Simone de Beauvoir once said ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ and even though this a feminist quote, the idea behind this quote is also relevant to those of us who have a disability.
As a gender and communications studies student whose intellectual awakening was thanks to the 1970s feminists, the idea that society constructs a story around someone’s body was something that has always fascinated me.
But this blog post isn’t about 1970s feminism.
It looks at whether disability is socially constructed and the implications of this on those who identify as having one.
Just to step back for a moment, I want to first look at what the theorists are saying about this idea. Germov and Freij argue that ‘disability is not about physiological impairment, but how that impairment is socially constructed through cultural values, people’s attitudes, and social practices…It is not impairment itself that is disabling, but the perceptions and actions of a disabling society’ (2009).
Mike Oliver states that ‘The category disability is not fixed and absolute, but can be, and indeed has been in a verity of different ways throughout history, within particular societies and in any given social context’ (1989). Interestingly, he later argues that the concept of disability is dependent on public policy and governmental economic policy but more on this later.
Susan Wendell argues in The Rejected Body that ‘neither impairment or disability can be defined purely in biomedical terms, because social arrangement and expectation make an essential contribution to impairment and disability, and to their absence’ (1996). She also argues that the social environment in which disabled people operate affects people’s ability to function.
But more importantly, she argues that ‘disability is socially constructed through failure or unwillingness to create ability who do not fit the physical and mental profile of ‘paradigm’ citizens.
What does mean for those with a disability?
It means that my disability is more than just my left sided weakness but how it is represented in society is influenced by social and economic forces. There are many ways that this impacts people with disabilities and some of these are discussed below.
It is about the economy, stupid!
Don’t worry, this isn’t a blog about Bill Clinton.
Mike Oliver believes that capitalist economies have experienced booms and busts and in the process has influenced government policies in regards to the disabled. He argues that ‘no longer does it [welfare provision] reflect tragedy and anxiety and the influence of benevolent humanitarianism. Rather, it reflects the burden that non-productive disabled people are assumed to be and the influence of modernist realism. The ideological climate in which this finds expression focuses upon the notion of dependency’.
It is a shame that it has come down to money but there is limited amount to go around.
However, I would love to see money being used to empower people so that they can play an equal part in the workforce/capitalist economy and that society can benefit for this previously underutilised human resource.
We’ve go so much to offer and contribute, it’s just we’ve got to be seen that way.
Subtle forms of discrimination are important issues to consider
While there are many forms of discrimination both overt and of a subtle kind. Susan Wendell describes several kinds of discrimination that are not so obvious.
Firstly, she thinks that the modern pace of life often disadvantages people with health conditions because they are unable to keep up with those more able-bodied individuals. The impact is, according to Wendell, is that ‘expectations of individual productivity can eclipse the actual contribution of people who can not meet them, making people unemployable when they can, in fact, do valuable work’ (ibid). She also argues that society is run by the well for the well and relegates disabled people to being the ‘other.’
My concern with her argument is that in challenging the theory that disability is a social construction, she is, in fact, formulating another idea of what disabled people should be like in a manner that isn’t at all convincing. In other words, her arguments perpetuate a narrative that ignores the potential of individuals to develop strategies and coping mechanisms to overcome such difficulties presented in a hostile environment.
It is not to say that discrimination doesn’t exist but the focus should be developing individual agency rather than a narrative of disempowerment.
What is inspiration porn?
Many Australians have heard about Stella Young, especially since her TED talk and her untimely death.
But she coined the term ‘Inspiration Porn’ after being nominated for an inspiration award when she was 15 solely on the basis for getting out of bed and remembering her own name. She claimed that disabled people are held up as objects of inspiration for able bodied people. Able bodied people need inspiration like us in order to put their lives into perspective.
Stella argued that people with disabilities do overcome things but it isn’t what think. It isn’t our own bodies, diagnosis and poor access to buildings that are the problem (although they are sometimes a pain) it is how society describes and the low expectations us that are the hardest things to get over.
Personally, I’ve found that it is the hardest thing to grapple with. People seem to have no problem with defining me in ways that reflect their own stereotypes and to meet their own agendas.
It seems that it comes from the lack of representation of disabled people in the media and in the community. You either see them portrayed as victims or heroes. In other words, as either as dysfunctional, dependent and inferior or as exceptional inspiration porn but not as individuals getting up every day, earning a living and making a life for themselves.
What do I want for the future?
I would love to see a discussion about how we frame disability and the implications that for society as a whole. It would be interesting to see how governmental policies and societal expectations influence how disabled people are perceived.
While I really don’t want to sound like Martin Luther King, I really do have a dream that one-day people will live in a society that won’t be judged by how well their body works but by the content of their character.
I really look forward to my identity not to be manipulated to fulfil someone else’s agenda or to act as inspiration because I am not really that exceptional.
List of references
Germov, John and Freij, Maria (2009) Second Opinion: Online Case Studies. (4th Edition)
Oliver, Mike. The Social Construction of the Disability Problem.
Wendell, Susan (1996). The Rejected Body. New York: Routledge.