Michael Rothman, ABC Good Morning America - March 17, 2014
Oh dear, oh dear.
“Only true disability is in our minds”. Not this again!
During the Winter Paralympics, Amy Purdy was one of the handful of highlighted athletes, and one of I think only two who had ads made around them and played in heavy rotation. She seemed pretty cool to me, and never said anything cliché or superficial about being a double leg amputee snowboarder. The “feel good” aspect of her story as she told it was mainly her love of snowboarding, which caused her to keep asking doctors during her hospital stay, when she could snowboard again. That was a very individual thing about Amy Purdy, and not some non-specific brand of positivity applied to all disabled people.
Which is why I was so disappointed to see this platitude attributed to her. So, I read the article, and I don’t see anywhere in it where Purdy actually says that the only true disability is in our minds. Mostly she says positive but grounded things I can’t argue with, including recognizing the fact that on “Dancing With The Stars”, she will be the novice and will have to learn from her partner. In the Duracell ad embedded in the article, she says, ""When disease took my legs, I eventually realized I didn't need them to lead a full, empowering life.” That’s quite a different thing to say and a lot more meaningful than, “The only true disability is in our minds”.
Did she say it or not? Or, was it something a headline writer had rattling around in his or her brain and just threw out there?
Why do I care?
First of all, it is simply not true. When you are a double leg amputee, it is not true that the only disability is in your mind.
As I have written before, having a defeatist or lazy mindset can certainly be an additional disability, and a positive attitude may be a prerequisite to success, but missing two legs is a disability in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be a terrible thing, but it is a thing, not a state of mind.
As I expect Amy Purdy would agree.
Second, this kind of dime store spirituality is a pet peeve of mine. On the one hand, it’s a meaningless platitude … well-meant and probably harmless. On the other hand, it connects with a very definite ideology that some find therapeutic, but I think does harm in the long run. This is the idea that actual, physical, concrete circumstances can be overcome by the proper mental attitude. No income and no job? Resolve that you deserve your dream job, think positively about it every day, and it will happen. Have a serious physical impairment? If you don’t think like a disabled person, then nothing can stand in your way.
The real harm comes with the converse. Disabled people who aren’t successful have their own attitude to blame. They've given up. They're too angry. They obsess over their condition and what they have lost. They use their disability as a "crutch". However it's phrased, it is the disability version of victim blaming.
Maybe this is a twisted way of reading a nice idea. Maybe it’s never intended to be a back-handed scold. Trust me, though, when you are disabled and faced with multiple intractable barriers, especially external ones, while a successful disabled person says that success is all about attitude? The message comes through loud and clear.
Again, attitude is important. It is a factor, and can either empower you or create additional problems for you. But perhaps more than any other “disadvantage”, disability does insist on itself. You can’t regrow a limb through determination. Spinal cords are not regenerated through daily affirmation. Disability exacts a price. For many of us, the price is manageable. For some, the price changes from day to day, month to month. For others, the price is very high, and it takes positivity, and adaptation, and cooperation, and a more just society to cope.
If Amy Purdy really said “The only true disability is in our minds", I hope at some point we can know the context. Among elite athletes, everyone has roughly equivalent physical gifts … even disabled athletes. In athletics, mental attitude really can make the difference between victory and defeat ... between a medal and anonymity. But that’s why disability sports are tremendously fun and exciting, but of limited teaching value in terms of most of our everyday lives. Snowboarding on two prosthetic legs is pretty amazing, but it requires a very different set of skills and personal qualities than landing a good job when you wheel into your interview. It is tempting to make comparisons, but we should be careful about it.
In the end, whether Purdy said this or not, the sad thing is that she said so many other great, insightful things that would have made much better headlines. It seems like most journalists have an unerring instinct for latching onto the most comforting, optimistic, simplistic things disabled people say. The fact that it often happens to be bullshit doesn’t seem to matter.