So many disability resources and testimonials talk about regaining dignity. With the help of a new product, service, or skill, a disabled person can reclaim their independence and sense of self. I do not dispute this at all.
But if this “reclaiming reclaiming dignity” message is the go-to strategy in disability services, perhaps we can see it for what it is: a lens onto a culture that devalues disability. So perhaps we shouldn’t be trying to buy, learn, or sell dignity. Perhaps we should reevaluate the identities we’re willing to give disabled people. If we are determined to see a loss of dignity with the onset of disability, then we will need a recovery. But what if there was no loss of dignity? What if we accepted that our bodies and minds could be frail, unpredictable, or messy? And what if we said, “Hey, that’s MY frailty, MY mess, and it’s a sign of being alive.”
I don’t think life is about perfecting our bodies so that our genes never garble or trip. I don’t think it’s about building bodies that never make mistakes, that perform every task with mechanical accuracy. I think it’s about building a society that respects and endorses difference, a society that doesn’t seek to push disability to the margins.
Because what I see most often is that disabled people themselves think they have dignity that needs reclaiming. They face a physical or mental impairment, but they internalize a loss of self. They feel they have something to prove—as if they must earn our respect and their own self-respect all over again.