You've read those newspaper stories, heard those radio/television interviews. You've probably even heard someone say it to your face: "So nice to see you getting on, despite ... uncomfortable pause ..." Or "In spite of her disability, she has scaled Mount Everest, swum the Channel, repelled the hordes of Visi-Goth invaders, and now ..." Where does the spite of "in spite" and "despite" come from? What is that spite that enables you, you poor disabled person, to overcome the challenges life has placed before you? Do you, you bitter little cripple, you, really have that much "spite" within you?
I know that we usually use these words to mean something like "without being prevented by," but I started wondering whether the spite segment of these words really could also have the sense of spite as in spiteful ... a kind of malicious ill-willed malevolence, showing a nasty need to vent on or humiliate someone. I got stuck at the idea of trying to humiliate my disability. Trying to feel malicious towards it. It all got rather Monty Python-esque.
So, I tried going at the problem the other way. What do we gain by consistently characterizing a disabled person's ability to function "despite" her disability as a "despite" rather than a "with?" What lies behind that need to see a disability as an obstacle rather than a form of human variation? I am not a sociologist with the kind of theoretical insights to be able to answer those questions, but several things seem to me to exist on a kind of analogous plane: inspiration and role models.
Inspiration from above tends to be unattainable. We can be inspired by towering figures, but most of us are ordinary. Just ordinary. The achievements of the great seem a long way off and are easily beyond our reach. We can try to do whatever we can in the small spheres in which we operate, but greatness, well, that is unlikely. We can nonetheless be inspired from below. And disabled people are always below. Even if your average nondisabled is not likely to run a marathon, the idea that a disabled person might seems inspirational. The very inspiration comes as much from the fact that 26 miles is a bloody long way as from the fact that it is an especially bloody long way when you associate disability with "can't." If even she can do it, I can certainly do it. Or: If this person can do that despite all the burdens of his or her disability, U can surely do this little thing. With all my advantages, I could surely do that or even this (probably non-related thing), if I put my mind to it.
And that's it for me. The despite, in spite thing are about privilege. They are about the privilege of thinking that you have privilege, the privilege of being able to think from what the you assume is a position of privilege. It is about being able to assume that you have more advantages, a better life, more resources, etc. It is the privilege of assuming, incorrectly, that disability is never you, that you are somehow better off, unaffected ... that you have a better. It is the privilege of thinking that someone else's life is hell.
Yeah. That's it. The privilege of assuming you are isolated, protected, privileged.