With a humorous take on both the personal and cultural critique essay, writer and feminist disability activist Harilyn Rousso grabs readers’ attention starting with the wry title of her new book, talking back to the patronising and demeaning conversations that circulate about disability.
Rousso skillfully blends activist autobiography, coming-of-age memoir, disability narrative, short form poetry, and manifesto—and although the results are at times mixed, Don’t Call Me Inspirational is a challenging and enlightening read. The chapters about Rousso’s coming into her own as a disability activist—and the external and internal struggles that she faces in getting there–will sound familiar to many disabled readers who are also politically involved. In one early chapter, Rousso, who lives with cerebral palsy, recounts her decades-long reluctance to identify as disabled, which sprung from a combination of factors ranging from her status as the only PWD in her family to her lack of disabled friends. Her opinion shifts, however, when she is forced out of her psychotherapy training program by superiors who fear that some of her CP symptoms will “frighten” clients. In writing about this incident, Rousso incisively examines her own internalized ableism and connects it to society-wide prejudice against people with disabilities: “[…] I had to recognize that I, too, was prejudiced—I held many of the same negative stereotypes about my disability as the staff at the institute and the world at large” (6).
Family issues also occupy a large portion of Rousso’s story, and to her immense credit, she is able to vividly depict her love for her family while also acknowledging—and examining–what she terms a “conspiracy of silence” surrounding her disability within her (otherwise able-bodied) family. Rousso’s experiences with a family that, while loving and accepting otherwise, does not deal well emotionally with its disabled child will stir powerful feelings in readers dealing with mental or physical disabilities who may have grown up in similar familial systems.
The least successful parts of Don’t Call Me Inspirational, however, tend to find Rousso stretching her experience to somehow fit all people with disabilities, without much acknowledgment of the many differences amongst people in the disability community. Rousso is a second wave feminist disability activist, and while this is not a negative thing by itself, some of her opinions on “independence” for people with disabilities rely on classic markers of independence that may pose problems for people with certain conditions. In discussing learning to drive and vehicle ownership, for instance, Rousso writes, “For many young (and not-so-young) people, learning to drive and owning a car are important steps on the road to independence. This is particularly true for people with disabilities, for whom the use of public transportation may be problematic if not impossible. How can you run away from home if you can’t go anywhere without being transported by your family?” (72) Rousso writes that she has been forced to rethink her definitions of “dependence” and “independence” in certain situations due to her CP, but the prescriptivist nature of her argument in favor of car ownership and being able to drive as somehow equaling true independence for PWDs may not be attainable for those whose disabilities limit their ability to operate a car, or even travel in one as a passenger. The notion, too, that “running away from home” is a necessary part of a PWD’s life course also has its issues; running away is not always feasible for a number of reasons. A variety of activists in the disability and wider social justice community, too, have emphasized the importance of a “chosen family” for people with disabilities and others who are marginalized by the mainstream—and some have even found members of their chosen family online. There are options other than the traditional “running away” in our current moment, and while they may not be perfect (or don’t match up to ideals of “independence”), they do provide ways for PWDs to connect with each other sans a driver’s license and a vehicle.
Despite her sometimes troubling emphasis on traditional “independence,” however, Rousso has created a multifaceted, well-written, and decidedly nontraditional work with Don’t Call Me Inspirational. I won’t call it—or the author—inspirational, but this memoir, and Rousso’s many projects, are worth checking out.