San Bernardino Valley College Disability by Nancy Mairs Essay Questions


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By Nancy Mairs
From the New Yorker, July 9, 1987.
FOR months now I’ve been consciously searching for representations of myself in the media, especially
television. I know I’d recognize this self because of certain distinctive, though not unique, features: I am
a 43-year-old woman crippled by multiple sclerosis; although I can still totter a short distance with the
aid of a brace and a cane, more and more of the time I ride in a wheelchair. Because of these devices
and my peculiar gait, I’m easy to spot even in a crowd. So when I tell you I haven’t noticed any woman
like me on television, you can believe me.
Actually, last summer I did see a woman with multiple sclerosis portrayed on one of those medical
dramas that offer an illness-of-the-week like the daily special at your local diner. In fact, that was the
whole point of the show: that this poor young woman had M.S. She was terribly upset (understandably,
I assure you) by the diagnosis, and her response was to plan a trip to Kenya while she was still physically
capable of making it, against the advice of the young, fit, handsome doctor who had fallen in love with
her. And she almost did make it. At least, she got as far as a taxi to the airport, hotly pursued by the
doctor. But at the last moment she succumbed to his blandishments and fled the taxi into his manly
protective embrace. No escape to Kenya for this cripple.
Capitulation into the arms of a man who uses his medical powers to strip one of even the urge toward
independence is hardly the sort of representation I had in mind. But even if the situation had been
sensitively handled, according the woman her right to her own adventures, it wouldn’t have been what
I’m looking for. Such a television show – as well as films like ”Duet for One” and ”Children of a Lesser
God” – in taking disability as the major premise, exclude the complexities that round out a character and
make her whole. The show was not about a woman who happened to be physically disabled; it was
about physical disability as the determining factor of a woman’s existence.
Take it from me: physical disability looms pretty large in one’s life. But it doesn’t devour one wholly. I’m
not, for example, Ms. M.S., a walking, talking embodiment of a chronic incurable degenerative disease.
In most ways I’m just like every other woman of my age, nationality, and socioeconomic background. I
menstruate, so I have to buy tampons. I worry about smoker’s breath, so I buy mouthwash. I smear my
wrinkling skin with lotions. I put bleach in the washer so my family’s undies won’t be dingy. I drive a car,
talk on the telephone, get runs in my panty hose, eat pizza. In most ways, that is, I’m the advertiser’s
dream: Ms. Great American Consumer. And yet the advertisers, who determine nowadays who will be
represented publicly and who will not, deny absolutely the existence of me and my kind.
I once asked a local advertiser why he didn’t include disabled people in his spots. His response seemed
direct enough. ”We don’t want to give people the idea that our product is just for the handicapped,” he
said. But tell me truly now, if you saw me pouring out puppy biscuits, would you think these kibbles
were only for the puppies of cripples? If you saw my blind niece ordering a Coke, would you switch to
Pepsi lest you be struck sightless? No, I think the advertiser’s excuse masked a deeper and more anxious
rationale: to depict disabled people in the ordinary activities of daily life is to admit that there is
something ordinary about disability itself, that it might enter anybody’s life. If it is effaced completely or

at least isolated as a separate ”problem,” so that it remains at a safe distance from other human issues,
then the viewer won’t feel threatened by her or his own physical vulnerability.
This kind of effacement or isolation has painful, even dangerous consequences, however. For the
disabled person, these include self-degradation and a subtle kind of self-alienation not unlike that
experienced by other minorities. Socialized human beings love to conform, to study others and then to
mold themselves to the contours of those whose images, for good reasons or bad, they come to love.
Imagine a life in which feasible others – others you can hope to be like – don’t exist. At the least you
might conclude that there is something queer about you, something ugly or foolish or shameful. In the
extreme, you might feel as though you don’t exist, in any meaningful social sense, at all. Everyone else is
”there,” sucking breath mints and splashing on cologne and swigging wine coolers. You’re ”not there.”
And if not there, nowhere. But this denial of disability imperils even you who are able-bodied, and not
just by shrinking your insight into the physically and emotionally complex world you live in. Some
disabled people call you Taps, or Temporarily Able Persons. The fact is that ours is the only minority you
can join involuntarily, without warning, at any time. And if you live long enough, as you’re increasingly
likely to do, you might well join it. The transition will probably be difficult from a physical point of view
no matter what. But it will be a good bit easier psychologically if you are accustomed to seeing disability
as a normal characteristic, one that complicates but does not ruin human existence. Achieving this
integration, for disabled and able-bodied people alike, requires that we insert disability daily into our
field of vision: quietly, naturally, in the small and common scenes of our ordinary lives.


In this discussion, think about and respond to the essay: “Disability” by Nancy Mairs.

This is the link (Links to an external site.) to “Dis-ABILITY” which is an example of a “Compare/Contrast” essay. Read carefully and look for the following, ideas:

  • What “points for comparison” does the author use?
  • How does the author go beyond the obvious similarities and differences to surface interesting ideas and insights?

In a minimum of 300 words, answer the following questions:

  • List what you consider to be the three most important “points for comparison” Mairs uses in her essay. Let your peers know how Mairs thinks these particular points are important, and what she says about them.
  • Mairs goes beyond simply comparing similarities and differences on a number of points of comparison. Explain to your peers when you think the author goes beyond the obvious similarities and differences to surface interesting ideas and insights.

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