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  • Writer's pictureErin Clark

Disabled Guide to Life

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life by Chris Hadfield was on the highest shelf of biographies at Chapters so I flagged a passing staff person to help me reach it.

“With pleasure!” He said, obviously enamoured with the book. “Is there anything else you’re looking for?” He asked.

“More space books, please.” I replied and he practically skipped through the store. “I’m working on this piece inspired by how the things people say about my accomplishments as a disabled woman are the same words and phrases used to describe astronauts,” I explained to clarify that I was looking more for space exploration than cosmology (though I do love to abuse a good physics metaphor).

He tilted his head with a little surprise, it wasn’t the intersection he was expecting. “What I love about Chris Hadfield is how he talks about the psychology of space exploration,” I said.

“Managing fear,” he said. “And problem solving!” he finished.

"Exactly.” I winked.

He asked if I had seen the movie ‘First Man’ about Neil Armstrong that was based on a book they had in store. “It really covered a lot of the training they go through and the sheer improbability of what they were trying to do. Thousands of things had to go right for the mission to be possible.” He said passionately. “ And they don’t just practice for things going right. They practice for all imaginable contingencies of things that could go wrong,” he said.

”And even with all that practice, there are unknowns, things they can’t prepare for, and they still catapult themselves into space.” I added.

We both buzzed with space fever. I told him of a tweet by a female Astronaut responding to the belief that women could not go into space because, how would they pee? Male astronauts wear diapers, she pointed out. The problem had already been solved, but people didn't imagine male astronauts as 'people who wear diapers' because of what diapers otherwise signify to them. There is the obvious parallel that one of the many things about disability that is deeply stigmatized is incontinence and diaper wearing. When you know that it is also par for the course for astronauts to wear diaper the framing of what a diaper means is expanded. It now also means intrepid exploration requires innovative responses to basic bodily functions. YAY DIAPERS!

Disabled people already knew this.

This belief that women could not be astronauts because they pee differently aligns so neatly with the experience of many disabled people. A lot of what disability itself "means" (which is different from what the experience of disability is for those who live it) is based on assumptions that the way we do things is too burdensome or unpalatable for us to be widely and meaningfully included in activities of daily life. The belief seems to be that the fact that we adapt those basic functions at all is a sign that we cannot and should not participate. It fails to occur to people that those adaptations themselves are what makes our participation valuable. I have said before, necessity is the mother of invention and disability is the mother of necessity. Astronauts wear diapers because it is necessary for them too, not because it means something about who they are or the value of what they are doing. That is why an astronaut is still cool when we find out how they solved the problem of going to the bathroom while traveling in space.

Even in space exploration, when the nature of the entire thing is defying very real limits, some minds were still restricted by limits that weren’t so real. Two female astronauts recently completed the first all female space walk. Still defending their ability to handle space.

“What about books on female astronauts?” I asked, and off he went, exploring

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