On Disability

Congratties are due to the two winners of this year’s Calibre Prize, Lorna Hallahan and David Hansen.  I had the good fortune to be shortlisted with these writers and subsequently to read their excellent essays in the Australian Book Review, which presents the prize in association with Copyright Agency Limited’s Cultural Fund.

I started Lorna’s piece, ‘On Being Odd’ on the bus to work and had to leave it when I switched on my computer.  I itched all day to get back to it.  Weaving in a history of spectacle and deformity, it discusses ways of seeing, or of not-seeing, by those who are presented by the visage of a human who looks ‘odd’.

What impressed me most of all was her refusal to outline for the reader the nature of her deformity.  We only see her through her descriptions of other’s reactions to her, and we know her only through her voice, as she turns to philosophy and literature for guidance on how to feel and to act in this sea of stares.    She holds, like watermarks to the light, excerpts from PG Wodehouse, Charlotte Bronte and Montaigne, comparing the literature to her own personal experiences of disability, whether abhorrent or graceful.  From her writing – and I like that we can only perceive her through her writing – she comes across as a person stuck in an extraordinary situation who seeks to remain positive and generous, when she could so easily have been crippled by bitterness.

At times I read it as a palliative piece, perhaps because I have written these myself.  I’ve just completed an essay for an upcoming issue on deafness in M/C Journal, articulating how my deafness has led me to become far more imaginative and creative than I might otherwise have been.  Had I not been deaf and found communication such a struggle, I would never have turned to books, and then to writing (in fact I hate to contemplate what I would have been like had I all my hearing; having a disability has at least taught me humility, a useful quality for someone with an over-abundance of confidence).  Disability, it may be argued, brings with it a wealth of possibility.

As I write:

Theorists of disability consistently point out that, if more effort and energy were directed towards the philosophical implications of the disabled body, a wealth of new material and ideas would emerge that would shatter existing presumptions about the corporeal.  For example, there are still immense possibilities thrown up by theorising a jouissance, or pleasure, in the disabled body.  As Susan Wendell points out, “paraplegics and quadriplegics have revolutionary things to teach us about the possibilities of sexuality which contradict patriarchal culture’s obsessions with the genitals”¹.  Thus if there were more of a focus on the positive aspects of disability and on promoting the understanding that disability is not about lack, people could see how it fosters creativity and imagination.

I don’t think this stance is merely a case of making the best of a bad situation.  A number of the essays that have been listed for and/or have won the Calibre Prize have been prompted by experiences of difference and disability – there is Rachel Robertson’s ‘On Reaching One Thousand’ about the temptation to diagnose a child as autistic rather than appreciating him as a talented individual; there is Tony Macris’ essay, also on his autistic child and on the events that led to the diagnosis; and there is my own essay on Rosa Praed’s daughter Maud, who was deaf.

While I think it is necessary, as someone with a disability, to find the positive aspects of your existence (because frankly, if you didn’t, you would want to top yourself), it is also clear that there is a certain richness to living differently.  And, as Lorna’s essay indicates, there is also a dignity to be had in responding well to those who are confronted by disability.

¹ “Towards a Feminist Theory of Disability.” Hypatia. 4 (1989): 104–124, p. 120.

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