Friday, 1 February 2013

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg Profiles People Who Are "Suffering FromNormalcy"

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, one of my favourite bloggers, has launched a wonderfully subversive series of memes on the Facebook page for her blog, "Disability and Representation"

"I'm not making fun of normal people," she explains to someone. "I'm parodying cultural representations of disability."

I think that this idea is brilliant, and people visiting Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's Facebook page side are certainly getting the idea and getting into the spirit of her campaign. Will the general public, I wonder?

Confession: I'd Not Thought About These Things

I'd been working with disabled people for nearly twenty years, both in volunteer positions and as paid staff, before I started writing this blog. I'd been disabled myself for over a decade. My experiences had given me some strong opinions on some issues with which colleagues didn't always agree. But, until I started reading the work of other disability bloggers like Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, I'd never thought about why calling disabled people "inspirational" was potentially offensive (just that I found it puzzling when people called me inspirational), or about how first-person language (which I'd always been told to use) wasn't necessarily the most sensitive language to use...or about how the "normal" peoples' best attempts to be inclusive and validating of disabled people fall embarrassingly flat sometimes.

The point of this graphic, developed by Tina Jones for use on Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's Facebook page, is that when you substitute the word "normal" or "normalcy" in all these platitudes where "disabled" or "disability" generally appears, it looks ridiculous - just as ridiculous as it *should* look when "disabled" and "disability" are there, and yet we don't question that. We need to start to.

I realize, of course, that this may viewpoint may create tension for groups that are trying to reclaim terms like "disabled" and other disability-related words, or who are facing the difficult challenge of "humanizing" disabled people who have been traditionally regarded as so different from "normal" people that there really is a need to convey that message of "We're not so different". I don't think that these memes are about trying to tell people how they can and can't choose to self-identify, self-advocate, or advocate for others. I think they're asking people to think about language and images and how they tend to be paired when it comes to disabled people, and about what message we want to send...and whether what we put out there is sending that message.

That's never a bad process to go through before you put anything out there (I'm doing it right now!)

Anyway, those are some of my favourites from the "Normalcy" campaign so far. Do you get what it's trying to do? Please do go to Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's Facebook page and check the other memes, and be sure to read the comments.

Have a great weekend!


  1. I am very familiar with R C-R's blogs and books. I think that the disability community is quite divided on these issues and the divisions are often a function of the level and severity of disability. Disability or whatever descriptor one places is on a vast continuum and the experiences and perceptions of people on one end do not often jive with those at the other end.
    I believe that we have the able-disabled, the moderately disabled, the pretty severely disabled and the catastrophically disabled. My son, Adam, for whom I care 24/7 for the past 15 years is in the latter category. Intellectualizing about disability memes does nothing for him, nor the first person language nor inspiration porn.
    We live in world. he and I, where the word indifference is the operational meme. If people were inspired by his life, great, if people pitied him, great; if people empathized or sympathized for him, great...even these awkward gestures are actions and base levels of relationship. Indifference means that he is of no difference, an abstraction. So the profoundly disabled are fine with simple base acknowledgement of their existence.
    This change from indifference to difference is not a function of language or intellectualization of disability's about fundamental care for membership in humanity. Not only for the severely disabled, but also the elderly, the widowed, the homeless. They all belong to the same tribe and are confronted daily with human indifference. We gladly accept any gesture of pity or kindness because it makes us believe that tomorrow hold promise! The movement must be from intellectualization to simple care.

  2. Hi Phil

    I think that you're right that these issues are going to be of more...relevance, maybe, is the word I'm looking some groups than others. My experiences tell me that a disabled person or his or her family comes to me in crisis could usually care less about first-person language and inspiration porn, and our time is not best spent on those discussions - they're not practical when my concern is trying to figure out what a people need and then choke whatever resources I can out of a system that's totally overwhelmed, underfunded and often quite ignorant of the needs and rights of disabled people. I don't know how families who don't have some sort of advocate do it on their own - you guys must be tough as nails, because even the best of advocates get pushed around. And that's why the intellectualizing is necessary, I think, even if it doesn't look like it's getting anyone propels needed changes along, as agonizingly slow as they are to get to the point where they affect your family and your son (and having been in program planning meetings and talked to people about how change happens in Developmental Services in Ontario, I can tell you that the process is *painfully* slow and involves seemingly endless talking and...sometimes some intellectualizing, sometimes not as much, it seems, lol).

    An awkward expression of goodwill is better than none at all. But your son deserves more than the base level of relationship. Maybe I tend toward the intellectualizing because I don't know how else to make people see that?

    Enjoyed hearing your thoughts, as always...hope you're well.