Limiting (Re)Agents

By: n.i.

This article was written on the unceded and stolen land of the Kanien‘kehá:ka people with gratitude to and respect for the traditional keepers this land. This article was also written with deep gratitude to the wisdom and work of disabled ancestors, elders, and peers, including AJ Withers, Amythest Schraber, Audre Lorde, Dori Midnight, Eli Clare, Laura Hershey, Lauren Tuchman, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leroy Moore, Loree Erickson, Lydia X.Z. Brown, Mia Mingus, Naomi Ortiz, Ruti Regan, the Accessibilize Montréal Crip Crew, and so many others.

We are limited by the stories we tell ourselves. We are limited by the stories others tell us about us, stories we then in turn retell to ourselves – often so loudly as to drown out the stories we once knew about who we are and who we might be.

This is true for everyone, albeit in different ways depending on a wide range of factors which can be difficult to identify and understand.

Sometimes the stories we retell confine us, convince us that we are less than we really are, warp our inner senses and skew our perspectives. These stories are most commonly some variation on “you are not enough” and/or “you are too much.” Sometimes the stories we retell liberate us, reminding us that we, like everyone and everything, have boundaries – spaces and times where we start and end, giving us operating parameters and a sense of containment in the vastness of the universe. These stories are usually something closer to “you are you.” Storied limits – like with most things – depend so much on how the story is told and who is doing the storytelling.

For those of us who move through the world with bodies and brains that do unexpected things in unexpected ways, the stories we retell ourselves are at particular risk of being unduly influenced by the perceptions of others. The underlying assumptions are that we won’t know any better, can’t tell one story from another, and that we’re incapable of telling a story anyways. Those of us who are disabled by the ways in which the physical, emotional, sensory, and social are set up and held up around us have our stories taken and twisted and told back
to us in narratives become completely unrecognizable. When we question how these twisted tales came to be, we’re usually told we don’t know enough to know because if we did we
wouldn’t be asking such questions. This taking, this twisting, is not only part of disabled experience by any means, and disabled experience is of course complicated by other facets
of experience.

In so many ways, disabled experience is about becoming practiced in shifting stories. Sometimes we practice on purpose. More often, we practice just by being. We shift the stories
told about how bodies work and what bodies do. We shift the stories about how the exchange of information and emotions works and the forms those exchanges take. We shift stories
about the mundane and we shift stories about the miraculous. We shift stories about pretty much everything, often without even realizing it, because most of us learn from a very young age to stop recognizing that potential.

We’re told that disabled folks – with a few exceptions – don’t shift stories, can’t shift stories, won’t shift stories. Soon we forget that we can and do and will. There are so many ways in
which the worlds around us – physical, social, and otherwise – profit off of stories which confine us, stories that limit us to one of a few stock roles. It’s less scary for people to tell themselves that disability only happens to other people, so they tell stories that say we’re broken, that we must have done something to turn out like this, that no one would be this way if they could choose to be otherwise. We learn to retell these stories until the limits of truth and myth are so blurred that we no longer know what we can or cannot do. We retell these stories until we are convinced that there can be no others.

It can be hard not to lose stories, hard to hold on to trusting yourself, hard to live disabled experience as anything but limited and limiting. It can be liberating to fight what seeks to restrain us and the stories we can tell. It can also be liberating to remind ourselves that people are going to tell stories no matter what, and that we get to choose which stories we retell.

The following is a very incomplete list of tricks and tips for
disabled storytellers:

  • Remember that your body is your own. You may have lots of experience that tells you otherwise, and it’s okay to need support in reclaiming one’s body.
  • There are no wrong kinds of bodies. There are no wrong kinds of brains.
  • Ability is not a static thing. All humans have things they can do some days and not others. For disabled folks, this is often true to greater extents, but you don’t have to believe the stories that tell you that if you can do something one day, you must be able to do it every day and vice versa.
  • It’s okay not to be able to do something. “Can’t” is not a bad word. Often “can’t” is contextual – maybe you can’t do something with the tools you’ve been given, or in the amount of time that has be allotted, or in the ways that you’ve been told to do it. Sometimes “can’t” is just “can’t.”
  • There is a long history – and present – of keeping disabled folks isolated. This is done through all kinds of different structures and stories. It can be incredibly liberating to find other folks who share similar disabled experiences – and different disabled experiences.
  • Community holds stories in ways that individuals can’t.
  • No one is independent. Independence is a capitalist bedtime story that weighs extra heavily on folks who need support in doing what gets called “basic” like feeding oneself or going to the bathroom. We all need help sometimes and interdependence is awesome.
  • You never have to apologize for access needs. This is often one of the hardest stories to believe so here it is again: You never have to apologize for access needs.
  • A lot of the skills disabled folks are taught – especially in “special education” but also more generally – are anti-skills disguised as “social skills.” We’re taught things that are supposed to help us “function” and “fit in” and then punished when we question whose purposes these skills actually serve.
  • It’s okay to be angry about being disabled. If you can, try to learn how to tell when the anger is about the stories you’ve been told and what those stories are supposed to mean because it can be all too easy to turn those stories back on yourself.
  • You don’t have to call yourself disabled. Or a person with a disability. Or any words in particular if you don’t want to. Part of (re)learning to tell our own stories is (re)learning how to use our own words.
  • Not everyone tells stories with their mouth. Or their hands. Or in other ways that might be immediately obvious.
  • Sometimes limits are liberating. It can be a relief to know that we can’t do everything. It can make a lot more things a lot more possible.