Toxic positivity harms the disabled community

It can't be the one state of mind to rise above all others

EYHTYW Woman in a wheelchair on a beach access ramp in Barcelona, Spain. PhotoAbility / Alamy Stock Photo
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How often have we read on social media or heard “positive thinkers” say that “disability is in the mind”, or that there are no obstacles that can’t be turned into opportunities; that everything can be achieved with the right attitude?

In the era of influencers and life coaches, positivity seems like the gateway to a celebrity-like status, regardless of the effects such constant references can have on some people.

This approach of "good vibes-only" can cause more harm than good. "You are so brave” and “you are such an inspiration” are just some of the sentences that disabled people often endure, sometimes on a daily basis.

Dr Shahd Al Shammari, a Kuwaiti lecturer and author, has done research on human and women's rights and disability issues. Having multiple sclerosis herself, she describes toxic positivity as "when it erases real experiences of pain".

I wonder how many people talking about positivity have experienced going into a venue and being turned away because the lift was not working, or the receptionist made a mistake in declaring the place accessible by not factoring in that even two not-very-high steps are a hindrance. No amount of "right attitude" or "determination" will allow people on wheelchairs to enter a theatre or a movie without ramps. And the onus to build them is not on the disabled community but on the societies that we are a part of.

An approach of 'good vibes-only' can cause more harm than good

For the more than one billion people with disabilities – who make up 15 per cent of the world's population – concepts such as freedom and equality are far from reality. Studies have shown that symptoms of depression may be two to 10 times more common among those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, and depression is one of the most common “secondary conditions” associated with disability and chronic illness.

Some of these issues have been abated by social media. For the disabled community, it has been a game changer. Like so many people, I am a big fan of social media because it is a tool that has enabled us not to connect with the wider world and given us the chance to raise awareness about many of the issues we grapple with. Yet, I along with many other disabled people detest the forced positivity that it can sometimes portray.

A few influencers who are also part of the disabled community choose to show only the "good side" of their existence. It is common to see social media posts that talk of "defying disability". Often one sees so-called inspirational quotes such as "there is only ability in disability" or "disability doesn't define me", which actually encourage people to distance themselves from their disability that is a big part of our identity. This dismisses the struggles that come with being disabled because, after all, few seek to hear the truth – or in the words of these influencers, "negative vibes". They forget that disability is not the enemy but part of who we are, and that we need to embrace it to progress, not defy it.

The influencers behind some of this "positivity" movement travel the world, driving, skiing, skydiving and abseiling. To be sure, it is commendable that they attempt to defy obstacles. But in urging others to do the same, it can feel callous, as they seem to not recognise that each person has different circumstances, a different disability, different financial capabilities, and so on.

As a consequence, thoughts such as "the problem must be me" tend to arise and before you know it, family, friends and even strangers will see it fit to say: "Oh if so and so can do this, why cant you? You are just being defeatist."

A disabled blogger I spoke to sees toxic positivity as "when others [or even we, ourselves] casually disregard our genuine struggles and challenges rather than acknowledging and accepting them – for example, saying or thinking that 'others have it worse'".

Positivity can turn toxic when pushed as the sole state of mind that should rise above all others. But the human experience grapples with a whole spectrum of emotions, thoughts and feelings. To validate only the positive ones is to limit the way we look at the world.

Carl Jung, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, described recognising, accepting and making peace with the darkness inside each of us as the only path to healing, to authenticity and to wholeness.

However, people want to escape pain, awkwardness and difficult situations. It is understandable. A disabled law student, who did not want to be named, sees toxic positivity as when it doesn't respond to the feelings of the other person or the actual situation.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that I am "brave" for daring to go out grocery shopping. Or that I am "inspirational" for smiling despite everything that I "have to endure", or being patted on the head and told: "You’re very independent, aren’t you?" – for simply completing an education and getting a job, as so many regular people do.

I realise that most of the time these words come from a good place. But such statements can lack sincerity, as people dismiss the obstacles and usually end their conversation with "I will pray that you are able to walk". I end up wishing that, instead of praying for me, they would pray for society to change, to be more inclusive and accepting. Or better yet, begin to enforce that change themselves.

Dismissing a person's very real struggle in the name of positivity is harmful to the people it is intended to help and to cheer up. Positivity cannot be forced. Like every aspect of life, if we don’t find the right balance, even something good and well-intentioned can cause damage.

Published: April 18, 2022, 7:00 AM