Microaggressions and Erasure
of Disability in Diversity Discussions

by Kayla Whaley

I don’t know how to write this. I honestly still can’t decide if I should—even as I’m writing it—because I’m afraid I’ll be misunderstood, or because I’m afraid I’m overreacting, or because I’m afraid I’ll be perceived as overreacting. All of the above, really. But I’m more afraid of not saying anything, of letting it blister only to burst open deep and raw over and over again. I’m afraid there’ll come a day when I choose to withdraw from this community altogether rather than be scraped open one more time.

Before I start, I want to be clear that nothing I’m going to say is directed at any one person or event. This is something that’s been happening for as long as I’ve been part of the YA community, but it has admittedly been happening more frequently lately since diversity discussions in general have been happening more frequently. And maybe that’s why I’m saying something now even though I’ve been planning to write this for ages: because the little hurts are coming in quicker succession and turning into bigger ones. Bigger hurts are harder to ignore.

I also want to make it clear that I admire the hell out of every single person in this community fighting for more and better diversity, risking their careers and well being to do so, and facing unconscionable harassment and abuse for speaking at all.

Having said that, I’m finding it harder and harder to feel welcome in these diversity discussions. And no, I’m not talking about the ones that are focused on racism or transphobia or anti-Semitism or Islamophobia or any other specific marginalization. Those are all incredibly important conversations where my voice does not belong, except perhaps to boost the voices of those who do. My voice doesn’t belong in discussions about A Fine Dessert or For Such a Time, for example. Beyond boosting those affected, my voice would be derailing at best and actively harmful at worst. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the general diversity discussions. Sometimes these develop from those specific ones, sometimes not. Regardless, we have a lot of (sorely needed) conversations about diversity and marginalization in this community…and disability doesn’t always feel welcome there. I’ve started dreading these conversations because they inevitably turn into a string of microaggressions and erasures.

It’s in the way disability is so rarely listed in definitions of diversity.

It’s in the way people say, “You’d never say [X] about someone disabled! Why say it about [other marginalized identity]?”

It’s in the way books with disability tropes and painful portrayals are included again and again in recommended lists and award nominations, even after #ownvoices critics have spoken out against those titles.

It’s in the way those harmful portrayals are often the only ones recced at all, and how #ownvoices writers tend to be overlooked entirely.

It’s in the ableist language used so often and so casually to make a point: “Those people are CRAZY!” “Anyone who says/thinks/does that must be INSANE!” “You’d have to be BLIND to ignore that!”

It’s in all the times someone has said “differently abled” or “wheelchair-bound” or “handicapable” in an article promoting diversity.

It’s in the lack of captions or descriptions of photos, GIFs, and videos. Again, in articles promoting diversity.

It’s in the shorthand we use for privilege: white, and sometimes straight. As though sexuality and race are the only possible axes on which to be privileged or marginalized. As if abled privilege doesn’t exist.

It’s in the way so many people—even those committed to diversity—can’t list the last book they read with a disabled character.

It’s in the way disability is so rarely included when people list the intersectional characters they’d like to see.

It’s in the way people respond to my voice. There’s sympathy, always sympathy, but rarely solidarity. When my voice is boosted, people say, “Listen.” But most don’t say, “This is wrong.”

It’s in the way I’ve seen authors use #ownvoices to describe themselves writing disabled characters—because someone in their family has a disability.

It’s in all the ways we’re ignored, erased, or trampled on during these discussions.

I am white, so I am absolutely privileged. But I’m also disabled (not to mention queer), so I am absolutely marginalized. I have valuable things to add to discussions of diversity, but I don’t always feel comfortable speaking. I worry I’ll be derailing if I focus on disability, or that I’ll be seen as a white girl trying to play oppressed, or that no one will care anyway.

I appreciate the explicit support I get. I do, truly. This isn’t about that. This is about all the subtle ways I’m told over and over again that I don’t count, that I don’t belong in these discussions. It’s the microagressions. It’s the erasure. It’s the apathy. It’s the fact that a supposedly safe space is feeling less and less so every day.

Maybe this is a horribly misguided thing to write. Maybe I should just delete it. But really all I’m saying is:

See us. Acknowledge us. Include us.


