A few days ago, someone commented on my instagram photos thus: 'You make the people feel strong in many ways by your conviction and strength in seeing life despite having a disability'. What was expressed with all good intention annoyed me. Why does my photography of birds, flowers and portraits elicit inspiration? What is strong about images showing me in different places? And what is the fuss about conviction? Does this comment allude to the fact that I'm not hiding my disability? That I'm ‘brave enough to go out in daylight’? The latter comment indeed happened to me two years ago when a lady in her 40s came up and said, 'how brave, well done!' I was actually looking into a shop window and am still pondering over what could have been so brave about shopping.
Positive prejudice – as shown in the statements of inspiration, braveness etc. – is actually not positive. Because it generalises people, cements categories (that is, to be seen primarily through the lens of disability) and thus fosters new categories which can easily develop into stigmatization. What has my wheelchair (obviously perceived as the symbol of disability) to do with my photography? After all, other categories, such as my perceived whiteness, gender, class or academic status could also be applied to my textual production (as an author I consider photography inherently textual). But this rarely happens.
The gravest problem with the above quote, however, is the contrast being drawn between "strong/positive life" and "disability". As so often, this contrast is established with the word despite. I adore you despite your disability; I am really impressed how you're mastering all this despite your disability...you’re cool/beautiful/intelligent/active etc. despite your disability. One could add tons of other examples for this well-known line of argument. This contrast between a positive self and an unfortunate condition seems symptomatic for perceiving people with disabilities. Yet would anyone say to a Black person, ‘great that you're so smart despite you being Black?’ I doubt so, unless it is done by the Ku-Klux-Klan.
What I try to set against this argument is not a simple replacement of despite with because of. This would be equally reductionist and I'm neither clever/dumb, good/bad, nor handsome/ugly etc. because of my disability. Instead I propose to use an active concept of pride. But in a sense there is an immanent contradiction between my critique of categorization and a concept of pride that relies on the category of disability perforce. I don't think it's effective to portray myself simply without the category in order to liberate myself from it. This, if taken as a consequential rule, would be an expression of shamefulness and would mean hiding something supposedly deficient. Instead, what I suggest is to be proud of disabilities in order to overcome stigmatizing categories. Hence to use categories in order to get rid off them.
To be sure, pride can be a disgusting utterance if it carries hegemonic claims. National pride, white pride etc. are excluding and harmful concepts. But these are different forms of pride from the one I'm referring to. Disability pride is neither harmful nor hegemonic. It is also more than having come to grips with a situation. It exceeds the state of having accepted a status quo and it celebrates the very status not as a rigid category but as part of a dynamic and positive whole. To be proud of my disability means to not treat it as alien or worthy of judgment but to treat it as positive: I love life, I participate in life, I like wheelchair racing, I like adventures etc. etc. Using a wheelchair is fun and exciting and not principally frustrating – and never a pity. I perceive my disability as a basic human condition that should not be stripped off its dignity and its many pleasures and opportunities it has to offer.
In this sense, I understand disability pride as an antinormative project. A project that makes visible the processes of ableist privilege (also called ableism) that organize the world along the needs of non-disabled people and that systematically exclude people with disabilities from participation in life. Prejudice is part of the many ways how ableism can form. This includes, inter alia, paternalism (i.e., to know what is best for people with disabilities); mercy and charity; victimization; negation of agency, self-determination, the ambition to cure etc. And here it becomes where I feel the urge to set notions of pride against prejudice. Not to exclude, reduce, identify or include, but to reclaim my humanity, self-determination and sovereignty.
I hope this clarifies some things. Some, certainly not all, photos can be read as echoing pride. This is not always intended. Not every text is political. But authors can hardly influence, let alone control, their recipients' interpretations. So let's have an eye on the tag #disabilitypride and see what happens.