Sticking point: talking about my project

What is it about disability as a subject of conversation that discomforts many? I’ve had to answer the classic “what do you study” and/or “what’s your dissertation about” question more often of late, and I’ve seen the enthusiasm drain off people’s faces when I give them a short blurb. Here’s how this usually goes:

Random Person: History huh? Cool. What part? I mean, what’s your dissertation on?
Me (short version): Well, I study American history. I’m looking into why disability charities like the March of Dimes and events like the Jerry Lewis telethon became cultural phenomenons after WWII. And I’m trying to figure that out by looking at images in the mass media like published photographs and the telethons.

Inevitably there’s a distinct pause followed by something akin to “that sounds serious” and a seeming inability or unwillingness to probe further. I know it’s not in everyone’s interest wheelhouse. And obviously my elevator speech needs some work, but right now that’s what I can manage to string together. Sometimes I flip the order around so I start off with the visual stuffs and end with the focus on disability. Either way, the nodding along most always slows or stops when I hit the magic word “disability.” My closest friend was the only person recently who actually nodded excitedly, because 1) she’s a wonderful friend that way, and 2) her field is psychology and she had a lot of great follow-up questions about how I’m framing my study.

But that leads me to ask, how can I improve the way I communicate what I do? And why is it that disability seems to be a non-starter with a lot of (able-bodied) people? People who in the next breath will jump into sticky conversations on race relations or gender roles with aplomb? I’m finding it tricky to wrap my head around, since so many people are connected in one way or another to the topic? I’d really like to hear your thoughts to help me figure this one out.

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