Disabled identity

One of the problems associated with disability is the fact that the impairment becomes the primary focus of identity, eclipsing all other aspects. As such, although an individual may belong to or identify with other groups (ethnic, gender, class, etc), the disabled identity becomes the salient one. McTigue (2007) observes that this may lead some to resist being labelled disabled for fear that the ‘absolute concept’ of disability will render them ‘wholly disabled’, effectively obscuring their other traits and abilities. Shakespeare (1996) points out that there are generally two psychological camps where disability is seen as negative identity. The first is resignation, where the impairment is regarded as the cause of personal failure, while the second is denial, where the individual conceals the negative impacts of impairment or endeavours to overcome them (supercrip). He claims that these forms of narrative are neither psychologically nor socially healthy, since they are rooted in an acceptance of external disempowering paradigms:

“By focusing on the body and the individual, the disabled person is trapped in a prison not of their own devising, and cannot escape except through strategies which are ultimately self-defeating.” (Shakespeare 1996, p 100)

He advocates rejecting the negative denotations of the medical model, and embracing the social model as a means of creating a more positive identity in a kind of ‘coming out’, building new narratives to challenge stereotypes. He likens disability to sexuality, since there is a similar degree of familial isolation, guilt and shame attached to the fact of difference, and advocates aligning the disability debate with wider social theoretical discourse. Also, in a similar way that same sex activity has had different meanings at different times and in different places, Shakespeare posits that disability has been experienced differently throughout history and in different cultural contexts.

Broaching the issue of multiple identities, Shakespeare draws an analogy with the feminist movement, where black women felt their experience was ignored by their white counterparts. Disabled people also embody multiple identities, and may have more in common with their ethnic or gender group than with other disabled people (or they may experience different identities come to the fore on different occasions depending on the particular context, as Clare (1999) demonstrated). Embodying multiple identities has its own issues, as Asian-American feminist filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha observed: “At times rejected by her own community, other times needfully retrieved, she [the minority woman/woman-of-color/feminist] is both useless and useful” (1991, p 18), or as Spivak remarks, “clearly, if you are poor, black, and female you get it in three ways” (1988, p 90) four ways if you are disabled to boot! On the other hand, Trinh declares that “identity can very well speak its plurality without suppressing its singularity” (Trinh 1991, p 14).

Shakespeare contends that disability is a very powerful identity, able to transcend other identities and even to ‘de-sex’ an individual (Shakespeare 1996, p 109). Focusing on disability (or the disabled identity) would thus seem to eclipse other aspects of an individual’s identity such as class or gender, which in fact greatly affect the way impairment and disability are experienced, perceived and addressed, as Shakespeare warns: “it is dangerous to overlook multiple identities, and to assume that disability is the sole and significant identity.” He also points out that multiple identities do not act additively but simultaneously, and should thus be treated as qualitatively distinct.

Shakespeare also pertinently suggests that the ideals of independence, freedom of choice and individual rights have more to do with a predominantly white western values system, and that these may not be relevant in other communities which place more emphasis on solidarity, and employ a more familial approach. Finally, for such personal narratives to be effective not only do the disabled individuals have to be empowered with a voice, the audience also needs to be responsive: “Fundamental is the process of listening, which requires openness and respect.”

In discussing the subject of a disabled identity, Michael Oliver states that:

“The personal response of individuals to their disabilities cannot be understood merely as a reaction to trauma or tragedy but have to be located within a framework which takes account of both history and ideology” (Oliver 1990, p 60)

In this sense he means that a personal response is anyway dictated to some degree by the social conditions and attitudes that exist at any one time and place. He also points out that women in particular are denied access to traditional female roles since they are regarded as asexual, as well as being incapable of or unsuited to motherhood (ibid, p 71). He also explains that traditional view of women as being ‘naturally’ more passive and dependent mean that their using a wheelchair is not as severely limiting as it is to men. Citing Bonwich (1985, p 56):

A woman, even if disability requires that she use a wheelchair, can still manage a household, direct others in household tasks, provide emotional support to a family, and function sexually in a ‘relatively passive’ manner.”

