Reflections on Disability History Month

 

This Disability History Month, writes Dr. Andy Flack,we would do well to remember that the past is not always a foreign country.

Injustice, exploitation, and pain are happening today, and they can be stopped.  Indeed, Disability History Month (November-December), like the International Day of People with Disabilities (3 December) is a present danger to people living with disabilities.

Perhaps let me qualify that: I’m an historian, and I love history for its own sake. This gives me a particular perspective on the present. Both events tend to fetishize the celebration of ‘super-human’ feats of resilience, of overcoming, on the one hand, while heavily implying that the material marginalisation and suffering of people with disabilities is a thing of the past on the other. Tokenistic, and not infrequently designed and delivered by ‘Normals’ (and often ignoring the desire of people with disabilities to be at the heart of conceptualising and delivering such events), these events risk doing more to silence than to empower.

Whatever happened to ‘Nothing about us without us’…?

Image shows artwork by Elizabeth Thomsen which reads 'Nothing About Us Is For Us Without Us'

“‘Nothing about us without us is for us…'” by Elizabeth Thomsen https://www.flickr.com/photos/92987904@N00

People tend to avert their gaze from the ‘problem’ of disability.

The fact that COVID deaths have been sickeningly high among people with a range of physical and learning needs creeps into the news cycle, but soon enough will be conveniently forgotten. It’s eugenics in action, see, nature red in tooth and claw. The same is true of higher education institutions.

I’ll quote Lennard J. Davis at length: ‘…so much of left criticism has devoted itself to the issue of the body, of the social construction of sexuality and gender. Alternative bodies people this discourse … But lurking behind these images of transgression and deviance is a much more transgressive and deviant figure: the disabled body.’ Davis does not here articulate the assumption that such criticism assumes a norm of physical (and mental and psychological) ‘able-bodied, heteronormative, white, normalcy, nor does he directly address race here, but racialized bodies are a critical part of the diversity agenda.

Since disabled people are culturally constructed as the ‘ultimate deviants’, it is not surprising that higher education institutions choose to ignore (or pay tokenistic attention to) the challenge disability presents to a culture that is built on ablism at its extreme. Everyone in the academy is part of the hegemony of ablism – of ‘merit’, ‘high achievement’, ‘ultra-efficiency’, of one-size-fits-all.

What are universities doing to mark Disability History Month?

Is it being deployed as a means of purple-washing away questionable practices? And what about the International Day of People with Disabilities? We need to ask whether any events have been co-created with disabled people themselves to reflect the realities of the world in which they find themselves?

In some ways my institution does good work in rendering the ‘diversity agenda’ visible – gender and BAME pay gaps for instance – but when this is combined with the silence about, or relegation of, other issues of critical importance to peoples’ lives, nothing is achieved except the creation of new ableist hierarchies, new hegemonic marginalizations, new oppressions, new ways of pitting people against each other, and new ways of inflicting pain.

At many HE institutions, the muffled whispers of and about disability are thunderous.

The discourse and practical implementation of ‘reasonable adjustments’ rests on a very subjective view of what is indeed ‘reasonable’, and when there is no protected central budget (the kind of ring-fenced budget that most large organisations worth their salt have…) then the question of what is ‘reasonable’ and what is not becomes one framed by unnecessary and potentially discriminatory financial decisions.

Let’s be under no illusions: people suffer because of these approaches to difference.

They’re not just annoyed and upset for a while (though that’s bad enough). They suffer.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t mark events such as Disability History Month, or, indeed, the International Day of Disabled People.

Something is better than nothing, after all.

See the Disability Employment Charter here

Disability History Month Snapshots

In the first of our snapshot posts for Disability History Month 2021, Dr. Andy Flack discusses the life of Julia Pastrana.

Julia Pastrana, a First Nations Mexican woman, was born in 1834. She died only twenty-five years later, having lived with a genetic condition known as hypertrichosis terminalis and which, in conjunction with other medical conditions, manifested as a series of physical characteristics – including the hyper production of hair and the swelling of lips and gums – which thoroughly inscribed her body with a gendered, racialized, and speciesist Otherness. This triad of perceptual lenses intersected in transformative ways. In popular discourse, Pastrana was thoroughly ‘freaked’, becoming known as the ‘Bear Woman’, the ‘Ape Woman’, or simply the ‘Nondescript’, and displayed across Europe and North America in the ultimate theatre of stigmatic staring: Even in afterlife, her body was embalmed, ‘freakish’ deviance captured to satiate the probing curiosities of mid-nineteenth-century scientific communities.

Julia Pastrana, “the nondescript”, advertised for exhibition. Colour woodcut. Wellcome Collection.

Pastrana was one among countless people – think Joseph Merrick, Stephen Bibrwoski – whose physical appearance rendered them objects of fascination and, not infrequently, disgust. Leading Disability Studies scholar Lennard J. Davis argues that ‘we live in a world of norms’ and that these ‘norms’ are cultural constructs with histories that need to be excavated. The modern ‘freakshow’ is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of an idea of what it meant to be ‘normal’ – to have a ‘normal body’ – at any particular point in time. And in Pastrana’s afflicted body, we find multiple and intersecting deviations from the supposedly standard types of the Victorian age. In her case, transgressions of gender norms (body hair) combined with culturally and historically contingent ideas of femininity and racialized physical stereotypes to position her as something not-quite-human. At the same time, her unavoidable humanity, captured in the movement of her body and the sound of her voice, meant that she could not be understood as not human (animal) either. ‘Bear woman’, ‘Ape Woman’, ‘Nondescript’; these terms meant that she could be seen as both, a liminal being whose apparently animal inferiority made her eminently exploitable. A commercialized vision of life at the margins. ‘Freakshows’ were alien worlds for the Normals.

Pastrana’s life resonates for people living with disabilities today, for the freakshow is not behind us. The token disabled person, who is thrust forward to speak on behalf of physical deviance, is still a spectacular attraction for the Normals. Public spaces often remain sites of penetrative staring, and animalized disabled lives are formed, figured, and ended at the intersections of gendered, racialized – and many other – experiences and stereotypes.