How to Write About Your Disability


Make someone cry. Show how mighty you are, because your disability has made you so. The more people you make cry, and the harder you make them cry, the mightier you are. The mightier you are, the more people will want to read and share your story.

No one wants to read about you if you aren’t mighty.

The way to make someone cry (and thus attain true might) is to include the rawest, most painful details about your disability. The more details you share, the better. If you can include a video of your disabled self hugging a puppy, even better.

If your details aren’t raw enough, or painful enough, to make people cry, be sure to include a significant feat that you accomplished despite your disability. Did you become a rock star after overcoming your disability? An athlete? An award-winning journalist? A politician, rocket scientist, actor, bestselling author, or YouTube celebrity… in spite of your disability? Do tell.

But (and this is important): Be Relatable.

You need to be universal. If your disability is rare, or awkward, or unfamiliar, or embarrassing, or too difficult to explain, be sure to explain how you are Just Like Everyone Else. If you have Tourette Syndrome, for example, explain how a tic feels just like needing to sneeze (even if it feels absolutely nothing like needing to sneeze).

It’s like an itch you need to scratch, you might say (though it’s not).

What does a tic feel like? (They will ask). It feels like a goddamn tic. (You cannot say).

If you are feeling generous and lyrical, you will tell them how you imagine invisible hands, those of a giant, pressing down on your shoulders until you let yourself explode and the pressure lifts while you flutter and flap and twitch until you are sated, for just a moment; now the hands have returned and your muscles are sore under the giant’s fingers. Hold, twitch, hold, twitch, a cycle that demands attention even when you have no attention to give.

This is Not Relatable, however, and no one will understand except, maybe, someone else who twitches, too. Of course, they may not understand, either, because to them, perhaps, a tic feels exactly like needing to sneeze. Delete. Delete. Delete.

It’s like having the hiccups, you write instead. Everyone has had hiccups, after all. Accuracy is secondary to relatability, because you are tired, now, and twitchy, and the giant’s hands are pressing harder as you write.

Be sure to include your full name, and a photo. Also, contact information and the names of your children, and whether they share your genetic predisposition. Throw in the name of the Sunday School teacher who convinced you of your worth, and the seventh grade bully who shoved you on the playground because there can be no disability story without a gentle hero and a playground bully. If you recall no hero, or no bully other than the one that lurked inside your own mind while you hid behind closed doors, it’s no matter; scroll back and insert another line about your accomplishments in spite of. Then throw in another photo; this one with your children.

Share this information with pride. You have overcome. You should be proud to be mighty, and pride and privacy are incompatible.

Since you are proud, and mighty, make sure to discuss how proud you are in your essay. Do not attempt to normalize your disability. Make sure it is unique and compelling (while still relatable). If you normalize your disability, to the point where comedians (I’m looking at you, Jimmy Fallon) or presidential candidates no longer make fun of it, and people no longer find you captivating, you are no longer mighty.

Don’t, under any circumstances, mention that you would prefer not to have your disability, if given the choice. (Remember that one guy, who said he would never want to get rid of his disability because it is such a part of who he is? Be sure to embrace that, because everyone with a disability should feel exactly the same way). Describe how you are too proud to hide, medicate, or try to eliminate any aspect of your disability.

I hate it, you might think. I would cut the tail off a newt and boil it in a cauldron of snake skin and pig’s blood and drink it through a straw if only it cures what ails me. You cannot write that.

Instead write, My disability has made me the brave, compassionate person I am today. Never mind that your mother is more compassionate by a mile, and twitch-free to boot.

There is no shame in your narrative, you must say as you watch Sylvester Stallone crack the same tired Tourette joke that you have heard a thousand times before. You watch the talk show host sit uncertainly by his side because he was Rocky Balboa, for crying out loud. Champion of the underclass, fighter and defender of the underdog. The jokes must be okay, because they are jokes, and he is Rocky; you have climbed those steps and lifted your fists in the air and shouted to the world. You are proud.

Don’t be too proud, though. Be humble.

If you appear too proud, and make too much fuss about your disability, you will no longer be mighty. You will be exhausting. People can only take so much of your disability in one day. Preserve the well-being of your readers.

Don’t ever hide your disability, however. Put it out there for the world to see. Not just in your writing, but in your everyday life. If it’s not a highly visible disability, be sure to tell your boss, and all of your coworkers—even if they don’t ask. Whether visible or not, put it on your resume. Part of being proud and mighty is to make sure your disability is the first thing you talk about, whenever you are in a room, or writing an essay. Be sure to say

“I’m a disabled writer” or “I’m a disabled accountant.”

Submit your essay.

If your editors change any raw descriptions of your disability, or remove any mention of political advocacy, trust them. They know more about your disability than you, and they are more concerned about telling the truth than clickbait.

Finally: You are published. Once published, read the comments section, where all of the readers will tell you just how mighty you are.

They wanted raw, but now you are raw. Wasted.

You think of your last essay, about your children playing at the park. You made money; lots of money. You shared it everywhere: with your aunts and uncles and friends and cousins twice-removed and the next-door neighbor of a guy who once lived next to you. You tweeted, you Facebooked, you posted it in your mom group. People loved it—oh, how they could relate.

“The exact same thing happened to me, once,” they told you. No one pitied you. They did not call you brave, or thank you for sharing. “What a great writer you are!” they said, instead.

Perhaps you will share this essay, too. Or maybe, just maybe, you will send it quietly to your mother, and remember how you used to hide in your high school bathroom, third stall on the left, and twitch.


Rumpus original art by Max Winter.

Rebecca Swanson regularly breaks her own rules of writing. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, The Establishment, River Teeth Journal, Brain Child Magazine and elsewhere. More from this author →