26 March 2013

Constructing Disability: Deviant Bodies, Deviant Minds, Disabling Societies

Trigger warning: Mention of the Judge Rotenberg Center and brief description of the JRC's practices, descriptions of forced medical procedures, sexual violence, and brief mentions of murder and hate crime. None of this is detailed, however. Proceed if you feel safe.


Constructing Disability: Deviant Bodies, Deviant Minds, Disabling Societies

This is a brief speech that I gave for Ignite Georgetown in March 2013 entitled "Constructing Disability: Deviant Bodies, Deviant Minds, Disabling Societies." The video is below, followed by a transcript. The transcript was done almost entirely by my friend Nadia, who is awesome, with only a few edits from me. (Thanks, Nadia.)

The topic matter here is part of a much larger work that I've been pulling together over the last several months. I'm still working on it and developing it, but I hope you enjoy this.


Lydia Brown: Hi. I'm Lydia Brown. I'm going to be talking today about the social model of disability, which is probably not something that most of you have heard of. The way that disability is usually talked about is as illness or as a health problem or medical problem. In fact, disability issues are usually listed under "health policy" and things like that.

So what I'm going to talk about is why that is the case, and the different ways in which disability is constructed--both rhetorically and culturally--into this medicalized model of disability. So that's known as essentialism, and what essentialism says is that disability is located--the problem of it--in the mind or the body of the person called "disabled". So the way to fix disability is to fix that person's mind or body so that they're "normal"--and that's how you fix disability. And that is essentialism, the medical model of disability.

Constructivism, the alternative, says disability is a social problem. The problem of disability is not located in the body or the mind of the person called "disabled," but it's located in a society that disables that person because they don't function, act, behave, or communicate in the same way as everyone else.

So the first and foremost example of this is deafness. So if everyone in the world were deaf, there would be no such thing as spoken language. Everybody would communicate in some form of dialectical sign language whatsoever. And there would be no reason that you would experience disability because you were deaf. You would experience the inability to hear, but it wouldn't be a disability.

Disabling impairment. So impairment can mean absolutely anything. For example, I have really bad myopia; I have bad astigmatism. I can't see any of you right now! But it's not a disability that's current at the moment because there's no stigma attached to the fact that I need glasses. But there is stigma attached to the fact that I am Autistic.

Disabling deviance. So for example, I have friends who have disfigurements, as in their bodies just look abnormal, but they don't actually experience any functional impairments. But they're considered disabled because our society says, because your body, your face looks "wrong", we're going to treat you as though you have stigma attached to you.

Disabling sexuality. The Queer community has a really long history of being pathologized. Homosexuality was listed in the Manual of Psychiatric Disorders up until the 1980's; being trans* is still listed in the Manual of Psychological [sic] Disorders. Women, other activists, and other civil rights and social justice people, who have fought against social structures of oppression, have historically been labeled as mentally ill or mentally incompetent, have been committed to institutions, and have been attacked on the basis of supposed disability, in order to discredit them.

So what is ableism? Ableism is the oppression of disabled people. Analogous to racism or sexism, it is systemic, not just individual, although it does happen also at the individual level. It is prejudice and discrimination against people because they are or are assumed to be disabled.

So how does ableism play out in society? Ableism plays out through disabling attitudes--so for example, the idea that, "Well, those people aren't like us; they shouldn't be in our schools". Or the idea that, "Those people, the ones who commit horrible crimes, must all be mentally ill, so we should lock them up in institutions"--that's a disabling attitude.

Disabling policies. In the law, the case of Carrie Buck was in the 1920s--the Supreme Court ruled that it's legal to involuntarily sterilize disabled people--still on the books, has never been overturned. Those are disabling policies.

Disabling communities. Is your neighborhood accessible and inclusive to people? Are people labeled "mentally ill" or "retarded"? Kept out of your schools? Are they kept out of your communities? Are people in wheelchairs or who have other forms of physical impairments unable to access the same materials as you? That is a community that is disabling people.

Disabling education. When schools actively work to exclude disabled students by placing them in a segregated classroom or segregated schools or denying them an education altogether by enacting abusive practices like restraint and seclusion on students, that is disable--that is disabling occurring in the context of education.

What about in academia? [audience cough] I talked at the very beginning about the way that people talk about disability. In academia, whether that's in scholarship or in research, if disability is thought of as solely a medical problem located inside someone's body, then academia is doing a failure to actual disabled people.

So how do we end this? What would the end to this--to disability mean? The disability civil rights movement since the 1920's has been struggling with that question. Because, if we were able to end the cycle of disablement happening in society, would that mean that disability no longer existed?

One of the things that's been happening is the fight for equal access. So, for example, do we have ramps in this building? Are there light options other than fluorescents in here? Is this material presented in a format other than visual up on there? I did not include pictures on here intentionally, because I wouldn't have time to describe them all.

Fight for legal equality. Are there laws like the ones around involuntary sterilization still on the books? Are there laws about declaring mental incompetency that strip people out of their rights? Are there laws that uphold practices of forced healthcare and of denial of education? Those laws need to be repealed.

What about inclusion? The fact that disabled people are not included in many workplaces, are not included in many communities, are not included in many schools, poses a huge problem to the millions of disabled people in this country right now. You need to--we need to be building inclusive communities that support everybody and enable access for everybody.

What about human rights? [audience member coughing] The Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, [coughing] electric shocks disabled people as a punishment. That is only one egregious example of many human rights abuses and murder and hate crimes enacted against disabled people across the globe every day.

So what does it mean to celebrate deviance? To celebrate deviance means that we need to change the rhetoric on disability from saying "this is a health or medical problem," and to say that this is a sociological process that needs to be challenged and deconstructed, so that maybe there can be an end to disability and that those who have impairments can experience full inclusion and civil rights in society. 

Thank you. [applause]

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