Unintentional Exclusion: Damage of the Disability Metaphor

By Sabrina Eager

Graphics by Sabrina Eager

This summer, I learned about yet another woman that our history textbooks failed to mention in grade school: Representative Barbara Jordan. She was the first Black American elected to the Texas state senate. There, her peers elected her as pro tempore, making her the first Black woman to preside over any legislative body in America. She was also the first Black woman from the South elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and both the first woman and first Black American to speak at the Democratic National Convention, after gaining fame while publicly advocating for Nixon’s impeachment (“JORDAN, Barbara Charline”).

Representative Jordan was not only a Black woman, but she also had a disability, placing her in a unique position at the intersection of three oppressed groups. She used a wheelchair later in her life while living with multiple sclerosis (MS) (“JORDAN, Barbara Charline”).

To honor the legacy of Representative Jordan, the flagship college from her home state, University of Texas at Austin, decided to put up a statue in her honor. The original design displayed Representative Jordan on a bench, reflecting her disability and use of a wheelchair. However, this design sparked much controversy; people claimed that the seated position “diminished her power,” believing that her statue “should stand like she stood for the constitution” (Frederick & Shifrer). The school quickly scrapped the original plan and replaced it with an image of Jordan standing with hands on her hips, a ‘power pose’ that erased her disability.

Which brings us to the concept of the disability metaphor. In everyday conversations, we use metaphors to represent qualities of our lives, objects, and others through comparison. ‘Cloudy memories’ make us forgetful, as if our pasts are shroud in fog; ‘moral compasses’ help us decide the paths of our lives, as if we navigate through life using cardinal directions. More specifically, we often unwittingly use disability metaphors, using the condition of a disabled or non-disabled body to express unfavorable or unfavorable traits, respectively. We say ‘blind to the truth’ to imply ignorance; we call people ‘crazy’ to imply they are burdensome, to-be-avoided. In our social lexicons, words connected to disability reflect undesirable traits such as ignorance, while words related to ability (i.e. ‘standing for the constitution’) reflect desirable traits such as power. There is no need to debate whether Representative Johnson was a strong, powerful woman. Her accomplishments convey her character. However, the inability to rely on the metaphor that she “stood” for the constitution could convey a different message to some viewers, one that relies on historical conceptions of disability.

The disability metaphor dates back to the Enlightenment, when people used deviance to indicate inferiority. It relies on the binary nature of normalcy and deviance, where people consider normalcy to be desirable and deviance to be the undesirable other. During the Enlightenment period, white male elites, those considered ‘normal’ in society, used deviance to justify slavery and the subordination of women. They denoted Black people and women as disabled and thus unfit to participate as citizens in order to “protect the fledgling democracy against the dangers of social disorder” (Frederick & Shifrer). Slaves were more susceptible to acquiring disabilities such as deafness and mental illness due to their living conditions. Women that were poor or sexually deviant were labelled “feeble-minded.” In essence, ‘disability’ (or features deemed as disabling) tainted all non-white, non-male people, and words reflecting disabilities eventually provoked negative imagery (Frederick & Shifrer).

Barbara Jordan was neither white nor male, but her supporters and advocates did not view her as inferior. She was Black. She was a woman. She was a representative of her home state of Texas in the United States Congress. And she had a disability. The mere fact that she used a wheelchair should not and does not detract from her successes as an influential Black woman in Congress, yet advocates disliked the imagery of her seated position. This is because social movements continue to rely on the negative emotional response that makes us believe that disability equals undesirability.

I first came across the story of Representative Johnson this summer while reading about the disability metaphor. While her story is just one among many, hers was the one that opened my eyes to the number of times I personally have used disability metaphors in a harmful manner. I consider myself to be a pretty socially active person and can hear myself saying or readings words such as ‘racism/sexism is disabling,’ ‘the crippling effects of student debt,’ ‘paralyzed by white guilt.’ In calls for action, I say and hear that people must ‘stand’ or ‘march for justice.’ Such metaphors, used by social advocates, use damage imagery to make their point and mark people with disabilities as the other, pitting the nondisabled members of social movements against the disability community (Frederick & Shifrer). We must rely on emotional responses and societal perceptions (that having a disability is undesirable; that having strong abilities reflects power) for these metaphors to work, and we are only reinforcing our negative responses and perceptions when we continue to use these metaphors.

Even so, phrases like this seem to come up so frequently in calls for action that demand social change. I personally think that the use of damaging imagery is not intentional, but rather inherent in the chosen words. The advocates that wanted Representative Jordan’s statue to stand probably felt they were doing her justice by following the norms of social justice movements. But right now, we are at a crucial turning point. Since the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, the reality of racial inequities has been at the forefront of our news and many of our minds. For the first time in our nation’s history, a majority of Americans believe racism is a real problem today in the US (Russonello). Also, we are not only hearing cries that Black Lives Matter, but Black Women’s Lives Matter, and Black Trans Lives Matter. By noting the need for intersectionality in our activism, we should ensure that we include people with disabilities who live at their own unique intersections of oppression rather than confine them to a separate and isolated disability movement. Not only should we demand that Black Disabled Lives Matter, but we should make sure to reflect that sentiment in our own diction.

July 26th of this past summer marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While a lot has changed for Americans with disabilities since the initial passage of the law, our nation still has a long way to go. Disability inclusion means more than just accessibility in buildings and technology, but also access to a more just future. Let’s start by looking internally, inside our own social movements. We can just take it one word at a time.


JORDAN, Barbara Charline. (n.d.). Retrieved August, 2020, from https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/16031

Frederick, A., & Shifrer, D. (2019). Race and disability: From analogy to intersectionality. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5(2), 200-214.

Russonello, G. (2020, June 05). Why Most Americans Support the Protests. Retrieved August, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/us/politics/polling-george-floyd-protests-racism.html