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The Politics of disability



Friends and readers,

There are forms of political experience beyond electing officials. Many are part of our daily life. One I've experienced from several angles -- my daughter's, my own, that of college students in my classes and friends -- is that of disability. Experience has taught me that not only do many people react adversely to slight non-conformities in social behavior, but many become hostile in the presence of disabilities. In the 20th century toleration, a willingness to help and even sympathy towards visibly disabled people, has been inculcated to the point it's socially unacceptable to deride, parody, or openly reject the disabled, including by law invisibly disabled people. The reality is such rejection goes on. Donald Trump's open mockery of a disabled reporter at one of his rallies shows how he accepts and encourages people to dismiss the disabled, and the laughter he got (no mattet if it's a minority) suggests this atavistic idea should not be put on a referendum.


I write this blog to call attention to an excellent article that appeared in the New York Times, Sunday August 21st, 2016: Rosemarie Garland-Thomas's Becoming Disabled. Some of the important realities she describes: the common slogans which argue against seeing disabled people as vulnerable is at odds with a common impulse to "rescue" people from such categorization; disability is everywhere and is defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This then includes depression, anxiety-attacks, anorexia, lasting disorders from traumas, failures from aging. She remarks people who have these disorders are not taught how to be a disabled person; they are encouraged to ignore the disability, which by definition they can't, in lieu of techniques for coping with the disability and with people who instinctively react hostilely or simply keep away. I am naturally taken by her emphasis on how depression functions as a disability, for that has been my experience.

Our consciousness and how we regard and treat one another needs to be transformed. We need also to accept ourselves, recognize what is our disability, not hide. Deafness is so often taken as a classic example of how before the society flexed for the disabled people (helped them develop and acquire a sign language, and then schools); recently there's been a tendency within such groups to cut themselves off from non-deaf people as if they were a separate culture that could survive independently of the rest of the world: I've read articles where two parents who are deaf deliberately bring up a child who could be part of the hearing community in ways that discourage using their hearing as far as is possible. This is dangerous because the child could lose both parents; it's an angry destructiveness that wants to own the child. Self-name yourself so as to recognize and respect what you can do and what you can't, develop what you can -- usually all things but the areas where the disability is found - and coping mechanisms.

I should mention Garland-Thomson has written a good book on physical disability in American culture and how it appears in American literary texts: Extraordinary Bodies. She has a book which begins with the concept of staring. Many of her lectures seem to focus on physical disability as that is what has until recently been recognized as disability. She often lectures on the importance of images in our society, and how they influence us. Here is a typical lecture by her:



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I'd like also to add to Garland-Thomson's article my own review of Martha Stoddard Holmes's Fictions of Afflication on how disability was treated in Victorian novels and memoirs since she treats equally of invisible disabilities. Two sections are especially relevant:

the evidence of her book demonstrates how the majority of people tenaciously cling to hegemonic norms to distinguish themselves as "normal" (191-95) and to punitive practices that demand (among other things) the disabled person do what the disability prevents. This is especially true of the autistic which some of the characters in the novels covered correspond to. The hegemonic point of view then and now is unwilling to accommodate bodies and personality profiles that don't fit what many people ground their sense of security and individual power upon ...

The evidence was plain that once educated, disabled people could maintain themselves, but due to social behaviors and norms outside the specific disability, they would mostly end up in workhouses or on the streets (107-8). Holmes makes the point that unfunded provisions in the 1870 Education Act reveal how little real interest there was, in what disabled people needed (206-8). She remarks more than once that the common response to borderline cases of disability is "fascinating." Elsewhere she implies borderline afflictions disturb abled people as such afflictions disturb their own self-image (2-15). (The verb "annoy" could also have been used here.) This need to keep "normal" people separate from the disabled as a category may be seen in the demand for utter dependency before any help is offered, a demand resulting in deceit on the part of the disabled while they are scrutinized and then often coerced into trying for an impossible independence. All the while, the interdependence of people is obscured (121-130).


A disabled person at a picture gallery

Miss Drake

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
misssylviadrake
Sep. 6th, 2016 12:20 pm (UTC)
From NYTimes
Catherine C: "I missed this. Thank you for pointing it out."
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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