This is a guest post by Cecily Kane. a writer, business professional, and sci-fi and fantasy geek. She blogs at Manic Pixie Dream Worlds , where she reviews books, talks speculative fiction, and rants regarding intersectional feminism, sometimes even coherently.
I am a geek, and a writer, and was born with a mild disability — thumb hypoplasia, type II/III.
Effectively, on my right hand, I have five fingers and no thumb. I possess a digit that looks quite thumb-like but has no thenar muscles, no flexor tendons, and an undeveloped joint — in short, it is devoid of all of the manual characteristics that make our species more highly evolved than other mammals.
There are many jokes in my household about my primate status. I make most of them.
I am also right-handed. This makes life awkward at times.
I began to disclose my disability regularly about a year ago, with the new knowledge that birth defects which limit one’s physical functions are, in fact, disabilities. Medical professionals are always curious; this defect only occurs in about 1 out of every 100,000 live births, so meeting me is often their only opportunity to see it. This curiosity does not bother me. I compare myself and my gimpy hand to Nemo and his flappy fin.
When I disclose this disability to men who are not in the medical profession, however, I almost invariably get the exact same response:
“Well, you don’t look disabled. You’re very pretty.”
Given that most of the men in my social circles are other writers, you would think the existence of a writer who is physically unable to write longhand would merit a mention, that there is something more to discuss here than my aesthetic qualities.
You would even think, perhaps, that there’s a smidge of a heroine’s story in there, a narrative of someone who overcomes a serious roadblock in order to pursue her dreams and do what she loves, a protagonist who has a dragon to slay daily.
You would think that authors would pick up on this.
I realize there is some confusion about the difference between a disfiguring disability and one like mine, one that limits my body’s functionality but is invisible unless one knows to look for it. Not that disfiguring disabilities make someone unattractive; I grew up with a beauty pageant queen who was born with half a left arm and half a hand. But it’s easy to see how these well-intentioned dudes who say this exact same thing are trying to reassure me that I’m, you know, bangable or whatever.
For me, it’s brain-jarring. Level of physical ability and level of physical attractiveness are not in the same registers. A dude thinking I am good-looking — well, that’s nice to hear, especially on a day I’m feeling bloated, or when the humidity levels make my hair do strange and awkward things.
But it’s not a consolation for an inability to hold a coffee cup without discomfort, perform common household repairs, use sharp tools safely, write longhand…
And given that this aspect of my life typically arises during discussions of writing with other writers , this response — “You don’t look disabled. You’re pretty” — clearly manifests the male gaze, and derails the nature of the conversation:
I transform from subject, writer , to object, she whom the writer finds pretty .
And it’s not like this agency-removing comment comes from the mouths of unapologetically sexist douchecannons that I’d be better off not knowing. It comes from colleagues, friends, a boss I had once who added “intelligent” to the mix, since I’d just found him a rather substantial tax credit for hiring the disabled. Several of them are even male feminists and allies. However, I’m pretty sure it’d take an entire Women’s Studies 101 class to give any of these dudes the beginning of a clue about why “You’re pretty” is a head-spinning non sequitur and not, despite its good intentions, an appropriate response to a disability disclosure.
And so my response to these guys is, likewise, always the same. I smile and say: