Disabled “Enough”

Content Note: Description of Rape, Rape Culture, Disability Invisibling

An opinion piece by a disabled person.
~ Ana Mardoll

One of the favorite arguments of rape apologists is that there really isn’t that much rape in our culture.

They justify this statement by pointing at studies that show that some women who have experienced rape will describe the experience without using the word “rape” (in much the same way that some men who have committed rape will describe the experience without using the word “rape”). The rape apologist therefore argues that if women don’t call their experiences “rape”, then it can’t have been rape, and therefore the real problem is with iffy categorization by the powers that be, like when the CDC redefined obesity so that they could say that 35.4 million Americans were suddenly heavier than they’d been the day before.

The flaw in this argument should be obvious to anyone reading along, but I’ll go ahead and spell it out. Certain behaviors are rape, but not everyone is socialized to call those behaviors “rape”. And I know this not just from logic and reasoning, but also from experience: I was one of those women who needed time, distance, and education before I could call a rape that occurred to me “rape”.

I was raised with an incomplete understanding of what rape is. Rape was something that happened between strangers, when a man leaped out of the bushes at night and assaulted a random woman. Or rape was something that serial killers did — the ones who appeared in legal dramas and thriller movies, and who were obviously and irredeemably evil. Or rape was something that happened between adult men and small children, and was the “bad touch” that the adults at school and church sometimes warned us about, usually via the use of hand-puppets.

So when I was raped by a man who was the same age as me, who was not a stranger, and who was not obviously evil, I didn’t really understand that what had happened to me was rape. I knew that he had held me down and I had said no and he had ignored me and done what he did, but I didn’t know that the word “rape” applied to that scenario. I wasn’t stupid or uneducated or incurious, nor was I incapable of looking up the word in the dictionary. My hurdle in calling what was rape “rape” stemmed from the fact that I had years of social conditioning that told me rape was something completely different from what I’d experienced.

Part of rape culture — I would argue a big part — is invisibling rape. Rape culture relies on pretending that rape is a rare and special kind of evil. Rape culture depends on obscuring the fact that something like 1 in 4 women are victims of rape or attempted rape, and that something like 1 in 20 men are rapists or attempted rapists. Rape culture requires the pretense that rape doesn’t happen, that it doesn’t result in pregnancies, that women who are rape victims are lying about their experiences.

And rape culture demands that its supporters constantly police rape victims and insist that they not use that term because they weren’t “raped enough”, that what happened to them wasn’t actually rape. And, indeed, I have known many rape victims — myself included — who have struggled with that concept along the way, the concern that by vocally saying “I am a rape victim”, we might be taking on a mantle that we haven’t somehow “earned”, because doesn’t someone else out there have it worse?

That is bullshit, but it is a very common kind of bullshit that our culture pushes onto us. And it is a bullshit that our culture pushes for more topics than rape. And that is what I want to talk about today.

It took me two years to call my rape a “rape”, even though that is what it was. This despite the fact that I knew I’d said no, I knew I’d struggled to get away, and I knew that I’d cried through the whole thing. I knew these things, but still I’d internalized that rape was something that happened to other people, and something much worse than what had happened to me.

But it took me the better part of twenty years to call my disability a “disability”, even though that is what it is. This despite the fact that I’d had major surgery, handicap parking, and hundreds of designed-for-disability tools and devices just in order to live my daily life. I spent fifteen-plus years in constant day-to-day pain without realizing that the word “disability” applied to my condition, not because I was stupid or uneducated or incurious but because I’d internalized that disabilities were things that other people had, and were much worse than what I had to deal with. As long as I wasn’t in a wheelchair, I couldn’t call myself disabled… right?

I don’t think I’ve heard the term “able culture”, but I do think there needs to be a word for the way able-bodied is normalized so heavily in our society. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with a disabled character — maybe Avatar, where the plot is resolved by the protagonist leaving his disabled body and climbing permanently into a new able one. Nor can I remember the last time I read a book with a disabled character whose disability is handled with respect and awareness, rather than just a cutesy character quirk dialed up to eleven.

