Review of Sitting Pretty by Rebekah Taussig. Posted by Jacob Williams on 2022-04-03. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Taussig's legs have been paralyzed since she was three. This book discusses the role her disability, and society's attitudes toward disability, have played in her life. I'm focusing here on just a few bits that were most interesting to me.
Taussig is clear that she's not writing "a how-to guide, as in How to Interact with Your Disabled Neighbor." But her experiences do draw attention to ways that nondisabled people (like me) often bungle such interactions; here are some that stood out to me.
|Insisting on giving unsolicited assistance to a disabled person||Sometimes, you're seriously getting in their way.||People often try to help Taussig get her wheelchair in/out of her car, but she can do this most efficiently by herself. She has practice, they don't. When they insist on "helping" her even after she declines, they waste her time and can cause embarrassment or anxiety.|
|Celebrating dramatic acts of kindness toward disabled people||Focusing on the nondisabled helper can make the disabled person feel dehumanized or forgotten, as well as distract from systemic problems that created the need in the first place.||Taussig mentions a viral Facebook post about a passenger who helped airline staff communicate with a deaf and blind man (Tim Cook) on the flight. The helper's face is shown, but Cook's is not: he is "presented as the side note, the shadow on the margins, the incidental object in the frame" - someone whose sole significance is that he provided an opportunity for the nondisabled helper to display virtue. Moreover, public discussion of the event failed to ask "why airlines will happily accept money from patrons like Tim Cook when they don't have any plans in place for accommodating them" or how we could create a world where isolation is not the norm for him.|
|Reacting with sympathy upon meeting a disabled person||They might not be thinking about their disability at all at the moment, and may not appreciate the implication that it is their most important characteristic.||Taussig recounts sitting in a coffee shop, having a pleasant day and minding her own business, when a stranger approached and wanted to pray for healing for her. Taussig is polite and realizes the woman is trying to be kind, but inside it stings: "[she] can see the effects of childhood cancer on my incapacitated legs, but she can't see anything else. ... in a room full of all sorts of bodies, she has singled me out as the Defective, herself as the Pipeline to My Restoration."|
|Assuming that finding a cure is the ultimate dream of a disabled person||Fixating on this may send a message to disabled people that their actual lives are inferior and inadequate.||"Paralyzed brides (and grooms) getting out of their wheelchairs and walking down aisles is an entire genre of YouTube videos." Taussig did this at her first wedding, too - it was a strenuous endeavor and she had to prepare for it with her physical therapist. Do we really want disabled women to feel that this is necessary? To feel that their wedding is inferior or shameful if they don't manage to?|
This quote resonated with me:
On the one hand, there were the Real Citizens of Life—the ones this whole planet was built for, who were beautiful and capable and desired. They were the ones who fell in love and had careers and families and dramas at school and stories worth knowing. ... And then there was me.
From an early age, our culture's vision of what constitutes a good life is impressed on us. And we - at least, those of us who grew up in loving and supportive environments - tend to expect that such a life is in store for us. But the people in that vision have a particular set of characteristics that only a minority of real humans share, and sooner or later the rest of us are confronted with our inability to fulfill the role.
I consumed and digested the culture around me and slowly learned, with certainty, that I was not among those who would be needed, admired, wanted, loved, dated, or married.
Taussig's dream, notably, wasn't to have working legs. Her dream was to "be needed, admired, wanted, loved, dated, [and] married." But from popular culture she had received the message that those things are not available to people who cannot walk. There aren't any Disney princesses in wheelchairs.
How can you deal with the realization that what you want in life is reserved for people who are not like you? I see a few options:
Notice that exalting the dream of a cure - as in the bride-gets-out-of-the-wheelchair videos mentioned above - implicitly encourages disabled people to do #3, but that is often simply impossible. I read Taussig as advocating #4 and #5. She is, in fact, happily married; the pessimistic "certainty" she acquired as a child turned out to be inaccurate. And perhaps we can make such good outcomes more widespread if we portray them more frequently and vividly in our media. Taussig repeatedly expresses the wish that people would bring more imagination, more creative thinking, to questions around disability; for example, regarding a Reddit thread in which men discussed the prospect of dating a woman who used a wheelchair:
The overwhelming impression I had scrolling through the contributions was a tremendous lack of imagination, a reluctance to deviate from some kind of default path and try something different. It was as if they truly believed they knew what they were getting into with a partner they perceived as nondisabled. Somehow, a body that appeared more familiar meant that sex would always go as expected, they would never find themselves in the position of caregiver, their dates would be easy to plan, and they’d always share the same hobbies. They had a picture of love or romance or hooking up or partnership fixed in their minds. Anything outside of that image brought about anxiety, caution, questions.
I think attachment to very narrow relationship ideals is a huge source of suffering in the world. It brings pain from two directions: the pain of being rejected for not meeting others' standards, and the pain of being alone because you cannot find someone who meets your standards. But I've usually been pessimistic about our ability to change our ideals in this area. To relate this to a less serious but more personal issue: I'm short, and that's considered unattractive for a man. I like being short, apart from the social disadvantage; if I could choose between increasing my height or eliminating society's bias against short people, I'd prefer to eliminate the bias. And most people would probably agree that eliminating it would be good. But getting people to believe intellectually that a bias against certain kinds of bodies is bad is far more straightforward than getting them to feel a spontaneous and genuine attraction to those bodies. I don't know how you accomplish the latter.
But that isn't a reason not to try. Taussig's book has made me more aware of how little we've even attempted to foster a culture that actually values disabled people - as opposed to just, at best, accommodating them. Which makes me a bit more optimistic that if we really made the effort, human psychology would prove a bit more malleable on this point than I fear.