This post was written by NCTE member Ada Hubrig, the 2022 Recipient of the NCTE Leadership Award for People with Disabilities.
Oooofda, kind humans. Disability Pride Month stresses me out.
That may not be the vibe you’d expect this month from a disabled, chronically ill, autistic person in what I’m told is “our month.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve learned to love myself and take pride in my disabled identity. I cherish being in community with other disabled folks, who are dear to my heart and their companionship brings me so much joy. July is also a time when many celebrate the history and labor of the disability rights movement and current work of disability justice advocates, which are certainly worthy of observing, learning more about, and celebrating.
But I’m tired of interactions with people who should know better and don’t do better. People who say the wildest things to me about disability, and feel even more entitled to comment because they saw on social media it’s “disability month.” So far, this July, I’ve heard:
- “You’re so brave.” [I was at Walgreens in my sweatpants buying Cheetos and gummy bears. Also, if you’re not sure why this comment might be annoying to a disabled person, I gently invite you to learn more about disability and “Inspiration Porn.”]
- “Where’s your caretaker?” [Followed by an uncomfortably long conversation with a stranger who was surprised and upset to learn that disabled people can be out in public on our own.]
- Several iterations of “I just couldn’t live like you!” or, worse, “If I were you, I’d kill myself.” [Dear Reader, it is alarming how many nondisabled people say to my face that the first thought they have when encountering disability is that if they were in my shoes they’d unalive themselves. It’s not a compliment. I’m begging you to never say this to a disabled person.]
While I find these conversations tiresome, I don’t believe they are intentionally mean-spirited. These are people ignorant about disability, people are lacking in what I call disability literacy, how I refer to the ways we collectively and individually read and understand disability. When I say “read” I mean more than media about disabled people (though it definitely includes media! And I make several suggestions about media, below). With “disability literacy,” I’m getting at how we read and interact with disabled people, the assumptions we make about disability, our working knowledge about disability.
If you’re a fellow disabled person, heyyoo! So grateful to be in community with you, lovely human ♥️✨. If you’re a kindly nondisabled person who has read this far and wants to be in community with disabled folks, we don’t need or want patronizing smiles and motivational-poster-speak (and in chats within the disability communities, we actively bemoan it). In either case, let’s celebrate Disability Pride Month by collectively deepening our disability literacy. Even those of us who are disabled inhabit only a particular version of disability, and we have so much to learn about other ways of being.
Central to expanding our disability literacy needs to be an understanding of multiply-marginalized disabled experiences. We must work to understand how white, male, cis, straight, middle-class, and otherwise privileged disabled voices are often centered in discussions of disability and disability history while BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, femme, and other disabled identities are often ignored, all while multiply-marginalized people are most impacted. This isn’t my idea, but what I’ve learned in trying to expand my own disability literacy from the disability justice movement and disability justice advocates.
So let’s collectively agree to up our disability literacy game: let’s learn from and alongside disabled people. Not in some misguided attempt at pity, but in honoring disabled culture and recognizing it’s awesome and worth engaging. Here are just a few possible disability literacy suggestions:
- Follow disabled people on social media and listen to our experiences.
- Read disabled people’s words: essays and poetry and fiction (some of my current favorites are recommended below, but there is so much solid writing from disabled authors out there).
- Learn about the disability history (the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution may be one entry point; also check out “7 Documentaries to Watch After Crip Camp“).
- Engage in media made by disabled folks, and especially multiply marginalized disabled folks (to get you started, Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility Project site is a treasure trove of podcasts, interviews, essays, and so much more).
- Support disabled artists and creators, including buying from and donating to disabled creators and causes when you can (check out #CripRitual; Jen White-Johnson is one of my favorite disabled artists; also check out the Critical Design Lab directed by Aimi Hamraie).
- Learn more about the disability organizing going on in your own neck of the woods, particularly coalitions led by disabled folks—I’m currently involved with New Disabled South.
- Educate yourself on why words like “crazy” and “stupid” are ableist slurs and update your vocabulary accordingly.
- Learn more about Mad Pride and how Mad folks are fighting for autonomy.
- Celebrate Disability Pride Month by learning how to make your own corner of the universe more accessible, from learning how to make events more accessible or how to write and include alt text to make online posts or learn more about accessibility in the classroom and within NCTE.
- Read the work of teachers and scholars in your own field of study doing work around disability and imagine how it might connect/inform/inspire your own teaching or scholarship.
- Relatedly, check out NCTE’s disability-related book recommendations. There are several great disability-centered reads on NCTE book lists, including Patricia Dunn’s middle grade recommendations.
Ada’s Current Disability Literacy Recommendations
(Note: These are my recommendations for adults; some may not be appropriate for all classrooms. If you need help writing rationales to include texts in your classrooms or libraries, visit NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Center.)
