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May 30, 2007


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Great explanation of the harm that "inspirational achievement" stories do--especially timely at graduation season, when the platitudes and easy sentiment already run so high.

I have to wonder if part of the public fascination with this particular story is fetishism -- young women amputees report experiencing a lot of creepy attention, and the press around this case is probably feeding into that.

An impairment need not be seen as something that must be vanquished or overcome.

No, that's not the only way to view an impairment. I don't know that anyone truly disagrees with that assertion.

However, I don't think you would deny that physical impairments are called impairments for a reason -- they impair!

When one achieves despite an impairment that impairs, I'm not quite sure why anyone would find fault with others who congratulate them for overcoming an impairment that impairs.

I think you're overreacting (and being overly semantic) in suggesting that celebrating such achievement is effectively denigrating all other impaired people and setting unfair standards for them.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, ya know?

Hey Kevin,

I don't know that anyone truly disagrees with that assertion.

The pervasiveness of the battle metaphor in all manner of thinking about illness and disability undermines your conclusion here. I agree that few would conclude that conceiving of an impairment as something to be vanquished is the "only" way to view it, and yet, it is by far the chief metaphor employed in popular media and culture in describing illness and disability.

Impairments do indeed impair, but the extent of the disability is in large part socialized. I've written more on this here and here.

I gave four reasons why I find the triumphalism of the story -- not the congratulatory ethos, which I expressly echoed -- to be ill-advised. Can you be more specific about the nature of your disagreement?

in suggesting that celebrating such achievement is effectively denigrating all other impaired people and setting unfair standards for them.

I don't think I suggested that the triumphalism denigrates "all other impaired people," nor did I express as one of the reasons I disliked the article that doing so sets unfair standards for disabled persons (though, in fact, some disabled persons, at any given point, may not be triumphing over their impairment).

Finally, we may disagree on the merits of the story, but I respectfully suggest our disagreement is not one of mere semantics.

Hi Daniel,

I understand that people naturally imitate. Do you have any examples of alternatives to the "triumph" narrative that people may be interested in imitating in their writing? Also, do you suppose that there would be an audience for the stories generated by those alternative narratives in venues such as CNN?

Hey Jon,

Naturally, disability studies scholars and/or disability rights advocates tend to be quite sensitive to the triumphalist narrative. I hasten to add that the disability community is hardly monolithic, and I would not for a moment pretend that my perspective here would enjoy widespread agreement. Many, like Kevin, find it relatively benign, and perhaps in the great scheme of things, such a meta-narrative pales in comparison to many of the challenges disabled persons face.

Simi Linton's My Body Politic is quite accessible, and underscores some of the points I have been making here. Kenny Fries's poems are also excellent in describing what I interpret as his coming out as disabled.

I agree that "inspirational" stories do harm to the perception of disabled people and their lives, and I second Penny's concern that much of the interest in Lim might subtly reflect the sexual fetishism of women amputees. But I think the main harm of inspirational stories is that they are never countered with alternative ways of seeing the event or achievement.

Like with telethons that label disabled folks as pitiable: I don't think anyone's arguing that organizations shouldn't raise funds through major publicity pushes, they just shouldn't do it with the message they use.

Similarly, I don't think Lim isn't newsworthy. If she's the first triple amputee to complete the medical program, or if she's at the front of a new trend of disabled people becoming more accepted as doctors, then that's big news. I just want to hear more than how she "overcame obstacles" and is an "inspiration" to us all. Do her patients have difficulty with her because of societal prejudices against the disabled, or does it provide her patients with a sense of greater emotional connectedness? I'd love to see a really sophisticated look at what sorts of workplace accommodations she needs that doesn't make it seem as though she's getting special help while not pulling her share of the work -- a piece of writing that really looked at the teamwork involved in medical care instead of portraying doctors as the gods of medicine. Writing that examined the myths of independence that exist in our culture and in the field of medicine that is supposed to "fix" and "cure" us all.

I didn't really have wheelchair using women as role models when I was a teen. There were folks like Judy Heumann and Connie Panzarino, but the general public certainly doesn't know of them -- I had to delve into disability history and culture (and have the resources to do that delving) to learn about them. It's important, IMO, in criticizing inspirational stories, to not discourage all coverage of achievements by disabled people -- particularly if they are "firsts" and might help to wedge the door open further for others. But the message of the current crop of stories about Lim does need to change.

It's great to see such a conversaton taking place. Much of the coverage of someone like Lim would go unnoticed just a few years ago.

Impairments only impair in the context of the environment in which they exist. For example, in some situations my physical impairment serves as an advantage, not a disability.

For more on this see my new book, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory, recently published by Carroll and Graf.

We forget that Darwin's "survival of the fittest," a phrase he didn't coin or initially use, is not the entirety of how he used or meant it. It is the survival of the fittest in relation to the specific environment in which a species lived.

Fortunately, other people have already said much of what I would say.

