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The Right to Complain

If you're disabled, then society puts you in one of two boxes: Either you're a tragedy and should be pitied; or else you're inspirational and should be admired. I've yet to meet anybody who likes being pitied; so much of the time we're expected to go for "inspirational". Inspirational people don't complain; they "overcome" their disability.

Interesting thing about being considered either inspirational or tragic: Neither option implies equality with the rest of the world. Either you're beneath other people, or you're above them. Never at the same level. Many disabled people, I think, try to cope with this by minimizing their disability and acting as normal as possible--i.e., "I'm just like you; I happen to use a wheelchair." Or, "I'm just like you; I happen to have bad social skills." If you complain about anything disability-related, that means accentuating the differences, leaving the "equality" category, and dropping neatly into either the "tragedy" or "inspiration" boxes.

You'd think that would be different when it comes to the protocols within the disability rights movement, but it isn't, really. If you're in the disability rights movement, there's this unspoken rule that you're not really allowed to complain about the sucky parts of having a disability. Well, you're allowed to complain about how people treat you and the prejudice you experience; but people seem to shy away from complaining about anything directly disability-related. Maybe we're afraid that if we're heard complaining, people will assume that we actually don't believe in all that "disability identity" stuff, that we secretly want to be Normal. We're scared of confirming the stereotype that disability is a tragedy, so we're reluctant to talk about anything that might bring us closer to that stereotype.

Whether it's the desire to fit in, or the desire to stay away from the tragedy stereotype, disabled people often, I think, feel a pressure not to complain about anything disability-related. If you wanna be seen as an equal, often times the price is to minimize everything that's annoying, frightening, frustrating, or painful about your disability. And if you want to be part of the whole disability-pride deal, often times the price is to shut up about anything that could be construed as you not accepting your disability. Either way, we lose the right to complain!

I've heard it said that if everybody were disabled, then the sucky parts of having a disability would be considered the same thing as the bad parts of everyday life--bad, sure, but to be expected and not a reason to pity the person in those situations. People total their cars, break up with their significant others, get the flu, and have to wait in line at the DMV. Normal everyday life has all sorts of annoyances, and people complain about those things all the time without being considered pitiful for it. What if we could put into that same category things like struggling to get your chair up onto a sidewalk without a curb cut, getting overloaded and having a shutdown in the detergent aisle, or being sidelined by a fibromyalgia flare-up?

There are more important things than being normal. Being yourself is one of them. And disability--the experience of having a disability--changes who you are and how you think and how you see the world. People with all kinds of lives, with and without disability, go through annoying, painful, boring, and generally difficult experiences. Suffering is normal; it's a part of life. I don't see a reason why the particular negative experiences associated with disability should be considered any less normal. Just because most people will never have to deal with sensory overload from the seams in their clothing doesn't mean that this is a kind of suffering that is intrinsically different from and much more tragic than the annoyance of being stuck in traffic or the discomfort of getting a root canal.

Fact is, some parts of life suck. That's true for everyone, disabled and non-disabled. If we were sensible at all, the fact that some parts of life suck for everyone should draw us closer together rather than divide us into separate categories according to the specific type of suckiness we deal with.

So here you go: I give you official permission. It's okay to get annoyed. It's okay to complain. It's okay to admit that some things are frustrating and embarrassing and boring and painful. You're a human being, and you're living on planet Earth, and that means that not everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows all the time. You don't have to be a perky, cheerful, Stepford-smiling Tiny Tim. You're allowed to be honest about your feelings, and it doesn't mean that you're betraying the idea of disability pride. It can just mean you're having a bad day. You don't have to be inspirational, and you don't have to be an object of pity. You can just be human, facing the everyday problems of everyday life--some of which, for you, happen to be associated with a disability.

You have the right to complain.

Comments

Yes!

You HAVE to express your feelings effectively at least some of the time, or you will clog up with those repressed feelings and make yourself ill.

One of the ways I test potential friends is to tell them about a specific really bad period in my life when my husband and I lost a child to cancer. If someone says I am inspirational for surviving that period or if they start giving me religious platitudes about how she's in a better place now, etcetera, I know they are incapable of understanding when I need to vent.

And I DO need to vent, just like anyone else. There are days when I or someone in my life does stupid and I have to deal with the fallout. Mentally healthy people vent about problems in their lives.

And then they get on with their lives.
I agree completely. I think people should feel freer to talk about the bad parts of disability without feeling like it'll put them in that position. Although I'll say it...meltdowns REALLY suck, and it also really sucks when I temporarily lose my ability to communicate.
thank you for this post! I am currently just feeling like complaining for my almost 5 year old (and myself) for the difficulties and challenges autism heaps upon us.

(Anonymous)

I really apprieciate your honesty. With disabilities like yours, mine and the bourgeoisie, the assumption is that there are enough accomodations being made to where life is easier to cope with or that expectations are somehow less for a person with a disability. I don't think the appreciation for being willing to push and challenge oneself is exclusive to people without a disability.

(Anonymous)

Thanks

Thanks.

I wish I lived in a world where it was easy to say, 'darn, I'm having an ADD moment," or "my day was way too filled with construction sound." I wish I could complain about heavy perfume the way folks complain about traffic or the rain....

The only person I can say these things to is my Dad, who also has ADD. He gets that vacuum cleaners make me want to go sit in the closet, and how phone numbers can sound like gibberish to me after a long day.

And yeah, I'm sick of being the poster child for the ADD/LD kid who made it. Regular folk get to bitch about their cars, boyfriends, puppy-that-gnawed-on-whatever... anything that hampered their life that day, yet I can't bitch about ADD. No, I don't want to be a different person. But yeah, I'd like to be able to commiserate about the awful noise vacuum cleaners make and how it totally derails me.

But golly, I wish I lived in a world with more mops.

Again, thanks.
"People total their cars, break up with their significant others, get the flu, and have to wait in line at the DMV. Normal everyday life has all sorts of annoyances, and people complain about those things all the time without being considered pitiful for it. What if we could put into that same category things like struggling to get your chair up onto a sidewalk without a curb cut, getting overloaded and having a shutdown in the detergent aisle, or being sidelined by a fibromyalgia flare-up?"

You know what sucks? Every time I get into a similar argument, I can't remember all the awesome things you say. You are so quotable. Every single article. But I can never remember when I need to.

(Anonymous)

Resident Alien - the smart phone app

Agreed! I love this blog. I want it as a smart-phone app so I can pull it up as needed.

I don't know how many ASD, ADD, LD or otherwise non-neurtypical people might be reading this, but wouldn't it be great if RA and Wrong Planet has smart phone apps?

Every successful ADD person I know (except my Dad) relies on a smart phone.

(Anonymous)

Agreed! Totally. Drives me craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaazy.

My heroine of the week

This is an epic piece of writing. Great stuff. I'm posting the link to my Facebook.

I've had Parkinson's Disease for 15+ years, or 25+ depending on how you count, and I have motor problems, memory issues, fatigue problems, sensory overload issues, ...

I sometimes meet people who - to my face - use me as an example of "well, I have some problems too, but you are clearly worse off than I am, so I can't complain". - Say what?

People never cease to amaze me.