Barriers and Belongings: Personal Narratives of Disabilities, Edited by Michelle Jarman, Leila Monaghan, and Alison Quaggin Harkin

An Iraq veteran fighting the “quiet conflict” of PTSD, a woman with memory loss who hides her disability as well as her misery, a man whose traumatic brain injury helps him make sense ofhis brother’s disability.  These are a few of the many voices we learn from in Barriers and Belongings.

At first glance, the book is a disabilities studies textbook with an introduction and chapter openings that provide background on social and cultural approaches to disability, as well as useful definitions.  But Barriers and Belongings is much more than a textbook:  it’s an eye-opening collection of lives, told with honesty and moving candor.  The narratives, which are organized into sections around themes such as communication, family and relationships, are engaging and short, allowing room for many different points of view.  Most are written from the perspective of early adulthood, reflecting back on growing up, which gives them an appealing coming-of-age quality.  The writers lead us up to the moment their conception of their disability changes in some way.  The ways are as varied as the disabilities themselves, which range from acquired conditions such as PTSD and chronic pain, to congenital conditions such as cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome, to mental health and cognitive conditions.  Because of these many viewpoints, one writer identifies the need for “people with diverse disabilities [to] recognize our common struggle” in order for the disability movement to reach its “full potential to change society.”

For the book is as much about the larger society as it is about the individual stories.  Most of the writers see disability not as a problem to be solved but as an integral part of themselves, and want to reframe disability from a nonsocial and nonmedical perspective.  As one writer puts it, “I wonder how the world would be if everyone realized that normal didn’t exist, and that trying to achieve normalcy was futile.  What if disability didn’t always need a cure?  What if everyone equated disability with difference, not deficiency?”  Or as another writes:  “Sometimes, abnormal is normal.”

PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University.  Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently The Examined Life Journal and Prick of the Spindle.  She teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey.  Her short story “Pretending Not to Know” appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima.