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On the Business of “Overcoming” Disability

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Okay, friends

We’ve been talking a lot around on the whole ‘overcoming’ thing. Overcoming disability! Overcoming having no legs! Overcoming having one arm and only one arm! Overcoming deafness!

Overcoming this, overcoming that. But always overcoming things related to disability – that is, overcoming something that is different from how the mainstream will think, walk, talk, feel, see, hear and so forth.

And it kind of drives me crazy!

Let’s see, a typical little ditty on the overcoming theme goes like this,

  • John overcame his leglessness and CLIMBED MOUNT EVEREST!
  • or… Mary tries hard to overcome her Down syndrome and is such a joy to be around; she inspires everyone!
  • or.. Overcoming his birth defect of having only HALF AN ARM, Charlie became a prize fighter!
  • and… Ben overcame his blindness and became a PROGRAMMER!


I challenge you here:

Take the disability components out and replace them with race. With being black. Right now. Like this:

  • John overcame being black and CLIMBED MOUNT EVEREST!
  • Mary tries hard to overcome being black and is such a joy to be around; she inspires everyone!
  • Overcoming his birth defect of having DARK SKIN, Charlie became a prize fighter!
  • Ben overcome his being black and became a PROGRAMMER!


Do you see how completely ridiculous this is? At all?

Okay, well let’s try replacing it with being a woman. Like this:

  • John overcome being a woman and CLIMBED MOUNT EVEREST!
  • Mary tries hard to overcome being a woman and is such a joy to be around; she inspires everyone!
  • Overcoming her birth defect of being A WOMAN, Charlie became a prize fighter!
  • Ben overcame her being a woman and became a PROGRAMMER!

It *IS* ridiculous, isn’t it?

And I think some of you are going to come right back at me with stuff like, “but being black isn’t at all the same as having a disability” – but you know what? It’s not the same but it IS comparable. Because in this here United States of America in the now of 2013, they remain among most discriminated against groups. It IS harder to reach success in the US if you are black and that is a truth. The absolute same can be said for being a woman. It IS harder to reach success in the US if you are a woman and that is a truth.

It IS harder to reach success in the US if you have a disability and that is also a truth.


So then some of you are going to say, ‘oh but climbing Mount Everest! That’s something to be celebrated!’ – and I say, HELL YES! Baby, that’s something to disco dance to, AB-SO-LUTE-LY!

But you don’t overcome disability to do it.

You are using what you have to do it.

You are taking what you have and you are reaching for your vision. You are grabbing life by the balls with whatever grasp-able tools you have – be it your hand, your feet, your stylus, your eye laser – you are grabbing life! You are doing what you want, you are making your mark on the field of dreams.

And that deserves to be celebrated – as all effort in that direction does.


But you are not overcoming disability – you are using your tools.

What you are overcoming – if anything – is something or someone telling you that you can’t do it. You are overcoming societal resistance, overcoming prejudice and discrimination.

When I became a Japanese translator for a brief moment in time, it wasn’t about me overcoming my deafness to be a translator. I’m sure it was more difficult for me to be a translator than it would be for someone else who isn’t deaf and has to rely so much on lipreading – but – and you have to remember this, okay – I don’t know what it’s like to have perfect hearing. I don’t know what it’s like to hear everything and not rely on lipreading. I am simply always using what I have. I can lipread like there is no tomorrow – I am fierce! – and I use it and I can do it. The people who hired me as a translator? They DID NOT KNOW I AM DEAF. I doubt they would have hired me if they had known! It’s kind of laughable: “deaf woman orally translates Japanese to English and English to Japanese”

– and would I be “overcoming” my deafness?

NO! I was using my tools. 

Let’s make this be about accomplishment, about vision, determination. About persistence, drive, about having a little moxie. About not listening to the naysayers or people who want to stick you in some little box and close the lid on you (- and that doesn’t help them either so I never understood why people want to do that). Let’s make this about the world around us, about effective tools, about vision and dreams.




