Toxic Positivity and Disabilities

“Embrace this time of change !” the marketing email gushed. Uh, no, I said. And then I unsubscribed.

Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

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Chain link fence with yellow caution signs working about radioactivity
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

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My friend Debbie Levitt wrote an article about COVID-19 spam. I’ve only known Debbie for a few months, but our views on accessibility are identical and I feel like we can finish each others sentences on that topic at this point. While I’ve pretty much gotten the same types of emails as her (maybe not QUITE as many), as a disabled woman, there is one aspect to these emails that I find particularly grating, and that is toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity largely encompasses the concept of some individuals focusing on positive, feel-good, happy emotions and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions. Every lemon MUST be turned into lemonade, no exceptions.

People who are toxically positive don’t limit this approach as the right way to live their lives;

Toxic positivity tsunamis into their business and personal relationships with others.

Psychologists say toxic positivity also can have extremely negative impacts on those that are toxically positive, including being inauthentic, not fully processing feelings, and avoiding the validation of emotional experiences. This is in addition to the impact it has on the receiving end of toxic positivity including having their experience / situation being minimized, and being shamed or chastized for having negative thoughts.

Anecdotally, I know very few people with disabilities who are toxically positive. Those that are tend to rely on faith as the source for their continuously positive and cheerful natures (“God will take care of everything, I just need to keep on smiling”). That is not an approach I can personally…

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Sheri Byrne-Haber, CPACC

LinkedIn Top Voice for Social Impact 2022. UX Collective Author of the Year 2020. Disability Inclusion SME. Sr Staff Accessibility Architect @ VMware.