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How disability advocate Alice Wong turned her anger into action

In July 2015, Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, visited the White House and President Barack Obama via robot to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. (Pete Souza/White House)
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Alice Wong was born with muscular dystrophy, which hampered her ability to walk by the time she was 7 or 8 years old. As a first-grader, she had to make her way slowly down the hall, lagging behind her classmates. One day, her teacher took Alice’s hand. Side by side, they led the class through the school. “Walking together, in tandem — adult-child, nondisabled-disabled, teacher-student — we set the pace for the entire class,” Wong writes in “Year of the Tiger.” “I have not felt that seen, safe, or cared for by a teacher since.”

Much of Wong’s education was filled with “enraging, traumatic, discriminatory, bullying, and embarrassing experiences,” but this teacher made young Alice feel as if she were brimming with potential.

While some of those enraging experiences are among the topics Wong explores, that’s only part of the story in “Year of the Tiger: An Activist’s Life.” Wong, who now uses a wheelchair and breathes with the assistance of a ventilator, was born more than a decade before the Americans With Disabilities Act would go into effect. Only two years into the ADA era, the private Quaker school she attended, Earlham College in Indiana, had “to create an accessible bathroom in the one dorm that didn’t have steps.” She had access to a single restroom on campus. After respiratory failure required a break in her studies, she transferred to the nearby public university, where she commuted from home.

Ultimately, she found her way to graduate school in the Bay Area, where she would flourish within the disability rights community. Even as Wong’s surroundings continued to present barriers, her self-advocacy expanded into activism, including founding the Disability Visibility Project, which collects oral histories.

“Year of the Tiger” is the wide-ranging story of this activist’s life. Wong warns, “You will not find any pithy themes,” and it will not “be neatly digestible with sentimental generalizations about the meaning of life.” Instead, drawing from principles of sociology, Wong chronicles her circumstances and intellectual growth, including how her agitation and dissatisfaction led her “to become more of an advocate and to use that individual anger to help other people.”

This collection is part playbook, part scrapbook. It includes transcripts of enlightening and sometimes topically overlapping interviews, tips for conducting interviews based on her experiences, and personal photographs and drawings, including a collaborative graphic essay about the “truth universally acknowledged that cats know how to live.”

The short essay is Wong’s go-to form. “Essays are my jam,” she proclaims, and that’s where incisive critiques, humor, practicality and optimism become compellingly inseparable. In a different context, the jumps from essay to interview to comic strip might seem disjointed, and the occasional recasting of events within different forms or from different vantages might feel repetitive, but in the story of Wong’s activist life as a disabled Asian American woman, this expansive structure serves as a version of her first-grade teacher’s hand. “Year of the Tiger” demonstrates an individual mind at work, as one might expect from a good memoir, and encompasses something larger.

Wong’s anger and her humor permeate this book. In the wake of a friend’s death, for instance, she is “horrified to see media outlets … get the details about Stacey’s [Stacey Park Milbern’s] life wrong,” both at the time of her death and a year later. When Wong receives a direct message from a journalist asking for intimate details, “anger boiled forth.” Whether in response to her own experiences or the broader cultural thoughtlessness toward the disabled community, Wong conveys an “impulse to be gentle” mingled with “the need to make clear in no uncertain terms that some people need to” back off. There are plenty of lighthearted moments as well. The “Proust-ish Questionnaire” chapter reveals not only Wong’s greatest fears, which include spiders as well as power outages that could put her life in peril, but also her favorite lipstick colors, coffee roasters and songs. She has fun with her self-proclaimed nerd status, shares inside jokes with friends and admits that she uses coffee instead of yoga to center herself.

While very much the story of one life, “Year of the Tiger” is also about collective power and collective responsibility. A family tree of her deceased disabled friends, for instance, visualizes Wong’s connection with others. There are also social media memes and text message exchanges that manifest the crucial role the internet plays in Wong’s life as a social and intellectual space. She speaks often about collective care, collective effort, collective values, collective liberation and “a collective force holding everyone together with bonds of interdependence.”

It is in this context of interdependence that Wong is a self-declared oracle. As she puts it, “My body, which the state calls ‘broken,’ I call an ‘oracle.’” As someone who uses a machine to assist breathing, she writes, “it’s not just the distant flames that I can see before you. But it’s the cold math that calculates the value of my life, an algorithm of expendability that — whether you realize it or not — can come for you as well.” One in four adults in the United States has some kind of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and any of us might become disabled.

In fact, Wong suggests that a post-pandemic future in which the expertise of people with disabilities drives decision-making can better support the restructured, precarious lives we all live. “If there’s anything to come out of this pandemic,” she writes, “I hope that people realize that, for many of us, we have always been here, we have always survived. And in many cases, we have the solutions.” Rather than fool ourselves into trying to return to a pre-pandemic normal, Wong argues, this moment is our chance to “re-envision the world, a world centered on justice, liberation, interdependence, mutual care, and mutual respect,” especially because pandemics, climate turmoil and economic crises are unlikely to subside.

In an especially lively oracular move, the last piece in this book is an obituary upon Wong’s future death in 2070 at the age of 96. This obituary serves not as self-tribute but, rather, as a list of goals and possibilities that are both individual and collective: “a disability-centered imprint at a major U.S. publisher”; “the abolition of carceral institutions such as psychiatric hospitals, nursing homes, and prisons”; a punk rock band called Rage Against Ableism; a Crips in Space program — the list of proposed achievements for herself and humanity goes on.

This book is purposefully no feel-good story of triumph. Instead, memoir will be redefined for many readers by Wong’s candid voice, tenacious spirit and necessary truths. “Year of the Tiger” welcomes each of us as a potential advocate, offers a kaleidoscopic understanding of interdependence, and encourages us to be more activist, individually and together.

Anna Leahy is the author of “Tumor” and directs the MFA program in creative writing at Chapman University.

Year of the Tiger

An Activist’s Life

By Alice Wong

Vintage. 400 pp. $17 paperback