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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Identity and Disability

The below was inspired by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg who maintains a blog I read on a regular basis entitled Journeys with Autism.If you have not read her work I urge you to visit her blog. Rachel asked me to write a guest post in September. I chose the topic, identity because it is a central concept in anthropology and key to social progress for people with a disability. Please note I finished the post a full nine days before the end of the month.

Identity and Disability


I am a crippled man. I am a proud man. Hear me roar. Yes, I am ripping off the 1970s women’s movement song “I am Woman” by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton. Being a crippled man is an integral part of my identity. I cannot imagine life without paralysis. I never think about a cure to spinal cord injury, walking or running. Such thoughts are for others; people who without question accept that walking is the only means of locomotion. As a result of my paralysis and wheelchair use I am a member of a minority group even if the Supreme Court does not agree with me. I am often asked about cure, about walking, about wheelchair access, about sex, about work, about family. These questions make one thing clear--my privacy is not respected. I am not respected. I have a stigmatized identity. Hence, well meaning people ask, “Wouldn’t you want to be cured?”, or “Wouldn’t your life be easier if you were not paralyzed?” These types of questions are so far off base it boggles my mind. The people that ask me these questions never think why. Why is life with a disability such as paralysis difficult? The answer is obvious to people with a disability. Our physical and social environment are designed for bipedal people who learn at a prescribed rate. Deviate from the norm in American society and you will see the dark underbelly of a puritanical society. I know all about this because I have seen it for the last 30 years.

I am intimately familiar with the concept of identity. Identity is of central importance to anthropologists. It is a powerful organizing presence in all cultures. When we think of identity, social structures that come to mind include ethnicity, nationalism, religion, sexuality, gender, etc. When we seek to protect a given culture or minority group the underlying belief is that people have identities and that their identity is a vital part of their concept of self. This is a given when it concerns religion, gender, nationality and sexuality to mention but a few types of identity. No one would accost a woman and ask would you like to be a man? No one would dare ask a black man if he ever wished he was white. In sharp contrast people, strangers, feel free to ask me if I wished I could be cured. The idea I consider disability to be part of my identity simply does not cross the mind of others—non disabled others. Disability for the vast majority of Americans is thought to be a medical or architectural problem—one that was solved a long time ago when the ADA was passed into law. This is dead wrong. Prejudice is alive and well. I experience it, as do all other people with a disability.

So why is identity so important to people with a disability? Disability identity is important because it will lead to social debate and careful consideration of disability well beyond the narrow way it is currently perceived. In the Foreword to Simi Linton’s ground-breaking text Claiming Disability Michael Berube noted:

"If disability is not understood in terms of complex, overdetermined and sometimes tenuous relations to identity, it will not be sufficiently incorporated into the curriculum of the liberal arts or into the definition of what constitutes the “humanities”. And if we do not imagine “disability” as a broad general subject that shapes the humanities, it is all the less likely that we will manage to imagine disability as a broad, general subject that shapes public life and public policy."

Like most people, disabled and non disabled, I did not always think this way. Disability is afterall the only minority group you can join—and not by choice. What connects all people with disabilities is a shared identity and the routine and unacknowledged violation of our civil rights. Disability scholars call the prejudice people with disabilities encounter ableism. While we people with a disability certainly understand ableism is a form of oppression when we confront others and assert ourselves we are classified as bitter. I am routinely told I have a “chip on my shoulder”. When told this I sarcastically agree—hence I identify myself as a bad cripple—one not afraid to assert my civil rights. If this puts a chip on my shoulder than I plead guilty. This takes some guts, we people with a disability are expected to be subservient, content with what society is willing to dole out for us. When we do not adhere to our prescribed role our presence is not wanted. The type of disability is not relevant—it is a variation on a single belief that is deeply ingrained in schools, businesses and our culture. One person has railed:

"People have a great deal of prejudice about autism& other developmental disabilities. I’ve been bullied out of activities and classes because I am autistic; I’ve been discouraged from even trying others. People and professionals who are familiar with autism but unfamiliar with me assume that I am less capable of many things I am—usually in a patronizing & insulting way. It is often assumed that I cannot be good at some of my hobbies and simultaneously assumed that I have some sort of magic autistic savant skill. That part of being autistic really sucks—having to prove my humanity & my individuality over and over and over again is exhausting (Timetolisten.blogspot,com)."

I would venture to say every person with a disability can relate to the quotation above. I have repeatedly been lauded for the ordinary and told I am amazing. Conversely, I have been told I cannot do many ordinary things. This is nothing short of dehumanizing. It is also why all people with a disability should embrace an identity closely linked to disability with one proviso: disability identity is not defined by a given disabling condition or body centered feature. Identification here is not a medical diagnosis or arbitrary label. With an identity tied to disability it is logical to conclude our experiences are similar. The prejudice we encounter socially sanctioned and deadly. With this realization I shudder to think of how many dreams and ambitions have been crushed. No one would tell a non-disabled child he or she cannot do something. That is an educational anathema. But this is exactly what happens to people with a disability. Frankly, I have had it. I will not tolerate being told what I can and cannot do. I know with an identity tied to disability, by being proud and disabled, I can resist and thrive.

1 comment:

Labradorite said...

I really liked this post, thank you. Disability is a part of identity.