Tuesday, November 23, 2010

disability is a feminist issue

I'm sitting in a cafe, listening to the voices around me.

A man is forcefully explaining how to bid a bridge contract to the
woman next to him. It's an interesting conversation. He is
explaining with what I experience as a certain kind of rigidity. It's
not brutal exactly, but it is hard, authoritative and unyielding. He
sighs before he answers; he never looks at his companion, but speaks
in long-ish sentences and stares straight ahead. He makes eye contact
with me, but never with her.

As the conversation progresses, it becomes obvious that his companion
is having difficulty understanding the nuance of what he is saying
and, in particular, what went wrong with their bidding in the previous
game. It's clear that the man has the power in this conversation --
unnecessarily, as it turns out: Ten minutes in, the woman hits a
question to which he doesn't know the answer. "I don't know the rules
any better than you. I'm new to this," he retorts.

As far as the negative power relationship between men and women goes,
this conversation, sadly, would not stand out were it not for the way
in which the woman responds to the answers she gets.

For every thing she doesn't understand right off the bat or simply
gets wrong, she claims a disability. So far, she has memory issues,
is dyslexic, is losing her mind, is "slow....". As I listen to her, I
suppose that any or all of those things could be true. I don't know
how I could possibly make an assessment that would help me understand
how she learns and understands. And, technically, guessing disability
is a useless game. Nonetheless, as the stream of different
disabilities continues, I begin to wonder if claims of disability
function as a cushion between the painful abruptness of her partner
and her desire to do better and earn his acceptance. In other words,
the woman may be disabled in all these ways, but, in the context of
the conversation, disability also serves as an excuse/reason for her
"stupidity" in the face of her partner's "brilliance."

This conversation is an icon in the difficult relations of disability
and feminism.

Let's say that the woman is disabled in all the ways she claims. By
using disability as she does, she makes herself smaller, less
objectionable to the man; she dismisses herself and undervalues
herself. She does her best to dodge what might be a harsh remark
about her intellectual capacities. She does disability in the old
way, a way in which the value of our diverse minds and bodies is not
acknowledged. Her disability is a weakness that separates her from an
actively feminist goal of being an equal partner in the conversation
and the game.

If this woman had access to disability rights discourse, she would
perhaps be able to integrate her needs for a different kind or pace of
explanation into the conversation, the game, and their relationship.
She might be able to create a space in which both of them come to a
better understanding of what is possible. She might both understand
herself differently and be understood.

Let's say that the woman isn't disabled, that her claims of disability
are a figurative crutch, a verbal equivalent of a physical cringe
before the onslaught of her partner's blows. To use disability in
this way is to return to a portrayal of the helpless, nineteenth
century neurasthenic, an image that is the very antithesis of
contemporary understandings of womanhood. It is further to deny the
validity of a different aspect of women's experience. It is to deny
the validity of difference as a neutral part of the human condition.
Neither feminist ideals nor feminist discourse are advanced by such

This conversation is another reason why disability is a feminist issue.


  1. Brilliant WCD! Nothing else to say really.

  2. I have to think about this. What if the man had the disability? I hear men say in my assisted living home that they can't understand something because of their ___(fill in the blank), crutches don't seem to be gender specific. And if these women use their disability in this fashion, wouldn't they just use something else were they to be "normal?" I have seen many men act like that guy, and many women too. But, I do hear you...I have to think on this.

  3. Kendra9:08 AM

    I...maybe see how this is an aspect of disability issues that pertains to feminism...but disabiled people are their own subsection of society, with their own, culture, problems, and issues. Doesn't it undervalue their own, gender nuetral problems, by claiming disability as a feminist issue? Deaf men and women find it equally hard to get hired, to get taken seriously, to be treated rightly. Feminist issues and disabled issues probably do cross over quite a bit, especially when it comes to disabled women, but why must we dismiss the problems that disabled men can and do have?

  4. @Diane.... I thought about this. What if the way the man speaks and does or doesn't make eye contact are the manifestations of disability? I dont know. What interests me is how the woman responds to the man, disabled or not. The question you raise makes me want to ask.... when do and in what situations, what are the power dynamics of a conversation when the men you are thinking of claim disability?

    @Kendra.... This is a hard question. In underscoring the link between disability issues and feminist issues, I (and other disability activists) are speaking to a mainstream feminism that does not understand or integrate the concerns of disabled women. It's part of a theoretical principle of intersectionality. I have written about that here: http://cripwheels.blogspot.com/2009/11/intersectionality.html

    I see these things as going hand in hand. One does not erase the other.

    Claiming disability as a feminist concern in now way dismisses the intersections of anyone with a disability. Talking about disability and race (meaning non-white because, of course, everyone is raced) doesn't marginalize the concerns of someone who is disabled and white.

    Does this make sense?


  5. This is a really good post, WCD!

    I especially liked the paragraph about how the conversation might be different if the woman had more of a disability-rights perspective --- she might have been confident enough to ask the man to go slower, repeat himself, explain things until she understood and could participate on more equal terms in their discussion.

    (About the man's possible disability --- that thought occurred to me, too, because some of the things you describe him doing are features of my disability: the trouble finding words, the anger when the words he's tried to hard to fit his thoughts into are still not enough to convey them, the rigidity, the lack of eye contact. But there's a way *HE'S* "doing" his potential disability, too: if he has communication problems, they are functioning as another barrier to the woman who might want to ask questions or redirect the discussion. There isn't any room for mutual accommodation in the way he's doing it ... he seems to be more, "This is the best I've got, I'm not even going to *TRY* to adapt it to your needs.")