Discussing an inherently ableist culture

Madeline Bruce, Editor-in-Chief

For my gender and rationality class, I recently read an academic essay about the creation of a disability theory based in feminism.

I like to think of myself as inclusive and aware of the struggle of marginalized groups within our society that is constructed around people deemed to be the paradigm of humanity.

However, I am not as perfect in this realm as I thought.

The essay, titled “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability,” discusses the intricacies of the oppression and “otherness” of disabled people across cultures and societies.

The author uses a feminist framework to compare the plight of disabled people to the plight of women, saying that just as men are the status quo in society, so are able-bodied people.

This essay made me think about our society in a way I’ve never thought of it before as an able-bodied person.

For instance, I never thought about how the primary cause of a person’s inability to do certain things can sometimes be attributed to social causes, like denial of opportunities, lack of accessibility, lack of resources, or discrimination.

These come from factors like what a society values and how it distributes labor and resources. Think about it – the eight- or nine-hour workday is emphasized, often with a short, half-hour or one-hour long break for lunch.

Value is thus placed on people who can withstand this long workday without feeling dizzy, dealing with incontinence, or simply needing to sit or lie down.

Society values the strong, abled, healthy body, also known as the “positive” body, and puts down those who do not fit the paradigm of young, strong, healthy, able-bodied and psychologically sound people.

Like everything else – race, class, gender, etc. — disability is a social construction, and I didn’t think of it like that until reading this essay.

We describe these characteristics as “disabilities” because they do not fit our socially constructed idea of what is “abled.” And, what is abled anyway?

Common thoughts are that it includes climbing up stairs, focusing and being productive for eight hours at a time and simply walking.

We place values on these and so many other abilities that when we see people who are unable to do them, we think of them as being wrong, not fitting what is “normal.” We think of them as others, separate from our own experience, when we should be thinking of them as our fellow subjects of experience.

Another point the author of this essay brought up is the ableism – that is, the discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities – stems from the fear of what we cannot control and what is unable to be fixed. Thus, able-bodied people refuse to put themselves in the shoes of the disabled and refuse to empathize with them.

The patriarchal culture we live in instills a desire for the control of the body in us. This results in the fear of death, the fear of the strong impulses and feelings the body gives us and the fear of nature.

Thus, those who do not have control of their bodies are seen as failures, even though the socially constructed idea of disability is perpetuated by the marginalization of those who are disabled.

This results in the “othering” of disabled people, as it is with people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, among others.

In this way, those who fit the paradigm of humanity continue to distance themselves from the fear of not being able to control their own bodies.

This fear also draws an artificial line between the biological and the social.

It refuses to allow certain biological aspects of humans to be integrated and accepted into society.

Like with menstruation and childbirth for women, disabilities, whether they are visible or invisible, are thought of as taboo in society.

Much of what is disabling is the result of social arrangements that refuse to integrate disabled people into society and instead make exceptions to the standards for them, further perpetuating the feeling of otherness.

Accessibility is something that is necessary, but it isn’t until disabled people are fully integrated into society and not expected to assimilate to a society that so outwardly excludes them that they will no longer be “othered.”


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