This book was recommended to me by my French friend Emeline! I definitely need to read more books about disability. Sitting Pretty is part memoir, part educational polemic about the need for our society to shift how we view and act upon disability. It is heartfelt, humorous, but also really affecting. Rebekah Taussig makes so many good points through both her personal experiences and her research into the academic study of disability. While she cannot speak for all disabled people—and she acknowledges the privilege that her other identities and social position provides her—Taussig ultimately provides a very necessary reminder that if we are going to treat disabled people as human, we have so much further to go.
Very early in the book, Taussig rightly identifies that disability is a very contextual identity located in one’s time and place in society. She uses an example I am very familiar with: glasses. I need glasses to see anything that is farther away than about 15 cm with anything approaching fidelity. Yet I don’t consider myself disabled, because there is an unremarkable and fairly accessible prosthesis (prescription glasses) that compensate for my impairment. A couple of centuries ago, it would be hard-to-impossible for me to do many of my current jobs or hobbies. So our idea of disability shifts over time. Similarly, Taussig points out that each of us as individuals will experience disability in various ways—two years ago, I broke my elbow. I was in a cast for weeks, physiotherapy for months, and to this day I cannot fully rotate my left wrist the way I could prior to the break. Yet because this results in fairly minor impairment, I don’t call myself disabled, and it’s doubtful others would see this as a disability either. But I and everyone who lives long enough will eventually enter the category of disabled person, simply because bodies wear out, even as our society’s expectations of our bodies do not.
Taussig discusses how disability affects various aspects of her life, from employment to her relationships. I wasn’t surprised to hear about her struggles with getting housing and employment while on Medicare—I knew that a lot of disabled people have to avoid getting married or taking a higher-paid job because they will lose health benefits they depend on. In Taussig’s case, she ended up marrying her high school sweetheart more because it was convenient, and he had health benefits that would extend to her, than because of love or mutual respect. It’s both saddening and maddening that these structures in our society put disabled people (particularly disabled women) into situations where they might have to choose between marrying (or not marrying) someone or keeping their benefits. But there was plenty in this book that I didn’t know, and in general, ameliorating such ignorance is an important reason that abled people need to read this book: we need to stop assuming we know what is best for disability advocacy. “Install a ramp” is not going to fix every problem (or even many), and banning plastic straws is not going to save the environment but it does present a problem for a lot of disabled people.
The chapter where Taussig discusses teaching a high school class about disability studies resonated so much with me as a teacher. Taussig describes her discomfort over referencing herself in discussions (something I feel when discussing trans issues with my class). Moreover, she describes the resistance she encountered in the likes of “Adam”:
“If we were reading stories about the experiences of Indigenous people in this country, would you feel more invested?”
“No, not really,” he says. Wow, this kid has no shame.
“The experiences of women?” I ask.
“Well, yeah. I’d care about that.”
“Women are a part of my life,” he says.
Okay, is this kid messing with me now? Or is he doing these gymnastics in his own brain? He’s working so hard to pretend that disabled people aren’t a part of his world—could never be a part of his world—while he literally has a disabled woman for a teacher making direct eye contact with him at this very moment. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard to not care.
This exchange reminded me of the famous Huffington Post article “I Don't Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People”. Adam is refusing to open his mind to the experiences of disabled people because he thinks it isn’t relevant to his life. Not only is this incorrect in several ways, as Taussig points out, but it’s a disturbing level of apathy that we see repeating across social issues. We see rich people not caring about the poor, people who live outside areas affected by wildfires or rising sea levels not caring as much about the effects of climate change, etc. The neoliberal promotion of a rugged, individualistic lifestyle has eroded our sense of community, and it hurts disabled people and other marginalized groups.
Indeed, what I appreciated most about Sitting Pretty is the fact that Taussig locates disability as a social problem (rather than a medical one) and points out that accommodations are not enough:
The very notion of “special accommodations” relies on the belief that really, there are only a few who don’t slip easily into the narrow mold of a nine-to-five schedule, five days a week (clock in! clock out!), getting “sick” only a specific number of times each year, recovering from giving birth and being ready to separate from a newborn baby in a predetermined set of days.
Instead, Taussig says, we need to rethink how we design our society—not just accessible spaces, but go beyond that to think about the social conventions we currently take as normal. (There are connections to be made here to colonialism that Taussig doesn’t have the space or scope for, but I want to point out that part of the origin of the “nine-to-five” lies in the British state’s need to transform farmers into factory workers as part of its far-reaching imperial project. People from non-white cultures are often judged more harshly for not conforming to our society’s ideas about rigorous timekeeping and punctuality.)
She goes on to say:
But I believe this Full-Time Working Adult system punishes many more bodies than just mine—bodies in pain, bodies swaddled in depression and anxiety, bodies that get pregnant, need to breastfeed, have periods, get cramps and headaches, bodies that move and process slower than others, have different eating rhythms, need naps, breaks, longer toilet times, more inclusive toilet spaces—and so the list unfurls.
This is why disability activism cannot be successful unless it is anti-capitalist. Accommodations are not enough. Accessibility is not enough. We need to challenge the unsustainable system that is capitalism. I am so on board with this.
Finally, I want to make a connection between some of Taussig’s commentary and my experience as a trans woman. Now, I’m not saying that being trans is the same, in any way, as being disabled (and there are plenty of disabled trans women out there, of course, who can speak more to the intersections of their experiences than I can). Nevertheless, in her chapter on feminism, Taussig remarks:
But when it comes to fitting in with the group? Sharing the memories and feelings and quintessential plights that are said to belong to all women? The fears and joys that bind “us women” together? I often don’t relate.
Mmm, I feel that. As a trans woman, I do not always share the experiences we stereotypically associate with womanhood (or even white womanhood). So what I take away from this is that, just as cis women need to really look hard their internalized cissexism and cis privilege, it behoves us abled women to look hard at our ableism and how our internalized ideas of disability/ability affect how we include or exclude disabled women from spaces.
Sitting Pretty is careful and caring, and I really, really think that abled people need to read this (and more books like this) so that we challenge ourselves. As Taussig makes very clear, this is not just about changing how we behave towards individual disabled people, nor is it about making better accommodations that allow disabled people to participate more fully in the rat race that is our capitalist life. Instead, we need to rethink our perspective on ability and disability entirely and build systems and expectations that work for all types of bodies and minds.