A Kansas Disability Advocate Invites People into Her Experience as a Mother, Wife and Writer
Diagnosed with cancer as a baby and paralyzed at age 3, Rebekah Taussig tumbled around carefree with her siblings, even with braces steadying her. But as she grew up, she began to feel different. Eventually, the Kansas City-area author embarked on a path to open eyes about the experience of disability and, she hopes, to spark change.
You describe your early childhood very fondly. When did you first feel different?
My parents didn't change much after I became paralyzed. I was just one of the six kids in our family. I learned to pull myself up the stairs and even into the top bunk. I felt just as beautiful and valuable as my siblings and girlfriends. Then, countless things added up slowly and deliberately. I found myself surrounded by a world of images that didn't look or move at all like me. I was in a wheelchair by first grade, and kids would line up to push me around. I felt more like a class pet than a friend. And at recess, I had to sit on the edge of the playground that was inaccessible.
What motivated you to take your experience public, so to speak?
I had been in school forever studying writing and literature when I stumbled upon disability studies and the concept of ableism in graduate school. It was completely transformative for me. I knew I needed to start writing about the complicated experience of disability. I began submitting personal essays to publications, then mini memoirs online. I was surprised that meant a lot to people with and without disabilities. These stories are needed in the mainstream.
Your book, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, was published in 2020, a time you described as a tangle of joy and pain.
The book came out a few months into the pandemic, plus I had just had a baby, and my husband was going through cancer treatment. Since then, I've been moved, humbled and honored by the comments I've received, very human messages that motivate me to keep telling stories. The ones that always get me are the readers that say that growing up they felt unseen, but now feel so seen by my book. That feels very tender to me.
You used to be a high school teacher. Do you consider going back?
I left my job when I was expecting. My body was so wrecked, I couldn't imagine teaching with a child. I still feel like education and teaching are a part of me, and I do a lot of guest lectures and workshops. Also, I share mini memoirs on Instagram, do podcasts, publish essays and a newsletter, and have a website. One thing I feel strongly about is helping adolescents with disabilities make that leap from childhood to adulthood. That's such a critical time—scary and overwhelming when they look into the future and can't picture themselves there. I don't know if it's a book, maybe virtual communities, but I really feel myself pulled there.
What is a lesson you'd like nondisabled people to take into the world?
Don't assume that people with visible disabilities are helpless. I'm often inundated by a barrage of kindnesses for things I don't really need. Instead, show genuine kindness by actually looking at the person, evaluating and taking a beat, rather than reacting on instinct. Are they making eye contact? What signals are they sending? Does it look like they're struggling? If you're not sure, ask in a way that offers dignity: "It looks like you've got this, but just checking if I can give a hand." If they say they're fine, they're fine! Step back and move on.
You've been candid, though, that adjustment to motherhood hasn't been easy.
It's been so much harder than I expected. When Otto was born, I was thrown really hard. So much of new parenthood felt difficult, and I blamed it entirely on being a disabled parent. I couldn't bounce him or pace with him like his dad does. I was looking to Otto to tell me I was a good mom, but of course, that's not his job. Now, two years in, I'm finally feeling like there's solid ground beneath me in this role as mom. I can claim that title and am not just putting on a costume. The longer I'm a mom, the more I recognize the unique gifts that disability brings my parenting—things like patience, creative problem-solving, and resilience.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Rebekah Taussig's Work
Rebekah Taussig is a beautiful writer. Check out her book (HarperOne, $17) or her Instagram, @sitting_pretty, where she shares intimate, honest photos and brief reflections. Her essays have also appeared in Time.