We live in a society where we generally don’t talk about disabilities, and where people with disabilities are frequently discouraged from talking about their experiences in public. We also live in a society that conflates “disability” with “obvious physical disability”, and tends to shove over mental disabilities and invisible disabilities into a bucket of Does Not Exist. (And this doesn’t even get into the slippery issue of how precisely a “mental” disability isn’t also “physical” for at least some definition of that term.)

Depression is rarely taken seriously as a disability, and disabilities like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are still adamantly denied by some members of the medical community. Things that have their own names — like “infertility” and “food intolerances” — are just as likely to be shoved into the “not-a-disability” category, as well, because after all, it’s not a disability to struggle to find food you can safely digest, or if you have a condition preventing pregnancy, right? You can still walk, right? So stop belly-aching.

Feminism has made great strides in helping people to understand what rape culture is, how to identify rape, and how absolutely damaging it is to police the language of rape victims. The average safe-space on the internet understands that if someone stands up and says they are a rape victim, it is not an appropriate response for the other commenters to immediately demand details and proof to “make sure” that the rape victim really is a legitimate rape victim and isn’t someone appropriating the language of rape culture.

But we’ve not yet reached that place with disability acceptance. I can’t count how many times this year I’ve seen someone self-identify as a person with a disability either explicitly or implicitly by using disability language, only to have someone immediately pop up and demand that the disability in question be revealed and justified to everyone’s satisfaction before the commenter be allowed to continue because otherwise they will be assumed to be an able-bodied appropriative dissembler.


I cannot — I really genuinely cannot — express how deeply saddened I am whenever this happens. Because, yes, appropriation does happen online. (I’m Captain Obvious, I know.) But you know what is way-way-way worse than the occasional appropriation that is going to happen anyway? I will tell you: it is worse to actively contribute to a culture that says it is Good and Honorable and Appropriate to constantly police disabled people in order to make sure that they are disabled “enough” to use a term that they’ve already been culturally conditioned to not apply to themselves.

Because that is what people are doing, every time they post yet another comment about how I Do Not Recall You Mentioning That You Have A Disability That Allows You To Use The Word ‘Spoon‘: they are creating and reinforcing a culture where disabled people can’t just exist as people who also have a disability. Instead, we have to wear our disabilities on our sleeves, constantly trotting them out for examination. Infertility and food intolerance? Hmm, well, I’m not sure those are really disabilities. Depression? That one only comes and goes on occasion, right? Scoliosis? That depends: did you get the surgery or not? Daily pain? Well, I guess that’s alright. OK, welcome to the club; here’s your Disability Card that gets you a 20% discount at the store downstairs.

We don’t do that to people who claim different marginalizations, and rightfully so. When someone politely contributes to a discussion about rape or gender or race, we don’t demand that they haul out pictures and genealogies and court transcripts to prove that their contributions are valid. We don’t do that partly because it’s ultimately self-defeating (no one can ever really verify that online people are telling the truth about themselves), but we also don’t do that because it’s wrong. Forcing marginalized people to continually justify and re-justify their marginalization to the satisfaction of the community does not make it a safe-space for them. It doesn’t make it a safe-space for anyone.

Appropriation and thoughtlessness and unchecked privilege will always be with us. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about them. By all means, people should absolutely write blog posts about what it means to be disabled, and about what it means to feel marginalized when known able-bodied people in their life-space conflate actual disability with non-disability. (Here are some example topics: the mother who conflates infertility with childless-by-choice. The co-worker who compares depression with “being a little sad”. The husband who thinks that staying home from work because of a disability is just like a vacation day. Sharpen your pencils; you have one hour. Go!)

But what we should not be doing is contributing to a toxic culture that invisibles people with actual disabilities because they don’t meet a social standard of disabled “enough” just because they retain some measure of mobility. That’s an unreasonable and unfair standard, and it comes from the same place as the insistence that anything that isn’t stranger-leaping-from-the-bushes is therefore not a legitimate rape. It comes from a place that thrives on, and indeed requires, the suppression of the actually marginalized in order to support a culture that disproportionately favors the privileged.

And we can start dismantling that toxic culture by accepting online community members at their word when they say they are disabled. And we can also remember that disabled means so much more than the narrow meanings that society has encouraged us to internalize.

