within.” Obviously, not all disabled people who believe in themselves experience inclusion, find employment, or get people to cheer for them. But I’m not reading the commercial as an “overcoming disability” story as much as a “don’t let the bastards grind you down” story. It’s not his disability that Coleman has overcome. It’s the microaggressions, the low expectations, and the prejudices of others that he’s pushed out of his head. To me, it’s not what he’s accomplished that is the main thing, but the fact that he stopped listening to the voices of dismissal and pursued something he loves to do.

Whether or not deflecting societal prejudice leads to any sort of tangible reward, simply deflecting it is crucial – and very difficult. No one should despair because of the attitudes of other people, and yet, so many of us do at one time or another. I like the idea of trusting the power within – not because it will help us to overcome all of the massive structural injustices we face, but because it engenders self-respect and self-love.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

When I Ask For an Assistive Listening Device, Feel Free to Treat Me As a Full-Fledged Person

This afternoon, my husband and I went to see a matinee in town. We went to a particular theatre to see it because they have assistive listening devices for all of the movies there. These devices are glasses that provide closed captioning by means of a wireless signal. We got there early so that I could request the device.

I talked with the manager about what I needed, and after about 10 minutes, she gave me one — and proceeded to speak to my husband about how to use it, even though I was the one who had requested it, and even though I was the one to whom she had handed it.

It felt like a punch in the gut. I had clearly been speaking to the woman, I had clearly been understanding her speech, and I had clearly responded purposefully to her. There was no reason on this earth that she should have been addressing my husband when he was not using the device himself. At one point, she even said, “Your wife shouldn’t have a problem with it” while I was standing directly in front of her and he was standing to the side.

Interesting how I became a second-class citizen after asking for an assistive device. Is there something about the device that made me phase in and out of view, I wonder?

I know, I know. This is standard in the world of disability. I know so many people who have these experiences — people who use wheelchairs, blind people, Deaf people, all kinds of people with disabilities who talk about others addressing their partners and not them. Because most of my disabilities are invisible, I’ve never had it happen to me so blatantly before. I’ve had other microaggressions happen because I use a cane, but this is the first time I’ve encountered this particular kind of disrespect.

I have a feeling it won’t be the last. When I find myself in these kinds of situations, I’m going to have to say, “Eyes over here, please. I’m the one you need to be talking to.” lawyers Smithfield.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

So, Do You Really Need That Cane? Why, Yes. Yes I Do.

I found out this spring, after a series of muscle spasms that left me crying on the floor, that I have a pulled ligament between my spine and my hip. I probably pulled it long ago; my physical therapist said that I could have pulled it in childhood, and that my body compensated for the injury until it just couldn’t anymore.

Before I started doing core strengthening every day, my hip was wobbly and would become over-rotated. Walking tended to inflame it, and I began using a cane in order to take the pressure off it. It worked very well. After having done the exercises for several months, things were feeling much more stable with my hip, so I did an experiment to see whether I could do without the cane.

It worked for awhile, and then I noticed about a week ago that I was feeling some strain. It wasn’t really bad, but I thought it best not to push it and decided that using the cane again would be a good idea. Using it cuts down the risk of re-inflaming the whole area and ending up on the floor again. Plus, I am able to walk with much more strength and endurance when I use the cane. Except for the fact that I was getting used to having both my hands free again, I am really fine with it.

What I’m not so fine with are the reactions to it.

On Sunday, I rode the elevator up to my apartment with a young woman in her early 20s. As soon as we got into the elevator, she said, “Do you really need that cane?”

She said it in such a quiet voice that I missed the intrusiveness of the question. It sounded like a simple request for information, and I was in a good mood, so I answered her with, “Yes. One of my hips get over-rotated and it helps with not re-injuring myself.”

That was probably too much information, but I’m all about substantive conversation, don’t you know? So I just smiled and figured that was that.

But it wasn’t. Of course not. She followed up with, “Well, you were walking really fast.” The implication was that, because I use a cane, I’m supposed to walk slowly and haltingly. At this point, I was still in a good mood, and I decided not to mess it up with getting in her face, so I said, “Yes, I do walk at a good pace. The cane is like a third leg. It allows me to go further and faster than I could without it.”

She looked skeptical. Thank goodness the elevator arrived at my floor before the conversation went any further.

It was one of those conversations that seems benign at the time but bothers you later. Part of it was the intrusion. Part of it was the skepticism. Part of it was the implied demand that I explain myself.

Most of what bothered me, though, was the implication that I had to perform disability in a particular way. I understand that mindset, because I constantly catch myself doing the same thing. I think, “I’m using a cane. That means I have to have a certain kind of affect that communicates that my life is somehow difficult. In fact, that means I have to exaggerate my difficulties in order to make them believable. In fact, it means that I’m old, and fragile, and can’t get very far.” I catch myself at that kind of thinking and I know that it’s ridiculous, because a) my life is really pretty wonderful, b) I’m not in the habit of exaggerating my difficulties, c) I’m no more fragile than the next person in a human body, d) I’m only 55, and e) I love physical labor and can walk 3-4 miles at a time easily.

