Disability’s No Fairytale: Stop Treating Disabled People Like Sleeping Beauty

Life for disabled people is commonly assumed to be a sort of limbo, a search for meaning; if you are disabled, you are waiting around for a cure, hoping that someday, somewhere, someone will figure out how to fix you. Someone will wake up you up with a kiss and suddenly you will be whole again, because to exist as a disabled person is to be fundamentally broken, longing for something more. You are trying to assign some sort of deeper meaning to your life, waiting for the day that a nice nondisabled person will wake you from your state of suspended animation to inform you that your life does have meaning. You can inspire and educate people, you can be a symbol and a token.

In fact, like everyone else in society, we lead a wide variety of lives. Some of us are searching for meaning, but that might not be tied in with our disabilities; it might, in fact, have nothing to do with disability. Most of us do not need to be rescued by nondisabled people, we are not asleep and in the dark until someone comes along to save us. Some of us absolutely do want cures and in some cases actively work towards them, while others are not interested in a cure and don’t have time to sit around waiting for one to develop. Others actively reject the idea of cure culture and the idea that they need a cure at all.

The idea that disabled people need some sort of input from the nondisabled world to matter is an ancient one, although the Victorians may have elevated this kind of framing, and these attitudes, to an art form with their maudlin sentimentality about disability. These Victorian attitudes persist to the present day, even in arenas where people recognise the flaws with Victorian social attitudes and resist the ideas they advanced about women, for example, and people of colour. Yet, fundamental views on disability have changed little since that era, despite public and aggressive agitation on the part of the disability rights movement, and perceptions of disability and disability rights are often highly simplistic and extremely patronising in nature.

Many of us reject the idea that we are broken and need an external source of validation to give our lives meaning.  I often encounter people who are amazed by the diversity within the movement and the actual lives of disabled people, as though we are not all around them, living ordinary lives, but are strange and curious artefacts that exist in isolation and the hopes that someone will write an interpretive placard.

Some people labeled as disabled by society in general actually don’t take on that identity; the Deaf community in particular includes many people who do not view Deafness as a disability and resent being labeled as such against their will. Some Deaf folks have an interest in working in solidarity with disabled people, but that desire may be thwarted by intrusive narratives about disability and disabled identifies, the idea that we all want cures or are sitting around, waiting for something to happen, which runs contrary to the goals of many Deaf communities.

To suggest that disabled people all want cures is untrue, as is the claim that those of us who are seeking cures (or simply better treatment, or any number of things) are waiting around for them. Like everyone else, we have business and things to attend to. Even people who do want cures actually don’t have time to sit around. They still need to pick up groceries and vacuum the rug and any number of other things that need to happen on a daily basis, yes, even when you are disabled! We still need to eat and breathe and support ourselves, we still need entertainment, even. We go to the movies sometimes, you know, and spend an entire two hours not thinking about how desperately we want cures.

And to say that we require something external to be whole is equally offensive and patronising, as though people with disabilities are just closed locks waiting for the cure of nondisabled validation. We don’t need to be inspiring to have a reason to exist. We don’t need to educate people to matter or to have an equal right to access. We don’t need to justify our existences, to come up with some kind of excuse for occupying space. We, like everyone else, exist, contributing to society at various levels and in various ways that may not always meet with social expectations. And we, like everyone else, are allowed to engage with society on our own terms. Which, yes, for some of us does mean doing inspirational work, while for others of us, it does not.

We are not Sleeping Beauties, lying chained by external factors and waiting for a prince to rescue us. We’ve got far too much to do for that sort of thing. We certainly can’t be lounging about hoping against hope that someday, maybe, someone will take the time to notice us and decide we matter, if we’re pretty and demure and quiet enough. We don’t seek external affirmation to validate our existence and we don’t need it; to treat disability as a fairytale is inherently dehumanising and objectifying.