Speaking as a disabled person, I’d appreciate it. Because I am seriously running out of spoons.


19 thoughts on “Disabled “Enough”

  1. Firedrake November 19, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Television does a very fractionally better job of showing disabled people – but that mostly means Robert David Hall on CSI. I think the producers are aiming for LGBT actors first, if only because they can treat them like any other actor rather than having to think about any accommodations they might need to make.

    There have been times and places where one was, in theory, required to prove homosexuality (getting out of various military drafts, for example). I assume the ideas behind proving disability are specifically because disabled people get various things that aren’t available to others (e.g. priority parking), which intrinsically means that some people will try to get those things without actually needing them (because humans are fundamentally broken), which means that the application process will be framed in terms of proof.

    Personally I think the spoons idea should be applied to everybody. Expecting “healthy” people to be able to do everything they want to do… leads to punishing work hours, and people who are all surprised when they can’t keep up. It’s not “you are on a spoon ration, and I am not”; it’s “your spoon ration is smaller than mine”.

  2. christhecynic November 19, 2012 at 8:51 am

    Ana already knows this, but to everyone else:

    “something that happened to other people, and something much worse than what had happened to me.” Is why it took me years before I was able to say that my father was emotionally abusive. Ditto for “we might be taking on a mantle that we haven’t somehow “earned”, because doesn’t someone else out there have it worse?”

    Plus, I’ve got chronic mental health problems, (depression that lasted the better part of my life, other things that the depression was masking but now are almost as debilitating since the depression seems to have been gotten under control) which I was, for the longest time, never willing to call disabling because it wasn’t like I was missing an arm or something. Clearly other people had it worse, I was just lazy/a failure.

  3. froborr November 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    Excellent post, left me much to think about.

    I had a long e-mail conversation with a friend of mine recently, that touched on this very issue. (Specifically, it was thoughts he’d been mulling over for several months regarding a rather heated debate in the MLP fandom about whether the depiction of a certain character was ableist.) His concern was that if there’s no universal definition of “oppressed,” anybody can label themselves oppressed, including some people who are obviously immensely privileged—more or less the same as the issue regarding people self-labeling as disabled.

    My response is basically, “Yeah, so?”

    I don’t consider myself disabled “enough.” I’ve got some physical and mental health issues that hold me back at times, but for now at least they are under control, and I am able to function, if not optimally than at least well enough to get by very nearly all the time.

    But that’s me. If someone else with exactly the same issues identifies it as being disabled, well, I don’t get to question other people’s experiences.

  4. Firedrake November 19, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    I think the problem with allowing anyone to label hirself as disabled is one of limited resources. To use a very simple example, there are only so many parking spaces that are close to the shop door; if everyone who feels a bit lazy is allowed to say “I am disabled” and use them, then the people who need them are no better off than if there were no reserved spaces at all. In order to make such a system work, I think that there has to be some way of saying to some people “no, you may not have this privilege”.

    I don’t have an answer for this; I’m just trying to lay out why the question may be a bit more complex than it appears.

  5. anamardoll November 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm

    Well, absolutely. That’s one of the reasons why Oppression Olympics don’t work. Who is “more” oppressed: black men, white women, or geeks who happen also to be disabled? There’s not really a right answer there, at least in part because context matters, but even in a hypothetically equally oppressed context, it would still be valueless to argue.

    The important thing is to remember that we all have privilege.

    And, indeed, privilege and marginalization can *intersect*. I have “able-appearing” privilege in that I look non-disabled, so I can pass as able-bodied in some situations. Privilege! But I also have invisible-disability marginalization, which means that I have to continually re-justify that I’m disabled even if I don’t really look it. Marginalization! Both a privilege and a marginalization stem from the exact same thing in that case.

  6. froborr November 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    @Firedrake: Yes, but that’s why we have legal definitions for “disabled enough to get a disabled parking sticker” and the like. There’s no limited resource in play if someone says they’re disabled in an Internet comment thread.

    @Ana: Absolutely. I attempted to explain this to him, and his reaction was basically “But if you can’t quantify it, you can’t do science on it, and therefore you can never know whether or not anyone is actually oppressed or privileged!” I still don’t really know how to respond to that.

