TBI Awareness Memes: Hyper-individualism, overcoming adversity, and the neoliberal capitalist project

Curator's Note

The Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) community is a strong, vibrant community that trends toward the apolitical and recovery-oriented in social media, blogs, and documentary. TBI can affect anyone; however, media and medical research focus on people who were ostensibly non-disabled pre-injury. Much visual imagery promoting life after TBI features non-disabled bodies (usually white, gender-conforming models), brains with or without heads, or awareness-branded clothing. Going beyond “disability pretty” by using stock photos provokes and feeds a narrative around neoliberal goals of individual success and triumph over adversity rather than disability pride, interdependence, or neurodiversity. Newer research indicates TBI rates in carceral institutions and among people who are unhoused are above the national average. This will not be resolved with more awareness or positive thinking. My concern with ultra-positive memes is erasure of those whose lives are negatively-influenced by white supremacy, patriarchy, and poverty, and/or who do not have miraculous recoveries.

While community- and professionally-generated content provides invaluable information on injury and recovery, critical first-hand ideas for enhancing wellbeing, and a place to express oneself, much of it does not overlap with the disability rights movement, critical disability justice activism, decarceration and housing justice, or disability culture. Many suggestions are premised on expectations that people have access to safe housing, healthy food, income, and needed accommodations. The main emphases are on returning to “normal,” celebrating the choice to accept one’s “new normal,” and rejecting disability affiliation.

The slideshow demonstrates common types of apolitical imagery found on TBI communities online with a couple of examples of politicized, social-issue oriented content I generated. I call attention specifically to the (now-defunct) Melon A Day campaign, described as, “A movement dedicated to generating cause awareness for Traumatic Brain Injury by way of melons, people and art.” Unlike the common awareness imagery of disembodied heads, this campaign sometimes uses bodies with no heads. When the blog was active, it was unclear how posting pictures of melons or gorgeous people in gorgeous locales would generate work toward improving the people’s lives or how posting pictures of people with no markers of disability would be useful to those with TBI disabilities. 


This is a fascinating case study (what a good week!). Like yesterday's post, it brings up a lot of questions about performativity of disability, and whether or not that should be forced. However, in this case it adds a really interesting aspect of "normality," and the external and internal pressures to attain that normality. Of course I'm drawing in Michael Warner here, but I wonder if advocating for abnormality, or perhaps better a counter-normality, would be itself a political act and a call towards community mobilization. I think of videos like "Can We Talk, Ben Stiller?" which followed and developed a disability community's response to the ironic (but like many ironic texts, offensive and disturbing to some audiences) inclusion of the faux-film Simple Jack in the satire Tropic Thunder. In some ways, these provide a "return of the Real" to the abstractions of media production.

Thank you, Ted! There are soooo many troubles with "normal." Jijian Voronka has a wonderful article called "Storytelling beyond the psychiatric gaze: Resisting resilience and recovery narratives" in the most recent edition of Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. She talks about the way it's a given that storytellers will be compelled to highlight a resilience narrative and how the advocacy machine demands that. I do think that counter-normality is very much a political act. I claim "neurodivergent" for this reason. The common wisdom in the TBI community is to find other TBI survivors as soon as possible. I publicly advocate on a regular basis that the first thing to do is meet other disabled people with different disabilities, preferrably those who've navigated this ableist world their whole lives. I haven't seen Tropic Thunder but have heard and read plenty of disabled-led critiques. I feel the same about 50 First Dates, which celebrates Lucy's TBI disabilities by normalizing abuse and harrasment of her as someone who apparently no longer has agency. Thanks so much for writing!

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