But the whole notion of what a cane means — and of what disability means — is so narrow and so pre-scripted that someone watches me walking with confidence toward the elevator and questions whether I need a cane at all. I mean, why would I use a cane if I didn’t need it? Does she think it’s just a fashion accessory? Or that I want the best seat on the bus? When you start to deconstruct it, you find that the question is irrational, and it’s irrational because it comes from a view of disability that has nothing to do with the reality of people’s lives.

I wish I’d been able to throw the question back at her. I wish I’d been able to just say, “Talking about my cane is off limits to you.” But I was in a good mood. And I try to be friendly. And I hate getting in people’s faces when I’m just trying to go about my life. But I’d really like to get to the point that less is more. I’d like to get to the point that it’s just out of the question to even tolerate those kinds of questions.

I’ve learned to stop the conversation when it’s about my invisible disabilities. I’ve had a lot of experience with the exhaustion of explaining, and it’s instinctive for me now to limit my responses. But  I’m pretty new to this visible disability experience. The questions are different and I’m not prepared for them yet. But the world is certainly giving me opportunities for practice. I’m hoping that on the next round, I’ll simply end the conversation before it starts.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Speaking Love and Anger: A Response to Ngọc Loan Trần’s “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable”

There are many things I like about Ngọc Loan Trần’s article Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable. I’m particularly struck by the author’s insistence that, within social justice spaces, we be kind to one another — that we acknowledge that each of us is ignorant, that we understand that we are all debriefing from the constructs in which we were raised, and that we support each other as human beings as we go forward to create justice:

We fuck up. All of us. …. But when we shut each other out we make clubs of people who are right and clubs of people who are wrong as if we are not more complex than that, as if we are all-knowing, as if we are perfect. But in reality, we are just really scared. Scared that we will be next to make a mistake. So we resort to pushing people out to distract ourselves from the inevitability that we will cause someone hurt.

And it is seriously draining. It is seriously heartbreaking. How we are treating each other is preventing us from actually creating what we need for ourselves. We are destroying each other. We need to do better for each other.

We have to let go of treating each other like not knowing, making mistakes, and saying the wrong thing make it impossible for us to ever do the right things.

And we have to remind ourselves that we once didn’t know. There are infinitely many more things we have yet to know and may never know.

I want us to use love, compassion, and patience as tools for critical dialogue, fearless visioning, and transformation. I want us to use shared values and visions as proactive measures for securing our future freedom. I want us to be present and alive to see each other change in all of the intimate ways that we experience and enact violence.

This is all absolutely beautiful, and I am so happy to see someone talking about it. I am unbelievably tired of the verbal violence that passes for dialogue, particularly in social justice spaces, and anyone who pleads for coming from a place of love and empathy mixed with anger and pain is a person after my own heart.

But there are a couple of things about the article that call me up short. One of them is the way in which the author talks about people having “strayed.” There is something about that idea that feels both deeply foreign and painfully authoritarian to me. The concept appears in the following context:

I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.

There is a Christian paradigm here of “straying from the fold” that I find very troubling. I don’t come from a Christian background of bringing people back into the fold; I come from a Jewish background in which we already belong and are free to disagree. So, in the context of the piece, what exactly is the ideology from which people “stray”? Who decides? Is it necessary to think about a central ideology around which we must all constellate, or should there be more room for critique, for disagreement, for generative argument? Straying assumes that we must come back to center. But whose center? Mine? Yours? Any group that treats me as though I’ve “strayed” is likely a group that I will “stray” right out of, never to return.

My other issue with the piece is that it is directed only to people inside social justice communities. There is not necessarily a problem with this approach, per se. After all, making sure our own communities are functional is a prerequisite for trying to create a more just and loving society. But I’m also aware of the necessity of applying “love, compassion, and patience as tools for critical dialogue, fearless visioning, and transformation” with people who are outside of social justice communities — with people who haven’t heard our critiques of the status quo, who haven’t examined their own complicity in oppressive systems, who haven’t done the reading or had the discussions or entered into the discourses that are so familiar to us. To me, this is the real challenge. How do we call people in who are way outside of our communities without exhausting ourselves, getting run over, or compromising what we believe in?

I believe it’s possible. I believe that we can combine love, compassion, patience, anger, outrage, pain, and despair as we talk with others who are outside of our circles. If we don’t combine all of these feelings — if we’re only in a place of anger and outrage, or we’re only in a place of love and compassion — we’re living at the polarized extremes that our society has taught us are normal, expected, and beyond critique. We’re creating either endless war or a false peace.

We can do better. We must do better.


Trần, Ngọc Loan. “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable.” Black Girl Dangerous.  December 18, 2013. Accessed January 1, 2014. http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/12/calling-less-disposable-way-holding-accountable/.

© 2014 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

What I Have Learned

I have learned that the cruelty of others is never about me. It is always about the people being cruel. I do not have to worry that I caused it. I do not have to consider it a commentary on my own worth. And I do not have to take it in as though it has anything to do with me. Knowing that the cruelty of others is not a reflection on me gives me a great deal of peace.

I have seen and experienced a lot of cruelty in my life, and it always shocks me. I hope that it will continue to shock me, as long as I live, because that shock means that my heart is still open and hopeful and loving.

May you walk through this world of beauty and suffering with the peace of knowing that whatever anyone does, you are worthy of love, dignity, respect, and abundance.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg