I just turned in the final proofs for my new book, Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure. I am done! I started writing it in 2004, prompted by a dream. It’s been a long, wild ride. The book will be released in February. Whee! (You can read the introduction here: http://eliclare.com/book-news/writing-a-mosaic?.)
Here’s a teaser to celebrate.
Overcoming bombards disabled people. It’s everywhere. I think of Whoopi Goldberg. In airports and along freeways, I see her plastered on a billboard sponsored by the Foundation for a Better Life (FBL). Head in hands, dreadlocks threaded through fingers, she furrows her forehead in frustration. Or is it bemusement? She casts her eyes up, looking directly at her viewers. The tagline reads, “Overcaem dyslexia,” coyly misspelling overcame. Underneath those two words brimming with stereotypes sits a red box containing the phrase “hard work,” and below that, the command “Pass It On.”
The billboard makes me incredulous. The FBL tries to sell a pair of ideas: that Whoopi Goldberg—famous actor, hilarious comedian, Black woman—overcame learning disability through hard work, which, in turn, is a value we need to pass along. That disabled people can only succeed by overcoming disability is an ableist cliché, but let me turn it inside out. Maybe Goldberg became an actor exactly because of her dyslexia. Maybe she developed her kickass humor as a survival strategy to navigate the world as a Black, poor, disabled girl. Maybe she wouldn’t have made it big without having a learning disability.
To portray dyslexia as a reversal of m and e in the word overcame is dismissive and stereotypical. To pose individual hard work, rather than broad-based disability access, as the key to success for people with dyslexia is absurd and ableist. To pair a Black woman with the value of hard work in a country that both names Black women as welfare queens and has, for centuries, exploited their back-breaking labor as maids and nannies, factory workers and field hands is demeaning and racist. Actually, the billboard enrages me.
Overcoming is a peculiar and puzzling concept. It means transcending, disavowing, rising above, conquering. Joy or grief overcomes us. An army overcomes its enemy. Whoopi Goldberg overcomes dyslexia.
I believe in success and failure, resistance and resilience. I’ve felt the weight of ableism, transphobia, and homophobia and witnessed the force of poverty and racism. I know about the refusal to give up and the trap of low expectations. I have a stake in access, interdependence, community, and fierceness mixed with luck and the hardest of work. I understand that survival sometimes depends on staying silent and hidden; other times, on claiming identity and pride. But overcoming mystifies me.
That concept requires dominating, subsuming, defeating something. Pairing disabled people with overcoming imagines disability as that thing. But how could I dominate my shaky hands, defeat my slurring tongue, even if I wanted to? How could Whoopi Goldberg subsume her dyslexia even as words waver and reverse on the page?
The chorus of a protest song echoes through my head: “Oh, deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome/someday.” This version of overcoming sung at Black civil rights protests and adopted by activists in a variety of social change movements since the 1960s means something different: collective action, transcending and dismantling white supremacy and poverty, believing in and working toward a future of liberation. But what this song doesn’t mean is equally telling. It doesn’t urge people into a future without, beyond, or in spite of Blackness. Without making an analogy between racism and ableism, the civil rights movement and disability politics, I want to note the striking contrast between “We Shall Overcome” and the FBL’s “Overcaem dyslexia.” The first grapples with systems of oppression; the second, with individualized body-mind conditions.
Sometimes disabled people overcome specific moments of ableism—we exceed low expectations, problem-solve lack of access, avoid nursing homes or long-term psych facilities, narrowly escape police brutality and prison. However, I’m not sure that overcoming disability itself is an actual possibility for most of us. Yet in a world that places extraordinary value in cure, the belief that we can defeat or transcend body-mind conditions through individual hard work is convenient. Overcoming is cure’s backup plan.