telling your story

On bearing witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructiveness of ableism

One of the most powerful things that we can do is to bear witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructive consequences of ableism. When we bear witness to our humanity and to the things that others do to us, it changes the conversation. Our stories are powerful.

Some people have the privilege of being largely untouched by ableism. (Or being untouched by a particular kind of ableism.) Most people who are privileged in this way are also unaware of how deeply marginalized disabled people are being harmed. (I’m using disability as the primary example here, but this actually applies to ever kind of marginalization.)

We are dehumanized, and a lot of people don’t notice that it’s happening. They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them. When people learn how to notice, they often start caring.

Bearing witness to our humanity means making it impossible to discuss disability in the abstract. It means making people have to notice that when they talk about disability, they’re talking about *actual human beings*. We do things. Some of us have jobs. Some of us are artists. Some of us write. Some of us are married. Some of us are fans of TV shows. Some of us are experts in our fields. Some of us cook. All of us matter. Making people notice us as real human beings changes the conversation about disability.

Speaking out about the consequences of ableism also changes the conversation. When institution survivors bear witness to what happens in institutions, it becomes much more difficult for people to believe that institutionalization is good for disabled people. When people speak out about what authoritarian childhood therapy did to them, it’s harder to pretend that compliance training is harmless. When people speak out about electric shock, it is much harder to pretend that people who are tortured with electric shocks think that it makes their lives better.

When disabled people talk about what it is like to learn the name of their disability by eavesdropping and googling, some parents listen. Likewise, when disabled people talk about what it’s like to grow up without accurate language for ourselves, some parents come to understand the importance of talking to children about their disabilities.

Bearing witness also matters to other disabled people. We often learn to overlook our own humanity. We often learn to disregard the things that others have done to us. When other disabled people are unapologetically human, it’s easier to see ourselves as human. When other disabled people talk about the harm ableism does, it’s easier to remember that these things shouldn’t happen to us.

This doesn’t always work. When people with disabilities bear witness to our humanity and to what happens to us, we often get hostile responses. Even when some people are listening, there are usually also angry people who are not. Even when people are eventually willing to listen, they are often initially angry and mean. Those of us who talk about these things pay a price for doing so. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether this is a price they’re willing to pay in a given situation.

Your stories belong to you. Stories can be a powerful force for liberation, but you are not a liberation object. You are a person. You have the right to decide whether or not to tell your stories. If you choose to tell stories, you have the right to decide which stories to tell, how you want to tell them, and who you want to tell them to. (Including, whether or not you want to answer questions that people ask you.) You can also change your mind. Doing some advocacy work doesn’t make you an advocacy object, and it doesn’t strip you of the right to say no. No matter how politically or socially useful your stories are, they belong to you.

snouted replied to your post “Telling your story without being a self-narrating zoo exhibit”

I’ve tried saying ‘Well, what are you curious about’ to kind of buy myself time and figure out where they’re coming from. I’ve also said stuff like 'I’m not comfortable answering that, is there anything else you’d like to know?’.

realsocialskills said:

That can work. I think it is generally more effective though, if you say “I’m not comfortable answering that” and then say something you *do* want to answer.

Eg:

  • Them: How do you go to the bathroom?
  • You: That’s awfully personal. I’m in school now studying accessible architecture. 

or just not acknowledging the question at all:

  • Them: What most upset you about the way your disability caused you to be alienated from your peers?
  • You: As a child, I liked flowers and cats.

Telling your story without being a self-narrating zoo exhibit

When you are an unusual person, especially if you are disabled, people will often tell you that they “want to hear your story”.
   
Often, it’s not really your story that they want to hear. Often they have a story in mind that they want, and they want it to come out of your mouth in order to validate their theories about people like you.
  
Often, what they really want is for you to be a self-narrating zoo exhibit, and satisfy their curiosity without inserting your opinions or having boundaries.
  
Maybe they want to hear from institution residents who don’t want to leave, so they can decide that institutions really are the best place for people with disabilities. Maybe they want to hear a story that allows them to feel pity for you and bask in their lack of disability. Or any number of other things.
   
These are ways people use their versions of our stories to take away our power; we can use our real stories to get our power back.
 
Telling your story doesn’t have to mean telling creepy people what they want to hear. It can mean telling the truth, even when others want to lie.
  
Telling your story can mean bearing witness. It can mean saying “No, it doesn’t work that way. I was there. I saw.” It can mean saying “I’ve seen people do these things that you say we can never do.” Or “I’ve been there. It was wrong. And it’s also wrong when people do it to you.”
  
It can mean saying: “I remember watching someone die because others decided to withhold medical treatment, food, and water. I wish I’d been able to save him.”
 
Or: “Don’t think that my life is pitiable or inspiring. I do meaningful things. We all do. And do you know how amazing it is when the light hits a rock just the right way?”
  
We don’t have to tell the stories they want us to tell. We can tell the truth. And there is power in the truth, and there is power in the truth backed up by stories about things you have witnessed or been part of personally.
 
It takes practice to learn to tell the truth in the face of pressure to be an inspiring self-narrating zoo exhibit. It can be terrifying. It can also be very, very hard to resist prompts to say the things other people clearly want you to say.
  
It takes practice, and in practicing you will probably not entirely succeed right away. Even with practice, you might still inadvertently tell the story others want you to tell rather than the story you believe some of the time. That’s ok. None of us are perfect, and it gets easier over time.
tl;dr Sometimes when people say “tell us your story”, what they really mean is “tell us what we want to hear.” But telling your real story can be a powerful way to tell the truth.