Unlearn ableism with these 4 talking books

Love audiobooks? Thank a person with a disability. Originally termed “talking books,” audiobooks were first created to make print books more accessible to people with blindness or low vision, just one among many modern conveniences such as speech-to-text and voice-recognition software, closed captioning, electric toothbrushes and curb cuts that were first conceived as adaptive technologies. The following audiobooks can also help us identify and unlearn ableist attitudes and stigmas we apply to others, and to ourselves.

The term “disabled” begs the question, disabled for que? Sarah Hendren’s illuminating “What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World” persuasively shows that what often constitutes what we call a disability is merely a mismatch between a person and an environment purposely designed to someone else’s specifications. In this way, harmful normative ideas harden into literal brick-and-mortar constructs that serve as unacknowledged adaptive aids for many of us, and serious barriers for roughly 1 billion others who we thereby class as disabled. With engaging clarity and winning pragmatism, narrator and author Hendren artfully untangles these assumptions, leading the listener to fresh insights about the relative nature of disability as a social construct, our unexamined relationship to a world that enables too few of us, and how universal design can help to counteract that.

Dismantling often heavily reinforced barriers to access is an uphill battle, and not for the faint of heart. Enter Judith Heumann who, together with the many other pioneering disability rights activists she is quick to celebrate in her recent memoir de ella “Being Heumann,” helped launch a compelling civil rights movement you might not know about. A polio survivor and lifelong wheelchair user, Heumann was deemed a “fire hazard” and refused access by her elementary school. When, years later, the New York City Board of Education denied her teacher’s license on similar grounds, it was the last straw. What followed was an epic career as a courageous and persistent champion of accessibility and visibility for people with a wide range of disabilities, a story by turns exasperating, exciting and inspiring. Narrator Ali Stroker’s fresh, relatable delivery matches Heumann’s spirited account of how far we’ve come, and how much further disability we have to go in destigmatizing.

Elsa Sjunneson takes up this challenge with generosity and wit in her bracing memoir”Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism.” Quick to disabuse listeners looking for “inspiration porn,” Seattle local and award-winning author Sjunneson effortlessly alternates between trenchant cultural critique of how disabled people are defined and portrayed in the media with a courageous, candid account of her own lived experiences as a Deaf , blind, queer Jewish woman, the nonconsensual subject of intersecting stereotypes and marginalizations. Along the way, she provides an enlightening perspective on the myriad challenges and trade-offs faced by disabled people pressured to assimilate and conform, and the corrosive toll of pervasive and often internalized ableism, which she likes to radiation poisoning. In both her writing and narration, Sjunneson conveys all this with eloquence, compassion and a dash of friendly snark, making this a deeply engaging and entertaining audiobook, perfect for anyone with a desire to better respect and value personhood across the full spectrum of humanity.

As Sjunneson notes, the overwhelming majority of disabled characters in media are still written and portrayed by nondisabled persons, a practice that inevitably reinforces stereotypes. A case in point has been the role of Christopher Boone, the autistic young hero of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a popular novel and stage play both written by nonautistic authors, and exclusively performed by nonautistic actors until Seattle actor, director and disability activist Mickey Rowe performed the role in 2017. In his captivating new memoir “Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage,” Rowe shares his experiences as a profoundly misunderstood child, stilt-walking street busker, and performer with Seattle Children’s Theater. Educating the listener on the diversity of neurodivergence, Rowe does not shy away from telling sobering truths about the treatment of autistic and other disabled people in America, including many casual slights and painful cruelties he has encountered, as well as many joys and discoveries. That he does so with infectious passion and an unflagging enthusiasm for disarming our differences is a gracious accommodation to nondisabled listeners, a gift to be cherished and a gift to be cherished this Autism Awareness Month.

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