Token Cripple: The Ego of Disability

By Alice Mander

Living with a disability comes with expectations. Are these valid? Alice Mander reckons we should challenge the ableist narrative.

"You’re so lucky you have other stuff going for you.”

In other words, you’re so lucky because I don’t see you as just disabled.

Not too long ago, hearing this would have filled me with pride. It would have confirmed that, yes, I’ve finally achieved my goal of making my disability invisible and irrelevant by ignoring it for most of my life. You see, I have always grappled with the thought that I have to become somebody in order to avoid the label that I used to fear the most: “just that disabled girl”. If I get a bad grade, I’m not smart and, I am just that disabled girl. If I don’t appear desirable, then no romantic interest will ever be able to love just that disabled girl (*cue sad girl on piano music*). 

"If I don't suceed in all my endeavours all the time, I'm 'Just that disabled girl'"

"If I don't suceed in all my endeavours all the time, I'm 'Just that disabled girl'"

It’s a thought process that can trap me in a deep pit of anxiety, panic, and self-hatred (~fun, fun, fun, fun~).

As I’ve hopefully made clear from this column- disabled people are always held up against the expectations of an ableist narrative in which we are expected to fit a mould which may be impossible for us to fulfil. It’s not inconceivable, therefore, to see why disabled people may feel that they need to overachieve in order to legitimise their existence or, more, their sense of worth. I think this is a trap that a lot of activists, myself included, sadly buy into. The reality is, we simply aren’t going to be listened to if we aren’t considered impressive enough, outside of our disability. And most of the disabled activists I know of are extremely impressive- entrepreneurs, very talented writers and speakers, athletes, actors, etc. Regardless of their disability, these people are achieving more than most people of their age. But, really, why are we so desperate to be at the top, to have so much else “going for us” on top of our disability?

Red Nicholson (teacher, disability advocate, writer, podcaster, and all round cool guy) wrote an article called “The fragile ego of disability” and I think his opinion is pretty on par with my point. He writes;

“The answer, of course, is ego. And shame. Ego, because our entire childhoods were spent being told how special we are. How clever. How wonderful that we were disabled and we had friends. That we were disabled and we did our homework. That we were disabled and we did this most inconsequential mundane thing. And shame because now, faced with the reality that life is actually more difficult for us, we are still desperate to perpetuate this narrative of specialness in a world that simply isn’t set up in a way that allows us to thrive. That paradox is a painful one, and I think it leads us to carve out space for ourselves in such a way that people continue to remark upon us as unique, as special. Through this, we are able to continue countering stereotypes and harvesting that external affirmation that we have been conditioned to so desperately crave. But in doing so, we’ll probably end up living our lives in the pursuit of the validation of others – a tragic and vacuous life, surely”

 I agree with this. But, as someone with a progressive disability, I think my quest for perfectionism might come from somewhere else also. Technically, I wasn’t always disabled. Learning to accept and love the fact that I am ‘that disabled girl’, in a world which makes it hard, has been a slow and wild journey. I strive for perfection because part of me is still scared of that label. Part of me wants to reject it. But, finally, I’m learning to get along with it. Because I am that disabled girl and there’s nothing wrong with that- whether I am adorned with achievements or not. And, besides, I’m just so tired of making myself look and feel good through an ableist lens. It’s like totally messing with my crippled aura, d00d.

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