Disability and its Metaphors

By Julianne McCobin

As a graduate student in English at UVA, I study stories and how they shape our communities. Though one might not immediately notice it, experiences of physical and mental disability occur all throughout our books and movies, from the forgetful fish Dory in Finding Nemo to the Quebecois wheelchair assassins in Infinite Jest. Often plots revolve around resolving or “fixing” a disabled character, and inevitably, disability serves as a plot device rather than as a complex way of being in the world. Even the Steadfast Tin Soldier, who has only one leg and longs for the ballerina he imagines to be like him, drives the fairy tale forward with his search for bodily “wholeness.” In the words of disability studies theorists David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, disability demands a narrative. If a body isn’t normal, we want to know how and why.

Because of this desire to interpret, disability becomes metaphorical—something that must be explained, understood, and ultimately overcome. This is written everywhere in our stories. For example, a well-known book for students interested in literary analysis, often assigned during high school, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, contains chapters titled “He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know” and “And [It’s] Rarely Just Illness.” Students quickly learn that, in literature, disability is significant and signifying: heart disease almost always symbolizes a hero’s grave moral flaw; an amputee must crave wholeness; blindness indicates ignorance or naivete (as knowledge is equated with light and sight, literally “insight”). These cultural myths show how our society understands disability to be indicative of some deeper, metaphorical failing. Indeed, Jake Barnes, in Ernest Hemingway’s classic The Sun Also Rises, isn’t only missing a body part: he’s mourning a loss of normative masculinity brought on by the war. In all their variations, our cultural metaphors surrounding disability increase its stigma while often obscuring the actual experiences of people living with disabilities.

And this doesn’t only happen in books: these metaphors carry over into our everyday language, into how we narrate our own lives. Susan Sontag’s treatise on the rhetoric of cancer, “Illness as Metaphor,” attests to this power of language to influence how people perceive and describe disability. In 1978, while undergoing treatment for cancer herself, Sontag lamented that, unlike other maladies, cancer was viewed as a unique and highly symbolic disease, often accompanied by rhetoric that compared cancer to an invading army. This resulted in a specific kind of victim blaming, and many patients, feeling personally responsible or weak in some way, asked themselves, “Why me?”–as if some personal failing had brought this punishment on them. Instead of cancer simply existing as a basic malfunction of the body, the rhetoric of cancer caused people to internalize the metaphors surrounding disability. People recovering from cancer then had to contend not only with the disease itself but with all its social and emotional entanglements.

It’s important to notice this rhetoric and pay attention to portrayals of disability not only because representation matters but also because the language of disability has long been used to exclude and demean marginalized groups in the United States. These are stories of another kind. In fact, as Douglas Baynton points out in his article, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” popular arguments against civil rights movements in the 19th and 20 centuries hinged on accusations of disability. In other words, dominant groups justified their own superiority and access to political representation through arguing that other groups could never be equal or included in the civic process because they did not possess the same capacities as “normal” citizens (read: white, straight men).

For example, a common argument against women’s suffrage focused on female fragility, a supposed lack of mental endurance, and predisposition to hysteria. Popular Science Monthly even wrote that educated women were “sick and suffering before marriage and are physically disabled from performing physiological functions in a normal manner.” Not very subtle. Typical arguments for slavery took similar approaches, claiming, among other things, that African Americans did not possess the intelligence or ambition to succeed on their own (or be relied on to vote).

Unfortunately, instead of fighting this ideology—instead of rejecting able-bodiedness as the grounds for citizenship or public participation—groups lobbying for rights sought to show how they weren’t disabled. Often falling back on racist and gendered stereotypes to gain traction, marginalized groups denied their defects. The suffragettes, for example, attempted to disassociate themselves from African Americans, felons, and other groups by calling others “lunatics” or “idiots.” The implicit understanding of rights as based on (perceived and normative) capabilities, thankfully, has slowly shifted, culminating in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and reminds us of the important fact that disability cannot and should not exclude one from citizenship.

Language matters. Not only do common metaphors of disability in stories and everyday life reinforce that disability is something to be overcome or fixed, they also wrongly assume that the only “real” human experience, or the most human desirable experience, is based on a recognizably normal body. Through challenging a single narrative and surrounding ourselves with many stories—ones that don’t merely view disability as a plot device—we can embrace alternate forms of embodiment. Though we can’t live without metaphors, we can pay attention to which ones we choose and how they sculpt our world.

Julianne McCobin is a doctoral student in the Department of English.


2 thoughts on “Disability and its Metaphors”

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