Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fixing It?

If authenticity represents a greater risk for disabled people, then how do you claim the joy Dr. Brene Brown contends comes from feeling connected which can only be achieved with authenticity and vulnerability? If societal expectations and perceptions of disability foster a disconnect how do you establish connection?

I have been struggling to answer these questions explicitly over the past week, but on some level my entire life. I know being authentic and vulnerable is not easy for anyone, disabled or not. My intuition says disability is a complicating factor like other marginalized group affiliations, but probably represents a dynamic with more impact than most. It is unique because society defines group membership by something the individual cannot "do", pigeonholes members into a tragic but brave category, and yet somehow ignores the fact that membership is a constant possibility. What my intuition refuses to cough up is the way to deal with disability so that it does not decrease one's chance to create connections.

I have some pieces of the answer, like shame. Dr. Brown defines it as the fear of not being worthy of connection – is there something about me that if others knew would make me unworthy in their eyes? Disability is in fact such a stigmatizing trait that we attempt to conceal, divorce ourselves from, and distract so others do not notice. Blind people wear dark glasses, learn to mimic sighted mannerisms, and my personal failing – become paranoid about clothes matching. People with scars cover them up. Deaf people sometimes hide their hearing aids. People with prosthetic legs avoid shorts. The list goes on.

I know and have sometimes parroted the rationalization behind concealment. We live in a world that perceives disability and the "defects" that define it as negatives. Hiding those traits facilitates social interaction. In other words, we do it to maybe avoid some of the crap dished out to us every day.

Yet in order to be authentic and vulnerable, disabled people need to stop hiding "flaws." This will in theory lead to a greater feeling of connectedness. My question, still unanswered, is whether the gain in authenticity can overcome the disconnect inherent in being disabled.

Long ago I stopped concealing my physical manifestations of disability, but I still experience shame. If people find out how much help I need, will they think I'm worthy of knowing? What if I seem incapable? Believe it or not, I experience shame simply by running into something while using my cane. Though I joke around about "sucking as a blind person," it's just a way of trying to coat my shortcomings in a layer of humor that might make them more palatable.

Maybe my problems finding connection are because I don't show my weaknesses. I equally know it is true that societal perceptions and expectations surrounding disability make connection more difficult. I am an imperfect being. The world is an imperfect thing. Guess we could all stand for some improvement.


Anonymous said...

I am an imperfect being. The world is an imperfect thing.

Let's all repeat that a few times to ourselves! It helps so much to remember both of these things and to acknowledge that they are both ... okay.

Jen said...


I wish I were more OK with the world being imperfect.

Melissa said...

I doubt being vulnerable is the only way to make a connection. I say that because I see so many similarities in the behavior you discuss and in the behavior of non-disabled people. Very common in teens!! Everyone, despite all of our denials, wants to be like the crowd. We all WANT to be liked. The real connections you are searching for to find "Joy" are the ones who like you side from your differences. They help you laugh off your "shameful" moments because they know deep down it bothered you but get that you don't want anyone else to know that. At least for me, those are the people I really want to be friends with. Not someone I have to share all my scars with to have something in common. BTW everyone has scars too so making a point to show them doesn't really mean much.

Jen said...

Hi Melissa,

Connection for me isn’t about being like everyone else. Rather, it is about being able to be myself and for that to not get in the way of me connecting with people. Authenticity isn’t about having to share. It’s about knowing you can share and it will be alright. Nobody has to cut a vein and bleed in order to achieve closeness with others.

Similarly, I wasn’t implying that you have to show your weaknesses to achieve connection. I was just saying that if you feel like you can’t show them, it probably gets in the way of establishing connections.

It sounds like your authentic self is someone who doesn’t share all her deepest feelings. That’s a valid way to live and it shouldn’t get in the way of you finding connection. It’s about being who you are and that being enough.

I know everyone struggles with shame, their “scars,” and perceived weaknesses. I believe disability creates another layer. There is a whole set of social perceptions, stereotypes, and societal norms that come into play. These are not things a non-disabled person must cope with when they are trying to establish connections with other people. Saying “everyone” contends with shame, scars, and perceived weaknesses discounts the fact that disabled people occupy a different place in society than non-disabled people.

Thanks for the comment.

Erminia Cavins said...

Disability is nothing to be ashamed of. Few may be rude, but many will accept for who you are. Social acceptance is possible! It’s one of the disability rights that you should be aware of.

Anonymous said...

Wow - so happy I ran across your blog! Thank you so much for such thoughtful engagement with disability issues and being willing to share your insights. I have appreciated Brene Brown's thoughts about vulnerability, but hadn't thought about how that is/can play out so much differently depending on other disabilities present. Just want to say thanks for sharing your great thoughts.

Jen said...

I know a theologian who would probably salivate at your blog. Unfortunately, I can't find it. This is not making me happy.

I appreciate your positive feedback and hope you come back to look at this comment because my blog is happening elsewhere these days.

Well, okay, when it is happening, it happens elsewhere.