Over the past one hundred years, a series of social movements has transformed citizenship. The disability rights movement builds on previous social movements. It also challenges some of the assumptions these previous movements have made. Because of this, it can contribute to building a better world for everyone.
Previous social movements have showed the importance of changing society from above and below. The fight to end colonial domination around the world, or for civil rights, feminist campaigns or campaigns for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans rights have all involved demands for “big” change at the level of government rule, legal policy, and business practices. But activists in these movements have also paid a lot of attention to how people treat one another and how they think and feel about themselves. They have strategized about how to end or transform “small” things like hurtful jokes and excluding people socially, or feeling inferior and undeserving and left out. Combining approaches from above and below has been a source of bravery and creativity.
Activists for disability issues have drawn upon this precious legacy, and have in many ways modeled their own movement on what has gone before. The struggles are, again, both “big” and “small”: for changes to government policy, for changes to legal regimes, for changes to business practices; and for changes to how people treat one another and how they feel about themselves. However, there is an important way in which previous social movements have created an obstacle for the disability rights movement. Overcoming that obstacle is difficult, but it’s also why the contribution of disability politics is potentially so exciting.
Historian Douglas Baynton has documented the way that every previous social movement has used an argument that takes the following form:
Society is doing us an injustice by treating us as if we were really disabled. We are not really disabled, so we shouldn’t be treated the way that really disabled people are treated.
Movements opposed to colonialism and racism argued that non-white people were not really less mentally able than white people; the feminist movement argued that women were not really physically less capable than men; movements for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people argued that these people didn’t really have mental illnesses or physical impairments. As we all know, these were successful strategies. However, they had the impact of reinforcing the stigma of disability itself. They suggested, in effect, that while it was not okay to treat people badly who were not really mentally or physically impaired, there remained some people who did deserve poor treatment: people who “really” are mentally and physically impaired in some way.
How could activists otherwise so mindful of injustice and stigma behave so unjustly? Part of the explanation is that for much of the twentieth century, disability was not very publically visible. Practices of eugenics and institutionalization meant that many people – including otherwise kind and considerate people – were not thinking about disability, and people with disabilities, at all. A key element of the disability rights movement has been, of course, just making sure people with disabilities are visibly a part of public life.
However, this “invisibility” is only part of the explanation. Disability scholars and disability activists insist that in fact, disability is everywhere in human experience and that our society is in denial about the universal nature of disability. All of us are relatively mentally and physically disabled at different points in our lives because of childhood, illness, and aging. All of us are vulnerable to becoming suddenly or gradually more mentally and physically disabled at any point in our lives because human bodies and minds are fragile. A society that is in denial about disability (and dependency) is a scary society for everyone, because it asks us to ignore not only people with disabilities and their needs for support but also the disabilities within everyone and everyone’s needs for support. There is not a single person in the world who is fully abled on all fronts and entirely self-sufficient. That person doesn’t actually exist. We are all more or less disabled persons.
The language of liberation politics is full of talk about strength, self-determination, and independence. Those are certainly aspects of a full human life, but disability politics promises a way to acknowledge and grapple with other important dimensions of human experience including weakness, uncertainty, figuring things out together, and mutual care. None of us raise ourselves, nurse ourselves through illness, only tell and laugh at our own jokes to our own selves, bury our own bodies… not if things go as we hope in life, anyway. Disability politics concern things that are new to the recent history of social movements. But they are old in the human story. By pushing us all to think about this and act accordingly, the disability movement holds tremendous promise for everybody.
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Baynton, Douglas. (2001) “Disability and the justification of inequality in American history.”http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=70
Davis, Lennard. (2005) “Constructing normalcy: the bell curve, the novel, and the invention of the disabled body in the nineteenth century.” http://glmw.info/soc-dis/files/1.pdf
Kittay, Eva Feder. (1999) Love’s Labor: Essays on Women, Equality, and Dependency. New York: Routledge.
Siebers, Tobin. (2002) “Tender Organs, Narcissism, and Identity Politics” In Snyder, Sharon, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, eds. Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. New York: MLA.