A transformed definition and experience of beauty is a collective project, one that builds a more coherent world for us all.
Much of my working life is spent rearranging physical space so that the people I support can get around. Where someone else might see a beautiful quirky restaurant with a great view of the lake, I see two stairs that bar access to wheelchair users. Concrete physical barriers to access abound but they are nowhere near as insidious as the cultural and societal barriers that bar or limit access. Beauty is one cultural norm that while inspiring and uniting us also leaves so many people staring at additional barriers when it comes to everything from employment to relationships.
Trying to define, understand, possess, and achieve beauty has preoccupied humanity for millennia. Fairy tales and folklore celebrate and revere beauty. Philosophers strive to define what is beautiful. Looking at how beauty functions in these two realms is a way of making visible some of those cultural and societal barriers that perpetuate a limiting view of beauty.
How many fairy tales begin with: “once upon a time, a young, beautiful princess”? The beauty is an essential part of what makes her the protagonist and indeed, it is who she is. While the beauty may be temporarily occluded by disability, or subterfuge, beauty will be restored. In fairy tales the antagonist of the beautiful young princess is the beautiful older villain, think the stepmother in Cinderella. Fairy tales uphold but also complicate a conventional understanding of beauty.
While storytellers celebrate and describe beauty in poetry, philosophers define it in exacting prose. For Plato, everything from a chair, to a mountain, to courage, to a person, to beauty itself exists in the realm of the ideal as a perfect form. Beauty is both an attribute of all forms and a form in itself. This is the true realm and as might not shock you it is not here where disease, violence, and ignorance ravage the world. Beauty is mathematical precision, symmetry, balance, and proportion.
What is Disability?
Models of disability abound but I want to mention two prominent ones, the medical model of disability and the social model of disability. In the medical model of disability, disability is the problem and medicine/science seeks to cure or at least mitigate it. The problem is located within the individual disabled person. Conversely, in the social model, the difficulty is located in the collective within the society and the environment. So a building with stairs but no elevator disables a wheelchair user. The social model of disability offers scope for the imagination where disabled bodies are included in our definition and experience of beauty.
My own understanding of disability comes through the lives of others. My friend, Mary Hillhouse, has cerebral palsy. She describes it as “one side works better than the other side. I need someone to walk with me so I don’t break my ankle… again.” In the spring of 2012 we traveled to Atlanta to attend a conference. We were staying in the dorms of a small college and it took us three days to find the accessible shower. When I was finally able to speak to the college liaison she explained to me that the bathroom was not labelled so that the “wrong people” wouldn’t gain access to it. Here the lack of signage is a clear example of a disabling environment. I was incredulous. Mary laughed at me and said, “Accept it and move on.” I remember the phrase because this is also what she said to me today when I asked her about beauty and disability.
Mary remembers things that most of us do not. Learning to walk and then learning to walk again after breaking both ankles. There is a force of will there that is formidable. When I tell her this she laughs at me again. I suspect that it is this kind of energy that will enable us to transform the definition of beauty and reshape our world.
Maybe joy and persistence will lead the way. What if we accepted and celebrated the bodies we had? That would mean celebrating disabled bodies too. One place to digitally join the celebration is at the hashtag #DisabledAndCute started by Keah Brown. In her book, The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me she tells her own story and also reflects on the ways pop culture tells the story of disability. Similarly, this dual gaze, inward and outward, is required if we are to transform our definition of beauty.
What do I want when I consider disability and beauty? I want the promise and joy of beauty that looks like our world; varied, multifaceted, and diverse. Our ideas and ideals of beauty have the potential to transform both our society and ourselves. Not for disabled people as a separate and special class, but for all of us, temporarily abled, disabled, and any other classification not yet imagined.
So yes, I want cut-outs in curbs, press conferences with sign-language interpretation, advertising that shows not only a range of skin tones, and body sizes, but also disabled bodies. I want these things because when our spaces, physical and digital, reflect the diversity and complexity of the world we already inhabit, our world is better. It may be more complex but it is also more coherent. Building community connection and belonging across difference requires dismantling external and internal structures that limit and exclude. This can be arduous challenging and fraught but it can also be playful, joy-filled, and liberating. A transformed definition and experience of beauty is a collective project for the disabled and temporarily abled alike.