  7. anamardoll November 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    @Firedrake, because there is a difference between legal use of the term and conversational use of the term.

    There is a rather irritating quirk in modern conversation that we somehow must use legal definitions of words at all times lest anarchy, or something. If Jane says she is disabled, Bob should take her word for it. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, on the other hand, is allowed to ask for some form of documentation *because* there is a lack of parking spaces.

    But Bob doesn’t — or shouldn’t — have a lack of decency available on hand such that he has to demand documentation in triplicate before he’ll stop policing Jane’s self-assessment of her own disability.

  8. anamardoll November 19, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    @froborr, jinx! You owe me a coke. 😉

  9. christhecynic November 19, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    It’s somewhat odd how the idea of triage seems to come up when resources aren’t limited.

    If resources aren’t limited, even triage says you help everyone.

  10. froborr November 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    It’s the zero-sum fallacy. Some people just seem to instinctively assume that anything and everything is zero-sum, and anything that does good for anyone must come at equivalent cost to someone else.

  11. Steve Morrison November 19, 2012 at 7:59 pm
  12. anamardoll November 19, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    @Steve, please take OT links to the “This Week In The Slacktiverse” thread.

  13. anamardoll November 19, 2012 at 8:25 pm


    I attempted to explain this to him, and his reaction was basically “But if you can’t quantify it, you can’t do science on it, and therefore you can never know whether or not anyone is actually oppressed or privileged!” I still don’t really know how to respond to that.

    My feeling is that there’s really no way to respond to this. Either you’re dealing with someone who genuinely feels that *everything* must be quantifiable — including how many points Shakespeare has over Cervantes and Atwood — or you’re dealing with someone who is treating marginalization as some kind of special case requiring an extra burden of proof.

    If the former, you’re not likely to change their worldview; if the latter, you’re probably dealing with Compassion Fail, which usually can’t be changed via logical arguments.

  14. Firedrake November 20, 2012 at 3:06 am

    I am inclined to agree with Ana to some extent – if someone starts from the parking-spaces limited-resource view, ke’s likely to bring that view into other places unless presented with a compelling reason to change it, and the threshold for “compelling” may be quite high. (I wasn’t advocating for this, just trying to work out how it could happen; I find it much easier to engage with people if I can get inside their heads.)

  15. Anonymus November 20, 2012 at 7:10 am

    For a long time, I’ve been thinking that I’d like to have one of the canes blind people use. It’s actually illegal* for a sighted person to use a white cane (you need to be blind or legally blind to use one) or a white cane with red stripes (those are for the deafblind), but it’s not illegal for a sighted person to use a black one or a brown one or one of any other colour, so there are no barriers to me getting one. I wouldn’t need it all the time, but my eyes don’t work well when I have a migraine, and it makes it hard to navigate traffic as a pedestrian if I get one while I’m outside, or to not walk into walls, or any of the other things that having one of those canes would help with.

    But I still haven’t bought one because I’d be worried about running into someone I know and them thinking I’m an imposter, especially people I don’t know well, but for example shopkeepers that I see regularly or things like that. I worry that an actual blind person might — I dunno, see me, or something — and think that it’s appropriation. I worry that I’m not blind enough to need a cane since when I don’t have a headache I can see just fine. I worry that people I barely know would come up to me and ask me questions about my use of a cane when I have a headache and don’t have the spoons for trying to decipher human speech.

    For now, what I do is I have a mental map of the areas I walk in frequently, and I sometimes trail a hand along a wall, or I’ll walk with one foot on the sidewalk and the other half on the sidewalk, half on the grass to help keep myself on the sidewalk. I count steps and know how many steps apart different parts of my routes are. Or if I have to cross a street, I’ll wait till another pedestrian shows up and cross when they do, because the pedestrian is close enough that I have a chance of seeing them, but the “walk” sign is too far away. I run my fingers along the teeth of the keys on my keychain to tell them apart. I get by. But a cane would make some of those things easier. It would give me more mobility.

