By David Mitchell
Stories of overcoming and cure abound in our culture, from Olympians who
"overcome" everything from asthma to the Keating Five scandal, to hourly CNN
spots about amputees who climb mountains on prosthetic limbs and play
basketball in wheelchairs.
The triumph-over-tragedy story is our most beloved plot line. But, as
philosophers have shown, the story that is most repeated in a culture is also
the one which reveals the most about those who produce and consume it.
What is so attractive about stories of overcoming deformities, disabilities,
disfigurements and bodily dysfunctions? European and American societies have
always tried to prove their "humane-ness" by enlisting disenfranshised and
disabled communities as the tokens of their progressive commitments. When [Christopher]
Reeve [in his speech to the 1996 Democratic National Convention] invoked people with disabilities as those in need of being "valued" as
part of the "American family," his appeal was saying that disability
automatically excludes one from holding a definitive social value; that
disabled people could not affirm their own value without the approval of non-
disabled citizens and institutions.
Reeve went on to connect our "nation's mission of hope" to the cure of people
with disabilities in general (and the cure of spinal cord injury in
particular). The national mission of curing disabilities led Reeve
hyperbolically to compare the regeneration of nerve cells with "placing a man
on the moon."
In making this curious parallel, Reeve voiced a powerful national sentiment.
Though Reeve and the Democrats seemed to extoll the value of the lives of
disabled people, their rhetoric established a perpetual future tense in which
we see the "conquering" of disabilities as the foundation of a progressive
national myth: Disability and people with disabilities are suspended in the
future tense of national endeavor. They are a people who "we" need to be
reminded to value from year and year (and convention to convention), but their
"value" never quite arrives. If disability is central to our formulations and
definitions of national progress (what population could replace them as the
markers of our generous commitment to "all" people?), then that future time of
cure must never arrive.
The key tension that exists in nearly all stories about disability is seen
most clearly in the "cure narrative." It's a story of uneasy obliteration, for
it always ends in the "loss" of the object upon which it depends: Either the
disability is eradicated and surrenders its seductive interest, or it resists
conforming to the narrative of its rehabilitation and the evidence of that
refusal must itself be obliterated. This is what Paul Longmore means by the
"cure or kill" paradigm: both get rid of disability.
The power of stories about disability, their perpetual lure for viewers and
readers, goes beyond this, however. Their seduction is in that they promise a
frontier that will never be exhausted. Unlike flights to the moon or the
exploration of the West, disability is an inexhaustible resource. Its promise
lies in the paradox that it can be perennially accessed without ever being
fully dealt with -- its mystery cannot be pierced, because disabilities stand
as the evidence that human variation is the rule and not the exception.
Disability's unique "value" is its status as an inexhaustible resource ripe
for metaphorization in the never-ending story of national progress.
David Mitchell co-directed the documentary video "VITAL SIGNS: Crip Culture
Talks Back," grand prizewinner at the 18th annual World Congress of
Rehabilitation Internation's film and video festival. He is currently writing
a book about the history of disability in philosophy and literature entitled
The Materiality of Metaphor: Disability in the Western Tradition.
David Mitchell is assistant professor of English at Northern Michigan University.