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Thankful for Stigma?

An Active Mind's picture

I just finished reading Margaret Price's Mad at School. It gave me an entirely new lens with which to view the academy and very much centered itself around the questions I’ve been thinking about both in my advocacy work and also my independent study. I admire Price for having the courage to make the moves that she did throughout her book—to critique the academic structure, pull issues of mental disability out of silence and invisibility and into the foreground, and assess what intellect/intelligence and broad, liberal thinking really mean. I believe her book can do a lot to change the way we think about academy and who is allowed inside the ivory tower and who is left out. My wish is that all educators read Mad at School and start to think about how their classroom—in its attempt to adhere to standard rules and regulations for a fair assessment of acquired material—might not necessarily prompt growth, but actually foster oppression, perhaps even stifling some students’ capacity to learn. Price cites “…that 86 percent of students with psychiatric disabilities withdraw from college before completing their degrees” (23). When we worry about offering equal educational opportunities to everyone, we need to start thinking about more than issues of race and class, but how the demands of academic rigor (as Anne pointed out in a comment on a previous post) come to exclude the mentally disabled from obtaining a college degree. 

As someone who has a mental disability, I still feel myself buying into the academic system. I’m lucky enough to be able to play the game that institution demands. I am able to make it to class and hand my work in on time. And I admit that I pride myself on these things—I see them as a sign of strength, dedication, and commitment, but I fear that I might be falling into the exclusive “able-ist” mindset of the academy that Price talks about. I have to acknowledge that others aren’t so lucky and that the academy itself has a lot to learn.

I recently had a long conversation with a friend about mental illness. We shared a lot that night and learned things about each other that we never knew before. Regardless of the fact that we each struggle with different issues (although they’re similar in a lot of ways), I felt we connected in a way that made me feel closer to someone than I have in a long time.  And after this conversation, I realized how blinded humans are; rarely do we really see each other.  Even in relationships where people claim to be close and emotionally open, does there still exist a distance, some surface—or façade—that refuses to be punctured?  What information might we stealthily contain and what do we freely confess?   We can’t visualize others’ pain and can’t bear witness to their nightmares. And maybe presentation (keeping yourself contained and your weaknesses hidden) is about survival—attempting to pass for “normal” and bandage over your wounds for public display. 

But I feel that these conversations need to happen more—not just behind closed doors and in whispered voices, but in public spaces—where others can hear them and begin to change they way they think about mental disability. What would happen if narratives of students’ experience with mental illness became “normal” to divulge in essays or class discussion? How might the pain of the illnesses themselves be alleviated through dialogue? But in a way, I feel that there is something substantive, and perhaps even fruitful, in this secrecy surrounding issues of mental health/illness (or anything that might be stigmatized and, as a result, shamefully hidden from view).  Maybe I’m thankful for stigma. It’s given me pain and loneliness, but it’s also given me beauty and closeness. Stigma is what cultivates emotion and art and it also gives us the strength to overcome oppression (a strength I believe essential for the issues of evolution and survival that Susan Antonetta talks about in A Mind Apart). And if it wasn’t for stigmatization and the often intimate connections people forge under the marker of difference, we wouldn’t be able to reach an internal place—tender, untouched, and unseeable—that seems to house this root of feeling.  The conversation with my friend taught me more than any book, lecture, or academic essay could. It hit in me a place that I didn’t know existed; it touched a nerve and went depths beyond the distanced objectivity of intellect.  

And just now, as I’m writing this post, I get a text from my friend that says: “<3 thank you for being you (and for being born that way).” She's making a reference to Lady Gaga's recently released single "Born This Way" (which seems to be a reoccuring theme in my exploration of disability studies!) and it’s making me teary right here in the library (which happens to be the epitome of the academic setting) and I seem to be straddling the divide between emotion and intellect to which Price so often refers. Sure, I’ve read texts for class that have made me cry—but by the time class comes around you’re expected to hold yourself together, to almost detach yourself from the piece at hand to produce the kind of analysis that the academy is looking for. I’m so thankful my independent study and my conversations with Anne because they’ve allowed me to merge two spheres that I've always tried to keep separate: my illness and my academics. My question becomes: can we have both? Can we simultaneously maintain that deep, rooted, and personal emotion and objective stance?  Do both enhance or destroy the other?