Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body is a collection of stories written by Rebekah Taussig, a disability advocate and creator of the Instagram account @sitting_pretty.
The disabled experience is often seen through the lens of the able body. But Taussig’s stories show us the world through eyes that are part of a body that has a visible disability. We learn about her childhood, adolescence, marriage, divorce — and about becoming a disabled adult.
Growing up with a physical disability can feel isolating. It’s wrapped up in shame and confusion. For me, it was not an identity I wanted to have, let alone one I wanted to celebrate. As Taussig writes in the opening chapter of her book, “When you grow up in a world that doesn’t see you, or welcome you or include you or represent you, you believe the world isn’t for you.”
In Sitting Pretty, Taussig reflects on the complexity and nuances of disability. For disabled readers it offers a sense of shared experience, of belonging. I imagine that many, like me, will be nodding their heads vigorously as they read the book, or shouting out loud: “THAT IS COMPLETELY IT!” For non-disabled readers, Taussig hopes it will offer a different viewpoint on something they have not experienced first-hand.
Ableism is the biggest thread that runs through all of these stories. At its most basic definition, ableism characterises the disabled person as inferior.
She talks about the pitying stares and too-big smiles she would get from adults as a child, and about how when her high-school boyfriend carried her through a cave on a day trip, everyone congratulated him for being such a great guy for doing so, overlooking the fact that she did not want him to carry her in the first place.
Taussig is a high-school teacher. She explains the social model of disability to her students, which says that people are disabled by barriers in society and in the built environment, rather than by the disability itself.
They seem perplexed by this notion. They can’t understand why a cure isn’t the simplest answer to the disabled “problem”.
The Disabled Identity
As a child in the 1980s, I remember using our family encyclopaedia to look up the word “handicapped”, searching for an explanation of what it was to be me. I had not seen anyone like me in my community, let alone on television or in magazines. And there was no discussion anywhere around me about the disabled identity.
Taussig’s experiences growing up were similar. No one in her family mentioned her disability, positively or negatively. She did not see herself or her body as different. It was only as she grew up that she could see how strangers and those outside of her circle of friends and family would react to her.
As a result, “After only a few years out in the world … A narrative started to take shape,” she writes. She began to feel shame about herself and her body.
She reflects on growing up, identity, fitting in and on her relationships. The reader follows the highs and lows of her life.
She shares how as a child she was content and oblivious to her disability, self-assuredly believing that she was regal and beautiful, but slowly began to see herself as a burden on those around her.
She also examines issues such as intersectional feminism, ableism and accessibility (which, it turns out is more than just a ramp or a lift). She wants her readers to understand experiences that are not their own, but also to learn and to engage with the subject matter.
She is an advocate for a paradigm shift around disability – a shift from the perception that disability equals “less than” to the view that disabled people are just as valuable as non-disabled people.
To be disabled is very often to be misunderstood by society.
During the week in September that I was reading this book, a woman shouted abuse at me because I would not sit down at the bus shelter that she was at.
I didn’t need to sit down, or catch the bus, but she saw me standing a few feet away, texting on my phone and assumed I needed to sit because I use crutches. I was not even aware that she was there until she shouted at me to sit and called me a rude bitch for not obliging.
This is a common occurrence for me — along with stares, intrusive questions and back-handed compliments. A co-worker once told me he admired me because I was so cheerful. Considering.
Taussig and many other disabled writers, activists and academics believe disability is misunderstood because of the lack of representation and visibility of disabled people in society. There is a real lack of people with disabilities who are teachers, shop assistants, policymakers in Ireland. Disabled people are frequently seen as “others”.
Most people with disabilities live happy, fulfilling lives, facing the same ups and downs that everybody does.
The problem with disability is generally not the disability itself — humans are incredibly adaptable, just look at how people all over the world are adapting to the pandemic — but the way it is viewed by society: an overly simplistic view that disability is “bad”.
If we are not born disabled, we are all living in bodies that will, at some point, not be able to perform some tasks they were able to do previously. Bodies get older. Bodies become pregnant. Limbs break and sprain. Bodies become ill. Bodies develop food intolerances.
One day, some people will notice that they can’t bend down as easily as they used to. Bodies change, bodies wear out, if we are lucky enough to age. The perfect body does not exist for any of us; and when does that become disabling?
What is normal? Where is that line? Who draws it?
It is society that is disabling, not the disability itself.
Normalising the Disabled Experience
Taussig is a talented writer. Her descriptions and explanations are warm, thoughtful and personal. She shares the beginnings of her relationship with her husband Micah with all the jittery excitement that comes along with the start of a new romance.
She is writing the book to normalise her lived experience, to open a dialogue, to spark new ideas.
She taps into the daily experiences that so many people with disabilities have had, from the mundane day-to-day issues like the planning that goes into accepting an invitation to a party, to the more laborious ones — trying to find somewhere suitable to live, or how to afford healthcare.
She discusses internalised ableism, which I am sure the majority of disabled people have grappled with. Internalised shame about identity is so common to many: shame around internalised fatphobia, internalised homophobia, internalised misogyny, to name just a few. There are many bodies “relegated to the margins”, which is where the author used to think she and her body belonged.
This book might make for uncomfortable reading for some, as the author is challenging people’s preconceptions. For example, in the chapter, “The Complications of Kindness”, she tells us that kindness and helping are the topics that she gets the most pushback on.
People sprint to her service, push her chair, pray over her. If she does not take this help, she can be perceived as ungrateful and rude. If people mean well and want to help, that can’t be a bad thing, surely?!
People try to separate her from her disability. “I don’t think of you as disabled, I just see a beautiful woman!” they will proclaim. This seems to them to be a kind thing to say, whereas in fact to Taussig it feels erasure of a large part of her identity.
I think that the discomfort this generates is a good thing. As a society, we know we need to lean into the dialogue about preconceptions and really listen to alternative viewpoints.
This especially the case with disability, because it is wrapped up in so many layers of people “meaning well” while not allowing the disabled community to set their own informed narrative.
Get this book. Engage with Taussig’s ideas. Let yourself see the view from her ordinary resilient disabled body.