Created by the disability justice-based performance collective Sins Invalid, this volume acts as a primer on disability justice, a framework for addressing ableism that understands we cannot address ableism apart from the interconnected cisheteropatriarchial, white supremacist, capitalist systems that prop up ableism. If performance art is more your vibe, consider watching Sins Invalid’s Unashamed Claim to Beauty performance. Also check out Shayda’s Kafai’s book Crip Kinship: The Disability Justice and Art Activism of Sins Invalid, which highlights not only the work of Sins Invalid but the importance of disability culture and disability community.
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice and The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha
Piepzna-Samarsinha is my favorite essayist and one of my favorite poets. They’ve grounded these two works, both collections of their essays, in disability justice and get into the tensions of disability community, and highlighting issues around disability and sexuality and how multiply marginalized disabled folks (disabled queer femmes of color, specifically) are typically expected to do a disproportionate amount of emotional and care labor in disabled communities, and how white, cis, straight disabled people are often centered in disability collectives. If poetry is more your jam, check out their poetry collections including Tonguebreaker.
Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life by Alice Wong
Alice Wong’s autobiography is a series of essays, notes, and images that checks the “inspirational disabled person” at the door. She not only shares her story, but a passion for wanting to dismantle the systems that prop up ableism. The book is deeply rooted in Asian American culture and Alice Wong as a complete person: it’s thoughtful, unique, and fierce like its author, managing to both take on challenging discussions of racism and ableism while being a deeply enjoyable read. I appreciate Wong’s playfulness as a writer and her ability to both pose questions that wrinkle my brain and make me laugh out loud.
Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century, edited by Alice Wong
I’ve read it a handful of times since it came out in 2020, and I am still absolutely floored by this collection every single time. As a collection, these essays come from a diverse range of disabled people’s unique experiences, its 38 thought-provoking essays are a celebration of disability culture and real, lived disabled experiences without any of the sappy, motivational-poster talk. I’ve taught many of these essays in my college writing courses, and I also point you to the version for disabled youth and Naomi Ortiz’s fantastic discussion guide. Also, a follow-up centering on disability and intimacy is slated for February 2024.
Black Disability Politics by Sami Schalk
While a more formal academic monograph than some of the other entries on this list, Schalk’s book is both a necessary addition to our understanding of disability rights and disability justice and a very accessible read. Schalk identifies a rich lineage of Black disabled cultural workers and highlights not only how they are often erased from a whitewashed narrative of disability history, but also the ways Black Disability Politics connects to Black liberation in the present and future. If this sounds interesting to you but you don’t want to read an academic book, let me point you to Schalk’s Ford Foundation talk—in conversation with Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Vilissa Thompson, and others.
The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang
Even within disability culture, mental disability and mental illness are too often maligned. The Collected Schizophrenias explores the tensions between mental illness, the medical industrial complex, and community. Like other entries on this list, it deals with the complexities and tensions of disabled experiences, highlighting the systemic inequalities that routinely fail Mad and chronically ill folks. She discusses this collection in an interview with PBS here.
Ada’s Disability Poetry Recs
While I obviously gravitate towards essays, I also love poems that explore disability, particularly disability and gender/queerness. Here are just a few I keep coming back to:
- Kay Ulanday Barrett’s More Than Organs
- Cyree Jarelle Johnson’s Slingshot
- Travis Chi Wing Lau’s Pairing
- Jen Campbell’s The Girl Aquarium
- The Cyborg Jillian Weise’s The Amputee’s Guide to Sex (which recently had a 10th anniversary printing)
This is a short list, but there are so many more. Check out The Deaf Poets Society and the magazine/press Blanket Sea. If you’re looking for disability-related poems to introduce to your students, Beauty is a Verb (2011) is a solid anthology that might point you to some of your new favorite poets, and the documentary Deaf Jam explores poetry and ASL through the experiences of Aneta Brodski, a Deaf slam poet.
Ada Hubrig (they/them) is an autistic, nonbinary, disabled caretaker of cats. They live in Huntsville, Texas, where they work as an assistant professor, serving as English education coordinator and co-chair of the composition program at Sam Houston State University. Their research centers disability, drawing on disability justice and queer theory to create anti-ableist and anti-oppressive pedagogies centering multi-marginalized folx and promoting disability community.
Hubrig’s writing appears in College Composition and Communication, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Pedagogy, Community Literacy Journal, Reflections, Journal of Multimodal Rhetoric, Present Tense, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, among other journals, and in edited collections including The Routledge Handbook of Queer Rhetorics and the upcoming collection Deep Reading, Deep Learning. Their writing also appears in the Disability Visibility Project. Hubrig served as guest editor of TETYC’s special issue on disability, as well as an upcoming issue of SPARK on disability activism. With Christina Cedillo, Hubrig is editing an upcoming special issue of Community Literacy Journal on issues of access. Hubrig is managing editor of The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and is launching a sibling journal to JOMR, The Journal of Disability in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, to promote disabled, multiply marginalized scholars, coming in 2023.
Hubrig is currently co-chair of the CCCC Disability Studies Standing Group, co-chair of the NCTE Task Force to Support Gender Diversity, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Coalition for Community Writing. Previously, they served on the CCCC Nominating Committee and co-directed the Nebraska Writing Project.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.