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viewpoint

The narrative of overcoming

| Wednesday, March 2, 2016

In 2010, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg gave a TED talk that addressed why so few women reach the top of their fields. She suggested that not many women can be found in the upper echelons of the business world because women do not “lean in” — in other words, women are largely responsible for their lack of professional success. This misguided version of feminism emphasizes that being a woman may be a challenge, but it is one that women can overcome if they just put in a bit more effort.

Popular discourse on disability presents us with a similar theme: overcoming a disability. It is quite common to hear of someone who is disabled, either physically or mentally, being able to overcome their disability and rise above the difficulty that their difference causes in their daily life. The Huffington Post even has a web page devoted to such stories.

“You are a credit to your race” is a phrase that implies that people of color also have a problem to solve — that of not being white. This statement suggests that a person of color has managed to overcome the obstacle of not having a porcelain complexion.

These stories coalesce into a greater narrative of overcoming, which is more harmful to our discussion of these topics than it would initially seem. While at first, certain accounts may appear to be inspiring, we must look beyond them and consider their underlying implications. We must question if it is appropriate to consider being disabled, a woman or a person of color as challenges that people should constantly be striving to overcome.

First, it is important to consider whether such a categorization is actually a problem. When we classify part of someone’s lived experience as a challenge, we unnecessarily impose a negative connotation upon it. Their difference is suddenly something that must be cured, fixed or adapted to become more similar to the accepted norm. This assumes that a person cannot live a happy, productive life if they are not an able-bodied white male who is perfectly healthy in almost every way.

Next, we must question what this narrative means for those who are unable or choose not to overcome these challenges. Consider someone who identifies as having a physical disability, for example. If we are to classify using a wheelchair as a challenge, what does that mean for people who will certainly have to use a wheelchair for the rest of their lives? What about those who cannot afford physical therapy which may bring them closer to being able-bodied?

The narrative of overcoming turns such people into failures. It says that because they are not able to fix this aspect of their life that has been deemed a challenge, they have been defeated. This defeat is pervasive, characterizing many of their future endeavors.

This failure then becomes an all-consuming character trait. It defines the person as one-dimensional by reducing them to this one “failure” in their life. We stop seeing them as a complex, multidimensional person with many different traits. Instead, they become a person only deserving of our pity. The challenge that they were unable to overcome has completely overwhelmed their life.

I do not mean to take away from the accomplishments of people who have worked hard to find ways to make their day to day lives easier and achieve things that are extraordinary for anyone. Rather, I suggest that it may be harmful to continue to build up and support the narrative of overcoming that is so pervasive in contemporary discussions of these topics.

Being able to overcome adversity is a great triumph and something to be celebrated. Of course, no one’s life will be without difficulty. We should be sure to cherish significant accomplishments in life. However, we must be careful when considering what we will classify as problems and challenges in need of overcoming. While certain characteristics may put a person at a disadvantage in the world as it is today, this does not mean that a certain aspect of their lived experience is the problem itself.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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