[Book Review] Disability Visibility: 1st Person Stories from the 21st Century // Edited by Alice Wong

One in five people in the United States lives with a disability. Some disabilities are visible, others less apparent—but all are underrepresented in media and popular culture. Now, just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, activist Alice Wong brings together this urgent, galvanizing collection of contemporary essays by people with disabilities.

Disability Visibility on a Kindle e-reader

I expected this book to be dense or to contain lots of jargon. I assumed since it was an essay collection that all the contributors would be academics writing about the portrayal of disability in literature or film. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find this was not the case. As the subtitle “First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century” states, the essays in this collection tell 1st-person stories from individuals with disabilities. For example, Ariel Henley writes about her experiences with beauty and art in her essay “There’s a Mathematical Equation That Proves I’m Ugly–Or So I Learned in My Seventh-Grade Art Class.” Henley’s art teacher taught her about the subjectivity of beauty in art, and Henley movingly write about how her teacher changed her view of her own reflection.

The contributed essays vary in length and in style. Some are taken from public addresses, such as Talila A. Lewis’s eulogy for Ki’tay D. Davidson, adapted from TED Talks, or transcribed from an interview. I loved the variety in modes, styles, and voices of each contributor. Some had a clear mission to accomplish or a message to get across. Others focused on sharing their experiences. Many focused on how much they valued their life, however “limiting” their lifestyle may seem to others.

My only complaint for this collection isn’t even a true complaint since it’s what everyone who loves a book wishes for: I wanted each essay to be longer. As soon as I was really settling in with an author and becoming invested in their voice and their story, the essay would end and I would be presented with the next story. That is the nature of an essay collection, I know, so I don’t have anything to complain about there, but I desperately wanted an entire memoir’s worth of content from each contributor. That’s how much I loved this collection.

Just as the essays are composed of different styles, the level of accessibility for each essay varies as well. Some essays were so down to earth and honest that they seemed to be written by a young adult or even a child, while others were close to academic lectures in terms of tone and subject matter. However, the fact that I desperately wanted longer essays shows how much we need more published voices from people with disabilities in disability studies. Getting to hear 1st-person accounts was so refreshing and illuminating, and I feel more equipped to contribute to a discussion on disability studies than I would if I’d pursued a degree in the subject. That’s how comprehensive this collection is. It’s a seminal work in disability rights, and it should be at the top of the reading list for anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Vintage Books, June 30, 2020, 309 pages

CATEGORIES: essay collection, nonfiction, disability studies

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