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Thursday 24th of October 2013

I loved this post. I'm not sure where to put all my thoughts because you have given me a new paradigm of thinking. I would like to ask (not in a confrontational manner, but in a seeking clarity and understanding) what conversation does the term "overcoming" belong? I always thought it was a fair word when someone was working towards something with "less tools" than the most amount of tools available to someone else. If you are working with fewer tools that would mean another person doing the same thing with "more" tools had an advantage. If you achieved a goal that would have been more easily attained if you had the maximal amount of tools available then it seemed fair to say that you "overcame" the obstacles you faced BECAUSE you didn't have the advantage of all the tools that made the effort easier. I'm sure there are flaws in that statement so I'm asking you to pick it apart and show me so I can fully wrap around what you put out there in your post. Maybe the word "easier" is wrong...easier to who? "Easier" is used as a frame of reference for how someone who has no special needs or disability would see it. Doesn't a frame of reference help us all put things in perspective? An native might build a house of branches/sticks/mud-no big deal. In the states we use hammers/saws/nails/milled wood, etc-we are overly impressed with a home built without the tools we take for granted. That's a response based on our own life experiences, our perspectives. Should we be faulted for that? When I hear someone climbed Mt. Everest and they did it with the use of one leg I'm in awe, because my frame of reference would be how difficult it would be for me to do it even with two working could I (Me) imagine doing it with only one of my legs? I'm impressed and inspired. The person who did may feel nothing special about the accomplishment because they simply used the tools they had and did it-just like a person with two legs simply used their tools and did it, someone with "more" tools than the achiever with "less" tools that is damn amazing so they use the word "overcome" because that's their perspective. There are too many different perspectives in this world to be able to categorize them all with the same terms/languages. What is "scary" to someone is "exciting" to someone else. So what you find offensive about "overcome" is "impressive" to someone else. Hard call-but I want to more fully understand your perspective so I'm asking these questions. Sometimes the frame of reference comes from one end of the spectrum and sometimes it comes from the other end of the spectrum, but both have their place in helping us orient ourselves to our world?


Sunday 27th of October 2013

I've been thinking about this!

I think it's the use of "disability" coupled with the "overcoming". It makes disability a negative thing. If "overcoming" was just used with "tools" then it's fine. But there is so much stigma surrounding the word "disability" that using something like "overcoming" just hammers in on the negativity.

Does that make sense?


Thursday 24th of October 2013

those are beautiful questions and I thank you for asking them. I need to think about them for a while - just wanted to let you know that I saw this and appreciate it


Thursday 24th of October 2013

Yes! I love this post...reminds me of that old saying, "when life gives you lemons" well you know the rest. Well said.


Wednesday 23rd of October 2013

Phenomenal post! I'm in the traumatic brain injury community. Most of my peers prefer the inspiration porn, overcome disability line, but I don't. I find I spend much more time personally and in my work with people with other disabilities who have this more nuanced approach you wrote about here. Because as amazing as it is to be near death and then regain your life, I still don't see that as overcoming. The idea of overcoming is very damaging to our advocacy because some of us love ourselves, impairments and disabilities and all and don't see anything that should be overcome or a reason to do that. You can still heal, go to rehab, recovery and what not. But that's not overcoming. It's rolling with it.


Wednesday 23rd of October 2013

I really love this!


Wednesday 23rd of October 2013

Loved this! It is about persistence. It has nothing to do with "overcoming", it's all about using the tools you've got to accomplish stuff that's important to you. I think those stories of people with disabilities doing interesting and great things are written from the perspective of someone who doesn't have a disability. And because of that, they think the person overcame the disability to do X/Y/Z. If they would look at it the way you wrote about it, they'd realize that you don't overcome a roll with it. You take those cards and you re-deal them if you want to do something, go somewhere, or make something. That's it.

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