Disability + Culture (4th February, 2019)

[Image: Still from Examined Life of Sunuara Taylor in motorised wheelchair beside Judith Butler, crossing the road with car in background.]

In this session we read:

  • Lennard J. Davis, Chapter 2 ‘Constructing Normalcy’, pp.23 – 49 in Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (London: Verso Books, 1995)
  • Nirmala Erevelles, ‘Crippin’ Jim Crow: Disability, Dis-Location, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline‘, pp.81 – 99 in Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada, ed. Ben-Moshe, Chapman, and Carey (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014)
  • Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor, clip from Examined Life dir. by Astra Taylor (2008) (transcript available)
Names, Labels, Signs: Signification of Disability

In ‘Crippin’ Jim Crow’, Nirmala Erevelles gives an anecdote of how while volunteering at her daughter’s school, she met a young black boy and asked him for his name. But a nearby support staff interrupted and told her that the young boy lied about his name because ‘people in their community all lie about their names to get away from creditors and the police’. Erevelles uses this example to illustrate how people of colour are pathologized and racialized into criminals in the popular cultural mindset. This is what Davis also calls ‘a conflation of disability with depravity and defective class’.

I call it “pathology” rather than “labeling” because she was doing much more than just remarking on is misbehavior. Rather, she was—as the act of pathologizing demands—marking the origins, causes, developments, consequences, and manifestations of deviation from some imagined norm. (Erevelles, p. 84)

Erevelles points out that race and disability are intimately connected because in a society that privileges whiteness, being black is disabling. People with non-visible disabilities who are also black/working class are less likely to get diagnosed/proper treatment and more likely to end up in prison due to lack of accommodation. A member mentioned that this also happens in London in areas like Brixton, where working-class children who have ADHD are much more likely to be pathologized and earmarked as ‘bad’ children (or their parents as ‘bad’ parents) while middle class children’s disruptive behaviour are more likely to be medicalised. Following Taylor’s suggestion that disabled bodies are bodies that don’t fit normative expectations, Erevelles seems to suggest that disability is also culturally superimposed on ‘marked’ bodies (skin colour, gender, names) long before medical diagnoses are made.

While the support staff perceived the use of aliases as pathological deception, people of certain social groups (Jews, Germans, families of notorious individuals) often change their names to evade persecution or stigma. This practice continues today when people change their names on job applications to sound ‘more white’ in order to avoid discrimination. This returns us to the topic of ‘passing’ again: does the person of colour ‘come out’ about their race on the job application if they know it will ‘disable’ them? Does a person with disabilities disclose their condition?

Culture and Normalcy

This led us to look at cultural responses to disabled, queer, and non-normative bodies. In Examined Life Sunuara Taylor comments that she chose to live in San Francisco because it is an accessible city and that access to physical spaces means there is greater social access because the more disabled people there are out and about, the more opportunities for the nondisabled to learn to interact with disabled people. This is the argument that the Social Model presents. We discussed the ways in which this is true, but is also simplistic – physically accessible spaces won’t always lead to social acceptance. Taylor also adds in the interview that while she can handle her coffee cup independently by using her mouth instead of her hand to hold, she tends to avoid doing that in public because it is an unusual way of holding a cup and embarrasses her. This led us to think about Lennard Davis’ idea of normalcy and Robert McRuer’s ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’.

Judith Butler notes that a young eighteen-year-old in Maine was killed because other people disliked his ‘feminine’ way of walking. Being ‘out’ about one’s condition or sexuality exposes the person to danger and rather than acknowledgement, the responses can be hostile. Disabled people in public spaces are often perceived by nondisabled people as an inconvenience and disabled people choose not to go out because of fear of embarrassment. Many disabled people, like queer or trans people, become victims of hate crimes because others feel ‘disgust’ towards the ways their non-normative bodies look or perform. Equally seeing disabled people doing ‘normal’ things like having intimate sexual relationships and becoming parents, also arouse fear and disgust in the nondisabled. Rosemary Garland-Thomson has suggested that this is because the disabled body is perceived as the ‘Other’ that defines the nondisabled by being what the ‘Self’ is not. Seeing the disabled ‘Other’ behaving in ways that resemble them disrupts this division and destabilises the construction of normalcy. How do we challenge these cultural perceptions of disability besides ‘visibility’?

Protection or Control?

Looking at cultural stereotypes and expectations of disabled people more closely, we observed cultural responses to disabled people is linked to a long history in eugenics and institutionalisation. In Davis’ chapter, he mentions that Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone as an assistive device for people with hearing impairments, was also a eugenicist who advocated against sign language. What motivated this was a fear that sign language would lead to the deterioration of oral language and that deaf people would marry and produce a race of deaf people. People with disabilities (particularly learning disabilities and psychiatric conditions) were routinely institutionalised and sterilised to prevent reproduction and ‘protect’ nondisabled people.

The question of ‘protection’ is also double-edged. Former asylums are not being turned into mega-prisons; the involuntary hospitalisation of mentally ill patients is increasingly common in Europe and North America. People with disabilities are being incarcerated not only to protect other ‘normal’ people from harm but also to ‘protect’ them from harming themselves and harm from others. People with disabilities are culturally constructed as infantile. They cause moral panic because nondisabled people are expected to be morally responsible for people with disabilities. As noted earlier, people with disabilities (esp. learning disabilities) are not expected to have sexual relationships because they are deemed unable to give (or refuse) consent and are therefore vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. When a person with disabilities becomes a victim of sexual abuse or assault, in contrast to the victim-blaming narrative that is usually peddled against women, it is the carer who is thrown into question. How do we renegotiate these boundaries in ways that will recognise the sexuality and autonomy of people with disabilities in safe ways without being patronising or oppressive? One possibility might be to create platforms for people with disabilities to speak openly about their sexuality and educate the public. Comedians like Rosie Jones frequently refers to her cerebral palsy and homosexuality (with liberal use of profanities) in her shows to provoke and disturb audience expectations of disabled women as passive and sexually naïve. Shows like ‘Denmark’s Hottest Cripple’ featuring the disability activist Mulle Skouboe have been challenging audiences to view disabled people differently. The very use of the term ‘cripple’ in the show’s title has been a subject of debate. The positive responses from shows is why as well as physical access more activists are now demanding representation in the media to debunk cultural stereotypes and prejudice.

A transcript of Examined Life is available. Please email disabilityintersectionality@gmail.com for access.

Our next meeting will be on 25th February, with guest speaker Dr Emma Sheppard on ‘Disability + Borders’. For more details visit our home page.

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