There are just two things I want to add. First, I want to tell you how I, an amputee, take inspiration from certain other amputees who get noticed for their accomplishments. See, I'm an ordinary woman with a mind-numbingly ordinary life, and that's just the way I like it. But before I could consent to having my leg cut off instead of just letting myself die of cancer at a particular moment when I had the rare good fortune to be able to choose, I had to do a lot of research. I had to satisfy myself that going ahead would in fact result in a life I wanted. In making this choice, I had no interest in bravery, either to exhibit it to others, absorb it from others, or to find it within myself; I just wanted to know if I could still achieve my trivial goals for my own existence with such a significantly altered body.

I *really* needed to know this. The thing that made me realize that I could, that surviving this drastic surgery would be worth my time and effort, was a picture at a prosthetics site of a below-knee amputee standing on top of a mountain she'd just climbed. She wasn't famous, and her surgery had been less extensive than mine was going to be, but the achievement got published somewhere I could see it, and hiking happens to be one of my very favorite pastimes. Walking in forests was a lot of what I wanted to stay alive to do. If she could still do it, I thought maybe the doctors weren't lying to me, and that I really would be able to still do it later, too.

As I now understand, amputation is not so much a condition which must be overcome as it is a physical situation which needs to be strategized around on an often surprisingly comprehensive basis. As with all other people with impairments, one of the most taxing challenges amputees really do face is simply getting people to see us, not our amputations, and to interact with us, not our amputations. When I see a woman with a lot more amputations than I have getting people to take her seriously as a real, live, potential doctor, even though all I want to be is a real, live me, it gives me hope that I, too, have a prayer of being taken seriously in situations that matter. It increases my own expectation of normalcy, for lack of a better word. It reminds me that I must not assume that when there's something I really want and will have to work really hard to achieve, other people's prejudices will not necessarily be enough to stop me. It lets me know something else that is possible for me, something bigger and more abstract than the specific goal of attending med school.

It's been a long time since I dropped out of UCLA, personally, but I do believe based on the way I have taken all kinds of inspiration from all kinds of other people since then that if I were a 20-year-old college student who had been planning to go to med school but had just lost one or more limbs for whatever reason and now didn't think I could do it, seeing Dr. Lim's success would help me. On the other hand, TABs who look at Dr. Lim and then expect all amputees to achieve at the same level, to be that inspiring, as you said, to *them,* and people who set these stories up as Tearjerking True Tales of Triumph perpetuate our objectification and create more obstacles for us by reinforcing a very bad cultural stereotype -- and by creating still more cheap drama for the masses to gorge themselves upon where no drama should exist. Then people who have no reason to know better become conditioned to expect drama of this kind every time they see one of us. But you get that.

So the other thing I wanted to say was simply that I read an article about women doctors about twelve years ago in which one woman said that she was refused entry into UCLA medical school sometime around 1970 because she was a woman. She was told, as many, many other women had been told before her, that even though she had the grades and scores, she was felt to be a bad investment of educational resources when her slot could be filled by a man who wouldn't just go off and get married and have babies and not ever really practice.

In 1970, I was seven years old, so this is terrifyingly recent for me and every woman of my generation.

Therefore, rightly or wrongly, I continue to experience the event of any woman at all completing medical school as a breathtaking achievement, even though it never should have been all that breathtaking in the first place. I generally keep it to myself, though, except when I congratulate young women I know personally upon being accepted to medical schools themselves.

If inwardly feeling thrilled every time I encounter yet another woman who's earned a medical degree is sexist and overly dramatic of me, so be it. And you'll just have to forgive me that I'm thrilled to hear about Dr. Lim's achievement, too. If I were her parents, I imagine I'd be exploding with pride just about now.

Thanks one and all for such interesting and insightful comments.

I completely agree with Kay's perspective, and she articulates the point much better than I did: it's not that more stories about disabled persons -- in a positive light, no less -- are undesirable, but more that the way these narratives are often packaged needs revision.

I think Sara is making a similar point, and her reminder that the importance of role models ought not be discounted is instructive as well.

In any case, I recognize reasonable minds can differ on this one, but I admit this particular trope has always irritated me.

Je suis entièrement d'accord avec Kay's perspective, et elle exprime le point beaucoup mieux que moi: ce n'est pas plus que des histoires sur les personnes handicapées -- sous un jour positif, rien de moins -- sont indésirables, mais plus que la façon dont ces récits sont souvent conditionnés Besoins de révision.

I have a below the elbow amputation of my left arm and this med students story is inspiring! I am currently applying to a Physician Assistant program and I have woories that they will not accept me to the program because of my loss of limb. I am glad that this story has made it to the mainstream media, so maybe I will have a better chance of obtaining my goals. All of you are looking too deep into something that could inspire an indivdual, who does not think they have what it takes, to chase their dreams. It also might open the eyes of an acceptance board, that just because I have to do things a little different does not mean that I cannot do the job!

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