    But I still feel like I’m not disabled enough, because I wouldn’t need one all the time, and I worry about appropriation, and I worry about what other people would think. I worry about being pitied. When I sprained my ankle there was no shortage of strangers coming up to me telling me how sad it was that I was on crutches at so young an age. (I was in my twenties). I felt like a fraud then too, even though I couldn’t put any weight on my foot. The sprained ankle wasn’t a real disability: it would (and did) go away when it healed. There was a voice in my head whispering that I was just using crutches for attention. And it’d be the same with a cane, I think. Which is a pity, because a cane would make it easier to leave the house on the days I need it, and easier to get home, if I got a headache while I was out in public.

    *This is because a white cane alerts motorists that the person with it is blind, and if they make a wrong decision, like stepping out into a crosswalk when the do not walk sign is blinking, the blind person still has the right of way. If everyone had a white cane then drivers wouldn’t have an easy way to spot a blind person and know they have to be extra careful. There may be other reasons for the law too, but that’s the most salient one I think.

  16. froborr November 20, 2012 at 8:41 am

    Still processing the rest of your comment, Anonymus, but… huh? My first assumption on seeing someone on crutches was that they had a broken leg or other temporary condition… maybe it’s just a quirk of where I live or privilege in action but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen somebody with a long-term disability on crutches, as opposed to a wheelchair.

  17. anamardoll November 20, 2012 at 8:46 am

    I have a cane.

    Anonymus, I don’t use my cane very often because I have similar concerns re: pity. Or more accurately, my concerns are about privacy: if I don’t use the cane every day then people will notice as it comes and goes and will make assumptions about my “good” and “bad” days. This has, in the past, been something of a sore spot for me for a multitude of reasons.

    No one can give you permission but yourself, but for whatever it’s worth, I don’t think it is appropriative for someone to use a cane. Actually, in my experience, they’re not helpful and very unweildly for people who don’t need them (which is why I don’t use them on my “good” days), so if I see someone bothering with one, I pretty much assume they must need it for some reason. (‘Course, I’d assume that anyway, but I lost my thread in there somewhere.)

  18. Anonymus November 20, 2012 at 9:40 am

    @Froborr: I had forearm crutches for my sprained ankle, not under the shoulder ones. That may have been why people made assumptions. They were really comfortable to use and were much less of a hassle than I was expecting. I tried using a regular cane with the sprained ankle, and that was impossible. The cane wobbled all over the place. If I ever need a cane to support my weight while walking, I’m going with forearm crutches instead.

    An aging-but-not-yet-elderly relative of mine used a walker for a time after a surgery. They were eager to give it up as soon as they could because they thought it made them look old. But pushing themselves too hard to give it up too soon made their recovery slower and more painful in the long run. It was sad to watch.

    I think what is closest to what I want is a hiking staff. That’s the shape and height of what I want. A light weight hiking staff could be used the way a blind person uses a white cane. I’d use it not so much to support my weight but to alert me to objects in my path. But I’d have to fight against a lot of internalised ableism. And I’m so shy that I don’t like to draw attention to myself in public, and using a cane would do that.

  19. storiteller November 20, 2012 at 9:39 pm

    Content note: Spoilers – Hunger Games

    In terms of disabled people in movies, the one that first came to mind is actually Katniss in Hunger Games. While she’s not physically disabled, it’s very clear that she’s suffering from severe PTSD at the end. As the books go on, her mental disability only gets worse, to the point where it’s unclear at times what is reality or not. I do think PTSD is something that is vastly under-acknowledged in society. While everyone can see if a veteran is physically disabled, PTSD is often invisible, like so many mental disabilities. The other example in Hunger Games is of course, Peeta, who is physically disabled at the end of the book. That didn’t make it into the first movie, so it will be interesting to see if they address in the next one or ignore it.

    In terms of mental disabilities, I’ve seen this in my own life in terms of learning disabilities. My husband has both ADD and a writing disability, but very high intelligence, very good other verbal skills, and a strong understanding of spatial issues. In school, he was in both the gifted and talented class and resource until they said he couldn’t be in both. They claimed that either he shouldn’t be in the honors classes or he was smart but lazy. People really don’t understand (or refuse to understand) how complicated and contradictory the human mind can be.

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