Although there are certain groups of disabled people (particularly the more radical and activist groups like Wry Crips) whose model for inclusion is rooted in identity politics, demanding respect as being different rather than in spite of one’s differences (Kruks, 2001, p 85), the bulk of disability discourse revolves around the idea that disability is socially constructed (Davis, Siebers, Shogan). These arguments are based on the idea that normalcy is a myth, propped up by setting in opposition the deviant or disabled Other, and this myth is compounded by the spectacles of both the freak and the beauty queen, since they lie at either end of the spectrum; we as spectators must lie somewhere comfortably between the two extremes, as our bodies are afforded the status of universal or general (Garland Thompson). In this Derridean binary system of power, the disabled body can be seen as the quintessential Other; an immutable position fixed in embodied impairment, culturally reinforced by society and lent scientific credence through the application of medical science that classifies and attempts to correct or normalize its deviant nature.
The social model locates disability in society’s discriminatory and oppressive attitudes and practices, as a cultural creation it can be addressed, modified and essentially removed. As the case of Martha’s Vineyard has shown, the disabling effects of impairment can actually be neutralized if the physical and social limitations themselves are absent from the perceptions of the greater community (Groce, Sacks). Francis Galton’s appropriation and adaptation of Quetelet’s homme moyen bell curve to identify ‘desirable‘ human traits and the Victorian quest for the ‘betterment‘ of humanity, as well as ‘progressive’ sciences (medicine, phrenology, criminology, sociology, anthropology) served to introduce and reinforce notions of ‘deviant‘ bodies and minds, as well as the possibility and necessity of their being institutionally corrected (even to the point of advocating eugenic intervention). Some of these concepts have remained in existence even into the second half of the twentieth century. With the liberating momentum of civil rights and feminism in the 1950s and 60s, as well as postcolonial discourse, the hegemonic position of an essentially white, bourgeois, able-bodied, heterosexual male ‘patriarch’ was challenged.
Nevertheless, disability rights still remains an issue (the ADA was only enacted by US Congress in 1990, the DDA by the UK in 1996, and they are both subject to much critique); perhaps this has as much to do with prevailing attitudes towards disability as the very unclear limits to what actually constitutes a disability (a visually-impaired person would entail a person who has problems seeing, but why then is myopia not considered a disability, since it could be argued that spectacles serve as corrective equipment in much the same way as a wheelchair or prosthetic limb) coupled with the fact that the term itself covers such a broad spectrum of physical and intellectual impairments. In this sense, any general mobilization would appear at risk of falling into the reductive trap of pressuring individuals into identifying their disability as their defining feature, or merely trading the disabling oppression of society for the dictates of dominant sub-groups that membership of a specific social group may subject them to: simply replacing one form of tyranny with another (Appiah, 1996). On the other hand, it could be argued that diverse as the group may be, they are united by shared political interests and goals rather than by their similarities, and as such membership would not place any limits on self-determination.
Aside from the disability rights movement’s activist claims for equality, there is also the issue of media portrayals of disabled people. Despite some efforts at inclusion (and these appear to have more to do with alternative body type issues than disability per se), disabled people are largely absent from mainstream media, and when they do appear, their disability is central to their character and very often has to be explained or justified by the plot – they cannot just be disabled (Davis calls this ‘ghettoisation‘ of disability). As if to add insult to injury, more often than not the disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors! Davis also points out a fundamental paradox, that if an artist’s work is about disability, then the work will be considered narrow or lacking universality; yet on the other hand, if the art does not deal with disability, the artist’s disability will become irrelevant. But isn’t that precisely what the artist wants? To be taken foremost and above all as an artist? To be recognised for the value of the artwork and not for the challenges faced by its producer (MFPA credo), and thus transcend the ‘disabled’ label?