13 thoughts on “Microaggressions and Erasure
of Disability in Diversity Discussions

  1. You are absolutely right. I can name Dangerous by Shannon Hale but generally I read few books with the disabled. I admit iam a person who is more interested in story than characters and sometimes think the diversity debate puts books in abad lift if they are not diverse enough. As a black person some people assume I am raging mad that there are not enough characters of my race. But I am not. I am mad about stereotypes that make it seem as if a black girl who is not homeless, violent or pregnant does not exist. Plus there are the stereotypes for the disabled labelling them as weak or second class citizens in one way or another. This is s lie. I remember in high school when a deaf parent was there to try and get her daughter a transfer. I kid you not the teacher walked up to me saying she could not handle the woman and lergt me with her. I could not believe it and had not had much experience with anyone deaf before. Still I was able to help her and we worked together to get her where she needed to go and as we dd she told me about her daughter and how proud she was of her child. It all almost brought me to tears and reminded me that at the end of the day we are all the same. You are just like me. No matter that I am black and you are white. You are titled disabled and I am able bodied I guess. But at the end of the day we are the same and are both bloggers able to share our thoughts ahsd feelings with the world. Thank you food sharing this and know people are listening. Not offering bull shit pieties but listening and absorbing your words.

    PS: I am @queendsheena on twitter as well if you ever want to talk. Thank you for being brave enough to share your thoughts. I think I finally get what being more diverse is really about.

  2. A really informative post and timely, as I am about to write about the consequences of one of my characters being in a road traffic accident. I have to confess that this has really given me cause for reflection and thought (not that I hadn’t been thoughtful before)

    The last thing I would ever want to do is to ever write in a way that would insult, harm or upset someone because of the portrayal of one of my characters. However, there are some very complicated navigations and I wonder if authors are afraid of representing people with disabilities because it’s a mine-field of different perspectives, attitudes and contradictions. I have several family members who are actively engaged with marginalisation activism, and rather than finding it illuminating, I have found myself becoming increasingly aware of the countless disagreements within communities about the use of language, terms, definitions and desired outcomes. Is the idea of general consensus an issue for all marginalised groups? Is their an inherent paradox about identification with a ‘marginalised’ group and the idea of individuality and not being defined by assumptions? (I have no idea as to how I would even begin to answer these ideas) I think that in many cases, people really don’t intend on being idiots (I include myself here) but they genuinely don’t know how not to be – guidance and intelligent posts like this are absolutely needed, and I look forward to reading more.
    I’d especially like to hear more about the micro-aggression elements and how as a community we can begin to eradicate them.

  3. I honestly believe that the whole diversity discussion has many different sides to it. Disability is one, and one of the ones I write from personal experience. Yes, disability is perceived differently than race, but it also depends on what the disability is. Some are visual, some are internal, all pose challenges. I’m Hard of Hearing, I write about hearing loss. Mainly because the books I pick up who portray Deaf or Hard of Hearing characters don’t get it right. Some have been close, and I respect the authors for the research and respect they put into the work. But I’ve always known that hearing loss is something people *think* they understand, when they don’t. And I’m sure I’m not the only person with a disability who thinks that.

    Our voice is important to the whole diversity discussion. And I hope we won’t limit ourselves.

  4. I do have a question: why no to “differently abled?” I use that term, because I don’t feel disabled as a person with a hearing loss, I feel different, I feel part of a cultural minority. This is not to set me apart from anyone else with a disability, there is no “I’m better than you” or anything like that. Just how I feel and how others within the community feel. And I’m curious how that transcends, or doesn’t, to others.

    • To me, “differently abled” and all the other euphemisms imply “disabled” is a bad word and therefore a bad thing to be. So not only do those terms feel incredibly condescending, but they simultaneously erase and condemn my identity. Of course, if someone chooses to self-identify as differently abled, that’s totally legitimate. I won’t ever police the terms people use to identify themselves. My issue is with the terms abled people ascribe to us and the judgments and baggage that go along with them.

  5. This is so so SO important. As a disabled teen from a family rampant with disabilities, I agree with everything you’ve said and I’ve seen a lot of the same sorts of things go down.
    Please don’t feel like your voice needs to be silenced, we need more people like yourself who are willing to speak out against such things.

  6. Glad I’m not the only one thinking this. One of the ways that I see people excluding disabled characters that most affects me is when there are actual portrayals of depression, people tend to jump on it saying things like, “don’t romanticize depression”, as if the existence of a character with depression who is portrayed in a positive light/finds love/has friends/isn’t portrayed as bad is romanticizing depression.

  7. Pingback: YA Got Mail! Link round-up. (November 7) - YA Interrobang

  8. You know, I’d love to talk to you (or anyone in the comments who’s interested), in the interests of getting it right, if you were bored one day? In my books, one of my protagonists is a paraplegic, and I did a lot of research, and there’s nothing better than talking to someone, but I’ve been terrified of going up to someone and coming off as “let me mine your life experience and pain for my books!” Like seriously terrified. I’ve been working off the hope that I didn’t get it egregiously wrong. This was a great blog post, so thank you. :)

  9. Pingback: Autism News: 2015/11/17 | Ada Hoffmann

  10. Pingback: Loose-leaf Links for November | Earl Grey Editing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *