Disability + Intersectionality (21st January, 2019)

Book cover of The Politics of Disablement showing black and white photograph of person in wheelchair in front of a flight of stairs

For our first reading group session we read:

  • Michael Oliver, The Politics of Disablement (1990) – Chapters 1 & 2
  • Robert McRuer, Introduction – ‘Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Experience’, from Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (2006)
  • Jasbir Puar, ‘Prognosis time: Towards a geopolitics of affect, debility, and capacity’ (2009)

Here is a brief review of some of the points we discussed:

Critiquing the Social Model of Disability

We began with a discussion about the usefulness and limitations of the social model of disability. The social model of disability distinguishes between physical impairment and disability. Impairment is the person’s embodiment; disability is produced by the barriers society places on the person in the lack of adjustments and access to resources people need to fully participate in society. The social model is a powerful and critical tool for disability activists because it provides a language with which people with disabilities can speak about their experiences and make demands on society to change.

One of the problems with the social model is that it doesn’t accommodate pain and the mutability of the body. With chronic illnesses, mental health conditions, and sensory or cognitive conditions, physical access into a building simply isn’t enough. While many institutions and public places now have ramps, adapted toilets and lifts, it is not just the physical architecture but also the social architecture that needs to be challenged. How can we develop the social model of disability without throwing everything out the window? What does it mean to have the kind of ‘mentally accessible workplace’ Rachel Perkins speaks of, for instance?

Reconsidering the metrics of productivity/unproductivity

This point about accessible workplaces leads to questions about productivity and value. In a service/consumer driven economy, we are free to work to provide service and also free to participate as customers. But people with disabilities cannot participate in the economy in the same ways as people without disabilities do, and in the eyes of neoliberalism, in their incapacity to work, they are by default less ‘valuable’. (Though as someone points out, disabled women are disproportionately represented in sex work and care work. People with learning disabilities meanwhile, are often exploited and paid lower wages than nondisabled peers.)

In Jasbir Puar’s article, she suggests a different way of valuating bodies: “if all information is eventually used or is at least seen as having imminent utility – we might ask whether this is truly a revaluing of otherwise worthless bodies left for dying.” (p. 164) Puar seems to be suggesting that all bodies, even disabled, ‘faulty’ bodies can still have value in the information and knowledge they yield, from using their DNA to increase our understanding of human neurology and physiology, to the application of specialist medicines and technologies to the greater population. Many of us were uncomfortable with the idea of ‘exploiting’ disabled bodies, as in the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were taken without consent for medical research. We also discussed the ways in which Puar might be critiquing the idea of coding bodies and extracting information from them. In Bodies with New Organs: Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled (2015), Puar expands on this idea more fully.

Are there other ways of conceptualising value and productivity beyond economics and biogenetics? How can we think of ‘work’ in differently?

Representation and Visibility: What does a queer or disabled person look like?

From performance at work we then turned to the question of performing disability. Going back to Judith Butler’s idea of gender as performance, just there are ways of being ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’, there are also ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of ‘looking disabled’. When someone uses the disabled parking bay, or the accessible toilet, or attends a Work Capability Assessment, they are judged as to whether they are really disabled or disabled ‘enough’ to warrant assistance. On the one hand, the disabled person is seen as a liability on the state if they are too ill to work; on the other, if they try to work they are seen as frauds. If you don’t ‘come out’, you must be normal. The pressure to disclose ‘truth’ about yourself is remarkably similar to the ‘coming out’ process. So when a person has a non-visible disability, when a person identifies as a femme lesbian, do they ‘come out’ or do they ‘pass’? (This is a question that Ellen Samuels asks in her article ‘My Body, My Closet’, and as she points out, ‘passing’ applies to race as well.)

It seems that somehow the heterosexual, able body is always being threatened by non-normative bodies. The disabled body disrupts the boundaries of normative corporeality and what we ‘expect’ a body to be like. Seeing disability makes the healthy, ablebodied spectator aware of their human vulnerability and reminds them that they too, if they live long enough, will become ill and disabled. There is a kind of disgust and fear of as well as prurient fascination with non-normative corporeality. These bodies are weaponised as a cautionary tale – these are the scroungers, these are the ones you should not emulate. These attitudes, we noted, stem from a lack of empathy at the root of neoliberal individualism. What can we do to change these attitudes?

Our next meeting is on Monday 4th Feb at 5pm. You can find the reading list and further details on our main page. To join the mailing list, email disabilityintersectionality@gmail.com.

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