FAYETTEVILLE -- Though author, speaker, and educator Rebekah Taussig's disability experience is her life using a wheelchair, she's realized it's just one of a myriad of disability stories, and that even people without what would be considered traditional disabilities can relate to feeling stigmatized and ostracized.
That's why it's paramount to "build a world sturdy enough to hold all of us" through access and inclusion, she told her audience Wednesday night at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. "Access is an act of love, not an afterthought."
"Disability is at the heartbeat of what it means to be human," and keeping those with disabilities on the edges of society "leaves us all less equipped," said Taussig, a mother, wife, and disability advocate with a Ph.D in creative nonfiction and disability studies who has been paralyzed since age three. People with disabilities are "invaluable," with experience and perspective "we desperately need in the world."
Taussig's "Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body" is the 2023 campus-wide common read, and in addition to Wednesday's address in the Arkansas Union, she was also part of a luncheon the next day on campus.
Her book has led to so many "meaningful conversations" and includes "critical" advice for building a more-inclusive world, but it's also very funny, said Desma Hurley, the university's Access Coordinator. "I laughed out loud several times while reading."
The One Book One Community Committee -- a collaboration of myriad departments and programs across campus -- chose Taussig's book because it's an important, resonant topic that can spark those meaningful conversations Hurley referred to, according to Lauren Copley Sabon, a teaching associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology who chairs the One Book One Community Committee. More than 2,000 students are reading Taussig's book this fall, as are a litany of faculty and staff members.
The book led to Taussig receiving the Hefner Heitz Kansas Book Award in Literary Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in publications from Time to Refinery29, and she's had talks and workshops on disability representation, identity, and community at higher education institutions such as the University of Michigan, Yale University, and Davidson College, according to the university. Before pivoting to writing, speaking, and consulting, Taussig taught for almost a decade, from high school freshmen to upper-level college classes, and she continues to offer writing workshops.
Being on a college campus this week brought Taussig back to her own college days, a time when she "didn't have a clear path or goals and felt overwhelmed," she said. By that point in her life, she'd "internalized lots of harmful beliefs" about herself, she felt "helpless," and she'd lost the ability to dream for herself.
Only by interrogating how she'd reached that point in her psyche did she learn to "uproot" those pernicious beliefs, she said. As a young child, she did feel "valued and a part of things," but those feelings "slowly started to disintegrate," because for the most part "I lived in a world that was not built to include me, and I spent a lot of time on the edges of public life."
She didn't see people with disabilities represented in media or professional life, so she believed those with disabilities belonged "on the outside," and she even decided to "hide" her disability in an effort "to pass as normal," she said. Only later did she realize those attempts to minimize her disability actually made her "world smaller."
She began writing "mini-memoirs" of her life to "give language to my experience and not be erased," she said, and they eventually inspired her book.
The university's Writing Studio and One Book One Community also conducted a writing competition inspired by her book. Potential themes included, but were not limited to, nonconformity, belonging, invitations, ableism, representation, inclusivity and/or societal messaging or expectations.
Though Taussig's story is uniquely her own, in many ways, it's also universal, because -- according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- 61 million Americans (a quarter of the population) have some sort of disability, but many of the feelings those with disabilities struggle with are also a challenge for those with bodies that look "different," Taussig said. Essentially, anyone who doesn't fit a "mostly imaginary prototype of 'normal,'" is left on the fringe, and "it's amazing the kinds of burdens we can carry within ourselves without anybody knowing."
These people aren't "broken," however; instead, the world has been organized in such a way as to "push people like me out of it," she said. However, that "story can be revised," by letting "go of 'normal," and embracing differences.