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
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.