Disability is not your analogy

The book we’re reading at present in the online bookclub to which I belong (Radical Readers, go check it out!) is The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. I almost threw it across the room when I reached the following on page 233:

The historical censorship of discussion about sex has left us with another disability; the act of talking about sex, of putting words to what we do in bed, has become difficult and embarrassing.1 […] What you can’t talk about, you can hardly think about – a crippling2 disability.3


Gentle readers, welcome to hearing about one of the things in this world of ours that shits me the most.

Disability is not your cute fun analogy. You know why? Disability is its own thing all by itself. Disability is a part of many people’s lives and identities, it’s an experience in the world, a political one, a personal one, a sensitive one, a serious one. It is not a sweet little term you can charmingly appropriate for whatever other purpose pops into your head.

When people use ‘disability’ in that manner, (‘I’m really bad at cooking! It’s like a disability or something.’ ‘[Component of society] is [bad effects] to the extent that it’s like we’re all disabled.’) to me it conveys a good deal about how that person thinks of disability and the unthinking contempt with which they regard disabled people.

For a start, it displays a fundamental lack of understanding as to what disability actually is. Disability is not a silly compartmentalised quirk that you get to pull out and put away as you see fit. It is long term or permanent, it is a life experience, there are all manner of internal and social factors involved. In a strange way this kind of usage has a delegitimising effect on the disabled identity, as though it’s not really a serious thing, or it’s so broad a term as to be available for use in talking about all kinds of other experiences. It’s not an attempt at kinship or understanding; it takes away meaning.

Using it for an analogy appropriates the experience of being disabled. It takes the experience without permission or proper respect and only in part, meaning everything gets skewed. This sort of thing tends to leave out either the dimension of social oppression (as with the cooking example) or the impairment (the ‘we’re all disabled’ example). And it’s always used to say something negative: it’s setting up disability as the go-to reference for bad things. In short, using ‘disability’ for an analogy shows a lack of connection with disabled people’s experiences of disability.

Appropriating chunks of people’s lives is always going to be a not very good idea. When this is done through specifically saying something negative it goes to a whole other level. It’s about some people taking experiences belonging to other people’s lives and using them for easy, unaware reference.

[Cross-posted at Zero at the Bone]

  1. Right folks, the primary, analogy-worthy characteristics of disability are difficulty and embarrassment, let’s all go home.
  3. What is particularly spectacular about this passage is that it appears shortly after the book’s one page addressing disability.

10 thoughts on “Disability is not your analogy

  1. Oh goodness!

    I still vividly remember every time someone has heard me go off about disability rights or neurodiversity, and their only response is “I agree! Everyone is disabled in their own way!”


    It happens far too often, and I don’t know how to correct them without sounding rude or self-obsessed but…really? Disability is not just some random quirk! You don’t get to trivialize my disability by taking away my unique experience and making it as common as dirt.


  2. I don’t see an analogy, I see a word that has multiple definitions. In this context, disability means a restriction. A crippling disability would be a restriction that causes a weakness.

    An analogy would be like: The historical censorship of discussion about sex has left us like a deaf person without hands to sign with.

  3. Well, for a start, Michelle, you don’t see how “crippling” is being used as an analogy at least? What usage like this does is go right back to the characterisation of disabled identities as all things negative, where we’ve worked quite hard to make it not so. (Which is not to say that being disabled can’t be hard – it is because of the internal and external things we have to deal with – just that using our word and lives as the go-to to describe negative things is jarring, as with ‘lame’ or ‘gay’.) As such, that’s a whole lot of oppression and identity and experience funneled into that one word, not just whatever definition people like to attach to it themselves. I get that ‘disabled’ can mean different things; I could ‘disable’ the comments on this post, for instance. But I wouldn’t give the comments here a ‘disability’ by doing so, that’s a people thing, yeah? It’s wildly inappropriate to use that word when you’re using it to talk about actual people who aren’t of that oppressed group. Particularly following on from a passage about actual disability, it really does read like an appropriation of people’s lives and identities to talk about something coded as negative, to mean trouble or an inability to talk about sex. It plays into that ‘everyone is disabled in their own way’ trope as almandite pointed out. Also, a lot of people would take offense at the assertion that disability equals restriction and you might want to have a read of the Ableist Word Profile on ‘weakness’.

    That’s everything I have to say on that subject, in case anyone was thinking of leaving comments along similar lines.

  4. I just had a similar experience when reading a book by Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. I was enjoying and considering the Buddhist perspective on upheaval in one’s life until I came to a certain section.

    In that section, Chodron compared people who weren’t living mindfully to people who are blind and deaf in a field full of wildflowers and birdsong [or something very similar].

    She actually had the ignorance to use disabilities as a metaphor for ignorance and inattention! Maybe this is more a case of people having negative associations with disability in general, but, anyway, I wanted to throw the book across the room too. Also it was tainted after that, and I couldn’t take it seriously any more, which is too bad because some of the things it said could have been beneficial.

  5. Wow.

    I mean, how difficult (ahem) would it have been for the author to use the word “inability”, which seems to be what was actually *meant*.

    Word selection + PC FAIL.

  6. Jo
    Exactly. Unable, inability, having difficulties, made it hard for… there are so many ways to express what she wanted to say without using disability as a metaphor in a way that bought into all the tired stereotypes about disability being a bad thing, something to “overcome”, etc.

    But then, that wouldn’t have allowed the author to tap into all those negative emotions so many people associate with disability. Which is of course much more important than being a decent human who doesn’t appropriate others peoples experiences.

  7. That’s hardly the most problematic thing about that book, honestly.

    Which is not to minimize where you find it problematic, simply to state my opinion that that book is rife with problems.

  8. Re: the book. I actually just picked that book up from the library and began reading through it yesterday on the strength of many recommendations from sex-positive and poly perspectives. I’ve seen some cool stuff in it, but I’m nowhere near page 223 and I’ve been reading gingerly since running across the “men, women, and trans*folk!” trope early on. I’m going to keep going, but I’m trying to keep all my backpacks unpacked right in front of me as I do.

    Re: “disability as metaphor” in general. This kind of TAB-appropriation and poorly-conceptualized, ablist/-centric kind of analogizing also props up the harmful beliefs we (speaking as someone who is currently abled) have about disability and people with disabilities in the first place. I mean, we’re talking about the same metaphors and analogies every damned time – disability as a shorthand for deviance from the ablist conception of normalcy. (As an aside, I know someone doing his PhD on representations of disability in the work of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, who were themselves disabled, I think. I confess to being poorly read in the modern classics, but I got the gist as being studying disability in literature from the perspectives of disabled authors themselves. Seems like a nifty idea!)

    Ugh, ugh, okay, and reading Hardy’s comments on the cross-post make me want to throw the damned book against a wall. Back to the library it goes – I have half a dozen other books I want to read right now, and I no longer have any time for this one written by the same person who’s throwing around that pain-in-the-ass “but you’re killing our vocabularies! those precious WORDS!” argument. It’s a language, not a holy relic.

  9. Echoing almandite here, About 10 years ago, after I got my Dx, I tried to tell a friend about Asperger’s, and when I had finished, he said, “Well, everybody’s got something.” In a way, I could see he was trying to be kind, and saying that he wasn’t being judgmental, but that response was unsatisfying, as though he hadn’t really understood anything. And in fact, he didn’t.

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