‘Normal’ and the Dominant Narrative
He got through school, he has a good job and he married. That’s probably the biggest concern of Tourette’s sufferers and their relatives: Will their life be normal?
This quote comes from Anne Miller’s Washington Post piece, ‘‘American Idol’ segment helps push Tourette’s Syndrome into cultural mainstream,’ which I mentioned in ‘Whose Voices?‘ There’s a lot to unpack here, because there are a whole lot of problematic things going on.
‘Normality’ is often treated as a holy grail, especially for people with disabilities. Everything’s ok, as long as we can be normal, or at least act normal. ‘Normal’ is, of course, decided by the dominant members of society and any attempt to redefine normal from another perspective will be met with significant pushback. People who reject society’s definition of normal are viewed as highly suspect; look at the critical reporting on the Mad Pride movement, for example. How dare those people say they don’t want to take medications? How dare people say that being ‘normal,’ that fitting in with society’s demands, isn’t a big priority for them? For that matter, how dare people reject psychiatricization and the very idea of being ‘mad’ at all?
What this quote tells us is that getting through school, having a ‘good’ job, and getting married are the paragons of normality. People with disabilities who accomplish this triad of goals are role models. We should all aspire to this. Anyone who doesn’t is just giving up. Anyone who doesn’t want a college degree, a good job, and a spouse is clearly a social failure, no matter what ‘reasons’ can be mustered to explain why these goals are not of interest.
Never mind that there are barriers to getting through school. Everyone wants to go to school, right? There is not one single person in this world who is not interested in going to college. Who doesn’t believe that school is something that ou needs. Who has other goals. College is where it’s at! After all, if you don’t go to college, you are an abject failure who will never get anywhere in life.
That’s certainly what society seems to think. People are shamed for not wanting to go to college or for being unable to attend if they do want to go. Let alone people who want to leave high school early; they are informed that they are throwing their lives away and ‘dropping out.’ If you do decide not to go to school, you had better be an accomplished artist or musician or writer or something to redeem yourself in the eyes of society and even then people will express amazement about having ‘gotten so far without a college degree.’
And, of course, everyone wants a job, right? Specifically a ‘good job’? People who do not want to work are lazy. Because working is empowering! Not wanting to work makes you morally suspect and questionable. Not being able to work, even when you very much want to do so, is a moral failing; just try harder! If you’re not working, you must be feeding off the government, which means that you expect the working people to pay for your existence. Should you do something like choosing to live with your parents, you are obviously not realising your full potential.
Marriage, too, is the ultimate social goal. There are no reasons why anyone on Earth would not want to marry. First comes love, then comes marriage1, as we know, so clearly, if you are not married, you are not capable of love or being loved. And, of course, everyone who does want a spouse can get married, so it’s not as though there are any legal impediments to marriage.
These are all things which people believe.
These are all things which ‘advocates’ believe. Note that it’s right there in the quote; people with Tourette’s are ‘sufferers’ and their relatives just want them to be ‘normal.’ Miller is proud of her husband for ‘succeeding’ and being a ‘role model’ and she wants other people with disabilities to ‘succeed’ in the same way. I’m sure it’s well-meant, but it comes across as yet another reinforcement of social attitudes about who is normal, who is a good person, who is worthy.
Who gets to decide who is ‘normal’? Who gets to decide which life goals we should aspire to? It’s the people who write the dominant narrative.
Let’s contrast that quote I used at the opener with a quote from someone who actually has Tourette’s, from the same article:
At a recent public appearance, Koterba met a mother and her young daughter with Tourette’s. The woman asked Koterba if her daughter would have a normal life. It broke his heart, Koterba recalled. “No,” Koterba told the girl. “You’re going to have a great life. An amazing life. A creative, beautiful, wonderful life.”