Disabled feminist theorist Ynestra King (1993) compares disability with being a woman, stating that both are embodied, organic facts that cannot be changed, but while the ‘nature’ of being a woman is socially constructed, being disabled is not: people don’t ‘do disability’ in the same way that they ‘do gender’ since it is a “tragedy of nature, of a kind that will always exist” (King 1993, p 72). She also notes prevailing attitudes of a binary nature, where one is either completely disabled and thus fully dependent on others, “dysfunctional/unemployable” and entitled to welfare support, or completely independent and do not require any assistance whatsoever, and this “mythology of autonomy perpetuates in terrible ways the oppression of the disabled” since disabled people need help, and to need help means to be a failure “this clear lack of autonomy – this reminder of mortal finitude and contingency and embeddedness of nature and the body-is at the root of the hatred of the disabled” (ibid, p 75). People don’t want to be reminded of their own vulnerability and mortality, that one day they too will most probably become disabled and dependent, either through misadventure or simply as part of the aging process: “the human body is a place of shifting sand that can fail us at any time. It can change shape and properties without warning; this is an essential truth of embodied existence” (ibid, p 75) which is similar in essence to Butlerian ‘precariousness’.

Feminist scholar and disability activist Jenny Morris speaks of the difficulty of being in dialogue with both feminism and disability, since disability is treated as a side issue by non-disabled feminists, while women’s experiences are sidelined by the disabled people’s movement (Morris, 1998). Indeed, elsewhere Morris observes that for women who had suffered spinal cord injury, a return to normality meant return to the stereotypical duties of mother, housewife – physical independence was thus in fact gained for the benefit of others (Morris 1989, quoted in Morris 1998, p 7). While there are claims that children of disabled people are coerced into becoming ‘young carers’ to the detriment of their studies and social lives, the social model, as well as the concept of interdependency, makes it clear that there will always be occasions where children are required to give some form of assistance to their parents. All too often, however, disabled people are seen as being unfit parents, and in many cases parents are dissuaded from seeking the practical home assistance they are entitled to out of fear that their children will be taken from them (ibid, p 9).

Cultural stereotypes function to oppress men as well, according to Morris. Since masculinity is intrinsically linked to physical strength and being the breadwinner, disabled men are oppressed by their apparent dependency and vulnerability, and this is all too often exacerbated by filmic portrayals of disabled men, especially in wheelchairs, that show them as miserably dependent or malevolent (ibid, p11). Disabled women, on the other hand are seen either as attractive despite their impairment, or unattractive because of it (ibid, p 14).

Morris decries the prevalent iconography of the ‘heroic’ young white male in a wheelchair, who is otherwise not sick, that has become synecdochical for disability in general, whereas the overwhelming majority of disabled people are in fact women over 60 and have chronic condition that makes them feel unwell most of the time, resulting in them rarely if ever using a wheelchair (p 13).

Wendell writes of the difficulty of indentifying the disabled person, since disability is made up not only of biological, social and experiential elements, but also varies according to a number of other factors including “social expectations, the state of technology and its availability to people in that condition, the educational system, architecture, attitudes towards physical appearance, and the pace of life” (Wendell 1989, p 246).

In her seminal essay A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway emphasises the dangers inherent in using fixed expressions to discuss one’s identity: “Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic” (Haraway 1991, p 155). Since, as Haraway notes, “[t]here is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women” what could really be called upon to bind disabled people together in a united ‘identity’? Taxonomic identification risks the creation of an apparent single ideological struggle uniting differing types into a coherent unit, while epistemologies are produced to “police deviation from official experience” (ibid, p 156) (although she is referring to feminism, this is equally applicable to current discussions in disability theory). Haraway questions: “What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective?” and provides the answer herself by suggesting the formation of a coalition based on affinity rather than identity (ibid, p 157). According to Haraway (applying Catherine McKinnon’s theory of the ontology of ‘woman’), a woman is a non-being, not even existing as a potential subject because “she owes her existence as a woman to sexual appropriation… constituted by another’s desire” (ibid, p 159); by extension, it could be argued that a disabled person does not exist as a subject since disability is constituted by another’s denial or refusal to acknowledge.

