Several major news outlets covered the story of Kellie Lim, a 26-year-old who graduated from UCLA Medical School last week. This is newsworthy, apparently, because Ms. Lim is a triple amputee, having had both of her legs, an arm, and several fingertips amputated due to toxic shock secondary to bacterial meningitis.
And this is newsworthy because . . . (??)
Of course, Ms. Lim is to be congratulated on her achievements, especially in a society in which disablism is rampant. But I am having difficulty comprehending precisely why there is anything surprising or unusual about the fact that a triple amputee graduated from medical school. One of the most subtle and pernicious manifestations of disablism, IMO, is the triumphalist meta-narrative that is so pervasive in popular culture and media. Narratives of disabled persons are packaged in ways that highlight the person's overcoming their "limitations" and "dysfunctions."
This trope bothers me for several reasons. First, it instantiates the medical model of disability, in which impairments are perceived as a lack, an abnormality, a dysfunction. Second, though well-intentioned, it is often exceedingly patronizing. Third, it has the unfortunate side-effect of stigmatizing all those who are, for whatever reason, unable to "triumph" over their disability. Fourth, it implies that an impairment is something that ought to be overcome, conquered, vanquished. It sets up a dichotomy between the individual and his/her body, between the "normal" self and the "disabled" self. In so doing, it increases the likelihood that the disabled person will alienate herself from herself. Given the stigma and alienation that all too often characterizes much of the experiences of disabled persons, perpetuating representations that foster the internalization of such stigma in the disabled person herself seems, to say the least, inadvisable.
An impairment need not be seen as something that must be vanquished or overcome. Sontag's famous essay warns of the dangers of the battle metaphor in experiences of illness, and her concerns are applicable, IMO, to the triumph meta-narrative as applied to disability.
The CNN article notes that "Lim's teachers and fellow students said she exudes a calm that makes them and her patients forget her physical circumstances."
Why should Ms. Lim's "physical circumstances" need be forgotten? To be sure, recoil in the face of illness and disability is a human reaction that ought not always be castigated, but nor should it be celebrated, either. The fact that many able-bodied persons would be initially uncomfortable in being treated by a triple amputee is understandable, but suggesting that patients should simply "forget" the physician's embodied self simply perpetuates the socialized features of disability.
BLOGVERSATION: Jacqui over at Terrible Palsy.