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breaking out of conversation

kayla's picture

            I’m in Philadelphia, ignoring my boyfriend because I have too much on my mind. I’m thinking about which issues of disability require my attention the most, when I don’t even know where I stand on them yet. We’re walking down 19th street to Fairmount and I’m just quiet. There was a moment a few blocks behind us when I tried to speak out of the panicked energy of my mind, but my mind was more like a vortex and I couldn’t pull much out of it at the time.
        As we approach the coffee shop on the corner of 21st street, I come out and admit my uncertainties…what I don’t understand about disability, and how uncomfortable I am with the notion that being a woman is to be disabled.

I’m surprisingly calm and cool as I speak, creating an illusion—like maybe I seem like I know what I am talking about.
“I guess I just find something wrong with that claim, like somehow it takes away from those who are actually disabled.”
He’s quick: “Well, what is your definition for disabled, then?”
And words get caught in my throat. I think back to the texts, the authorities that have gotten me into this mess. I try to relate to him what I supposedly “know,” I don’t tell him what I think or believe or feel because I can’t articulate that.
One opinion of someone worth quoting in The Rejected Body by Susan Wendell:
“Philosopher Ron Amundson suggests that we define disabilities as ‘the absences of basic personal abilities.’ ‘Basic personal abilities’ enable us to perform such actions as ‘moving one’s arms, standing, seeing and hearing things in the environment,’ and also to remain alter for several hours a day and to remain active without unreasonable fatigue. The actions they enable us to perform are ‘biomedically typical of the human species’…” (Wendell 15).
In as many words as I can find, I try to explain my interpretation of the word “disabled,” that it should relate both physical and mental inability…that people who do live their lives with any physical and mental inabilities, who have a part in the movement to make the world more accessible to every body, should be able to keep that word for themselves.
“I mean, look at me! I am a woman, and I am able. I am able to walk up those steps and buy a cup of coffee. I have ability.” And I go further, “During other civil rights and equality movements, those who were fighting for what they deserved as human beings had their words…they were black and they were proud, beautiful, black panther, liberation, woman, femininity, feminism…and their oppressors, the others, couldn’t share in these words. ‘The man’ (or ‘they’) was not African-American, Latino, female and now ‘He’ is certainly not disabled. I am not disabled and I don’t want to take something that isn’t mine.”
I have little confidence in what I am saying—am I being offensive, or insensitive? Am I missing something?
How and I supposed to know?
In Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, Eli Clare elaborates on my discomfort:
“Without pride, disabled people are much more likely to accept unquestioningly the daily material  conditions of ableism: unemployment, poverty, segregated and substandard education, years spent locked up in nursing homes, violence perpetrated by caregivers, lack of access. Without pride, individual and collective resistance to oppression becomes nearly impossible” (Clare 91).
He understand what I am trying to convey, and continues the discussion by starting to explain how referring to a woman, for example, as disabled is a useful means for making a political statement. What he’s saying is that it gets the point across when trying to propose and pass legislation for equal rights, if in proposing that legislation one makes sure to defend and elaborate on their use of the word “disabled” because on some level, the argument can be made.
“By choosing to use the term ‘disabled’ to describe women and woman’s place in society, that person has a specific goal in mind…but they’ve had to take the word in its most literal sense: dis-able. Dis. Able. No ability. Unable. And when you think about it, in some societal contexts, a woman is limited in her ability to…live in the world as fully as a man. She doesn’t have the same options. And by making the term fluid enough…”
What he’s suggesting could be said is this:
“Iris Marion Young’s statement that ‘women in sexist society are physically handicapped,’ and her arguments in support of it present another strong challenge to the idea that culturally relative standards of physical structure, function and ability should be accepted. Young argues that lack of opportunities and encouragement to develop bodily abilities, rigid standards of feminine bodily comportment, and constant objectification and threat of invasion of their bodies combine to deprive most women in sexist societies of their full physical potential (Wendell 15).
But that’s exactly what I don’t want, and for awhile we go back and forth in an argument, asserting things we’re not really informed about, until we are basically both trying to make the same point, arguing the same idea, looking like fools at our little table in Mugshots. Sitting in front of us now is a new issue, the inevitable consequences of identity. The layers of identity, the hierarchies of identity…
“Of course identity is an incredibly damaging aspect of our society, but the issue doesn’t necessarily lie in gender itself, or race, but in the fact that we have these binaries that we can’t let go of, binaries that separate individuals into good and bad, superior and inferior. We took this incredibly useful and beneficial system of categorizing ourselves and turned it into a competition. Self-identification is something we do in order to ensure our place in the world, to be able to connect with people, to build up strength when strength is needed. If it is done the right way…whatever that way is, tell me what is wrong with that.”
… “Let’s move out of the coffee shop.” To move, I think. Move faster and make my brain move faster, make it find the answer. Make it get somewhere while I go somewhere.
The truth is that these binaries do exist though, and thrive, along with widely accepted and sought after “ideal bodies.”
“Don’t you think it’s horrible that despite these labels and categories that allow people to be something, no one can really be what they want to be without scrutiny? As a people, we’ve developed standards. And what for, if no one qualifies? ” I ask.
I’m not just asking my boyfriend; I think I’m asking every body. I secretly wish some stranger on the street would overhear and tell me what they think. Their answer could be one of the most valuable pieces of information available to us, and it’s just packed away in some person, hiding in Philadelphia.
On our way back to his house, I’m reminded of another point Eli Clare makes Exile and Pride…one that only feeds my vortex. If it weren’t for the verbal conversation, I doubt I’d ever make it out. Anyways.
“To be female and disabled is to be seen as not quite a woman; to be male and disabled is to be seen as not quite a man. The mannerisms that help define gender—the ways in which people walk, swing their hips, gesture with their hands, move their mouths and eyes as they talk, take up space with their bodies—are all based upon how nondisabled people move. A woman who walks with crutches does not walk like a 'woman'; a man who uses a wheelchair and a ventilator does not move like a 'man.' The construction of gender depends not only upon the male body and female body, but also upon the nondisabled body" (Clare 112).