Reeve (2004) points out that although having an impairment is a prerequisite to identifying oneself as being disabled, it does not necessarily follow that one will lead to the other. Some prefer not to identify as disabled out of shame, or they do not consider themselves to be disabled, since their perception of disability is physical impairment that inhibits mobility. Elsewhere (Thomas 2004, p 43) it has been noted that deaf people do not consider themselves to be disabled at all, but consider themselves to be a linguistic subgroup or subnationality, defined not medically but socially and politically (also pointed out in Davis, 1995a). Even when people consider themselves to be disabled, the notion is not the same for all individuals, and there is a consequent lack of collective identity and even proportional representation within disability groups and movements. This is compounded by what Reeve (2004, p 97) calls a ‘hierarchy of impairment’, according to which some individuals are seen as being more qualified to identify as disabled than others (those who are more visibly impaired, or with more ‘serious’ impairments like MS or cancer).

Oliver (1990, p 102) believes that this hierarchy is not unintentional, but a deliberate ‘divide and rule’ tactic devised by the state to differentiate between groups or categories of disabled people (through the allocation of different allowances, benefits and pensions) and thus thwart any attempt at creating a holistic disabled group. On the other hand, he also advocates against rallying disabled people together as a minority group, since this would of necessity involve acceptance of the disabled/non-disabled dichotomy – in effect counterproductively accepting the normalizing attitudes of society (106).

Reeve also mentions the fact that people identify as disabled in one context, but not in another – for example, a person can identify as a disabled person in the workplace, but as mother or housewife in a domestic environment, and as such “the process of identification is not fixed in time or place; it is also influenced by the complex intertwining of impairment effects and disability, in addition to other social identities” (Reeve 2004, p 98), while elsewhere she employs Foucault’s theory of ‘technologies of self’ to show how individuals construct their identities in opposition to the ‘technologies of power’ that attempt to define them as subjects: “subjectivity is a fluid identity, affected by time and place, culture and
society” (Reeve 2002, p 498).

She points out that although the notion of a single disabled identity is attractive, since people are apparently connected by a shared experience of exclusion in a similar way to other forms of prejudice, its use is limited to the political arena – calling for societal change. In fact, the experiences of disability, as well as those of impairment, are mitigated by a variety of factors including ethnicity, class, gender and age, and as such disability identity should be treated as “multi-faceted and fluid, rather than a fixed concept” since it is “a function of both disability and impairment experiences … constituted differently for each individual and will have both temporal and spatial dimensions” (ibid, p 504). A more fluid model of disability identity, she asserts, will be more inclusive and supportive of those who do not currently identify with the projected model.

“Disability identity needs to include aspects of both disability and impairment and to be more complex and inclusive if it is to better represent all disabled people in society.” (ibid, p 505)

As Sontag (1978) observed, we are all subject to illness at some point in our lives, and as the world population ages, the proportion of disabled people is set to rise exponentially over the next decade (Davis 2006). Perhaps for this very reason, as Hahn (1985) notes, disabled people tend to refer to non-disabled people as ‘tabs’ or ‘temporarily able bodies.’

Lennard Davis (2006, Ch 19) also warns of the unstable nature of both disability and impairment, but the fact that disability is not a fixed identity should be used to its advantage, creating a ‘dismodernist
neoidentity’ that is flexible and not subject to the same problems encountered by the fixed identities of gender and ethnicity. In an earlier work, he claimed that although much of fashionable leftist critical work was concerned with issues of alternative bodies and challenging the socially-constructed notions of sexuality and gender, this discourse is unaccountably silent on the “much more transgressive and deviant figure” of the disabled body. The reason for this silence he posits as the following:

The disabled body is a nightmare for the fashionable discourse of theory because that discourse has been limited by the very predilection of the dominant, ableist culture. The body is seen as a site of jouissance, a native ground of pleasure, the scene of an excess that defies reason, that takes dominant culture and its rigid, power-laden vision of the body to task. The body of the left is an unruly body: a bad child thumbing its nose at the parent’s bourgeois decorum; a rebellious daughter transgressing against the phallocentric patriarch. The nightmare of that body is one that is deformed, maimed, mutilated, broken, diseased” (Davis 1995a, p 5).

Since the body is the location of the original oppression, any liberation must involve a sexual celebration of the body, but as the disabled body cannot be celebrated it is once again denied sexuality and relegated to the realm of undesirable and avoided at all costs. This may go some way to explain why feminist disabled writers feel they are ostracized by the feminist community.


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