The Erasure of Disability from the Social Rights Movement

I have been working on my Master’s dissertation, and I’ve also worked on quite a few essays over the past year. As this blog might make abundantly clear, my main area of interest resides in the intersection between human and technology, the blurry lines of where human ends, and cyborg begins; of where cyborg ends, and robot begins. I’m interested in what the definitions for each term would be in a perfect, non-blurry world, where looking a word up in a dictionary meant having a straight answer.

This isn’t, however, the world we live in. And much as definitions shift, change, disappear, reappear due to use (or lack thereof), boundaries of interest do much the same. Whereas when I first embarked on this Master’s degree I believe I would be working with arm or leg prosthetics, their history and the development of their uses, I now find myself going down different paths. Essentially, I have found myself involved with wheelchairs, which for some reason hadn’t even crossed my mind as a prosthetic (how silly of me), accessibility, and disability studies on a deeper, social justice kind of way.

Let me make things clear, this is fantastic. I have been challenged to go with a different path as opportunities arose. Thus, having done some empirical work with wheelchair users and how they engage with public transport, I have also done more theoretical reading on the history of wheelchairs, their development, and how they influenced the disability rights movement.

It was, however, with a heavy heart that while reading not only papers on disability rights movements and disability studies, but also going through textbooks (qualitative studies textbooks), I came to the realisation that there has been an erasure of the disability rights movements from what is more broadly called the “social rights movement”.

Indeed, ableism, the segregation of disabled people, has been registered on many levels. The social stigma that follows a disability has already been pointed out by others, much more eloquently than I ever could (Goffman’s Stigma, which I commented previously, is a great example). What is less pointed out, however, is how this is also done on an academic level. To my surprise, while reading Lennard J. Davis’ paper “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies”, I was surprised to read accounts of legitimised groups (such as Latinos or African Americans), refusing to consider disability studies as part of a multicultural curriculum. Many of this amounts to the fear of linking their racial/ethnical identity to disability which, in their minds, would lessen their legitimate claims. The segregation of disabled people by those who have felt segregation themselves seems incongruous, and yet…

Meanwhile, in textbooks such as “The Essential Guide to Doing Research” by Zina O’Leary, they teach us to “recognise our bias”. This is to be done by considering our status within society which place us in positions of power. Gender, ethnicity, class, religion, from a developing or developed country, language skills, education and even age are pointed out as things to be considered before embarking on research. They are seen as categories that can place us in a position of power, or marginalise us, depending on which “side” of the situation we are on. However, being able-bodied or disabled is nowhere to be found. The same phenomenon occurs on Tumblr, ironically known as a hub for social justice warriors. Though the tag “Ableism” is ripe with complaints, prejudice and the occasional person saying they simply do not understand it, too many other posts calling out on racism, misogyny or even ageism have erased ableism completely (this post is a nice example – intersectional feminism indeed!).

What I’m trying to get across here is that there has been an almost literal erasure of disability from the social rights spectrum of movements. Accessibility, which for those among us who are able-bodied, isn’t an issue. Yet the lack of elevators, ramps, step-free environment complicates transport for entire group of people, it has been incorporated into our routines to the point where we barely notice it. The strongest kind of privilege is the one that isn’t even perceived.

Now, ideally, I need to get back to writing my own dissertation. I hope, however, that this has put forward some ideas of the institutionalised ableism with which we have been living for so long.

1. Lennard J. Davis, “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies”, in American Literary History, vol. 11. no. 3, 1999.

2. Zina O’Leary, The Essential Guide to Doing Research, SAGE, 2004.


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