           “I was thinking about that Clare quote and thought I would try an experiment...of sorts. You know how people use search engines to find the answer to anything they don't know? Well, I decided to search Google for the ideal...these are the first images that came up when I searched “real woman” and “real man.”

Look at them. Her welcoming eyes and soft skin juxtaposed with his muscular upper body, each playing their appropriate role as female and male.
“His face doesn’t even have to appear in the picture...he doesn’t need to seduce anyone else into the picture because he has the build to provide for himself.”
She’s sexy, pulling the viewer into her bedroom using her feminine appeal, her curves. “He just has to stand there.”
It doesn’t have to be this way; he has the option of performing his gender very differently than what is depicted here, and she doesn’t have to pose as a hyper-sexualized figure. With gender performance at the core of Judith Butler’s work, and with how much her work has been drilled into my head, my vortex, in the last couple of years, I can’t help but think of her. In Gender Trouble she writes,
“If the body is not a ‘being,’ but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically        regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, then what language is left for understanding this corporeal enactment, gender, that constitutes its ‘interior’ signification on its surface?” (Butler 177).


     He says to me, “So, you see you can't have your ideal. The truth is that these negative affects of identification and categorization do exist, and they regulate everyone's lives in such a way that limits our very ability to express ourselves and just...function.”
“And these regulations aren't even designed for the entirety of the human race!” (I'm interrupting. I'm excited, I need to get it all out. Somehow). “It's clear that there is a problem with gender and that's far from the notion that being female is to be disabled. I still feel uneasy about that claim, but what am I supposed to think about gender? I'm thinking back to Thursday's class when Anne mentioned gender as a disability in relation to Kate Bornstein's works. I'm thinking back to Eli Clare, and Judith Butler...”
           “A woman who walks with crutches does not walk like a woman; a man who uses a wheelchair and a ventilator does not move like a man.” “A surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality.” What about this: “...why in the world are we hanging on to gender, and to our gender systems?...The choice between two of something is not a choice at all, but rather the opportunity to subscribe to the value system which holds the two presented choices as mutually exclusive alternatives” (Bornstein 101). How are we supposed to tackle all this when many of these conversations are private? We need to exit one-on-one conversation and take it elsewhere, outward. And how can it be shown to the will every body understand? Are we ready for a genderless society? How do we get there, Kate, from here? Accessibility remains an issue, but here in terms of education and spreading information. We need writers who can write for real people, who can speak in a universal language to both the man in the wheelchair begging for change on the same corner everyday and to the academic who thinks he (or she) knows everything already. People who can give the truth and make it so our society operates for every body despite skin color, sexuality, gender or abledness, because America World, what more do you want than that?
Amundson, Ron. “Disability, Handicap, and the Environment.” Journal of Social Philosophy. Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 1992. 105-18.
Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation. Cambridge: South End Press, 1999.
Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge, 1996.
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