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Snarled & Wrapped Around: Class, Disability, & Abuse

nbarker's picture

“Gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race... everything finally piling into a single human body."

–Eli Clare, Exile & Pride, page 134

In Exile & Pride, Eli Clare explores the intersections of his many different categories of identity, the questions raised by them, and the situations in his life that might serve to explain and complexify them. To say that the map of any one person’s identity is incredibly complicated is to incredibly understate a complex issue. (Some various different ways of graphically representing identities suggested by me and my classmates include drawing identities on a 3-dimensional graph, as blog-inspired tag clouds that link to each other, and even drawing an identity map as a garden). Clare summarizes the complexity of this as succinctly and poetically as possible in the quote we have on our course page, cited above.

There were two aspects of Clare’s identity that came up again and again for me in his memoir as I read it: class and disability. Though he might stress other factors, such as his queerness, all these issues are intertwined. However, under any discussion of class and disability lie some similar issues: these are, namely, questions of power. Inequality and differentiation between the empowered and the disempowered are what underlie both class and disability. In the case of class, the higher-status class has more power than the lower. In the case of disability, nondisabled people have more socioeconomic power than people with disabilities.

Class profoundly divides people with disability. There are several factors that it comes down to: access to money for resources, community, and shame. In class differences of disability, there are sliding scales of tradeoffs. As you get higher in class, access to money is greater, thus affording greater access to resources. However, the societal pressure of shame regarding disability gets larger and larger. As you get lower in class, money gets lesser and lesser, thus access to resources. However, more of a general community is generally present—everyone in an area tends to know each other and helps each other out in small ways.

No matter what your class, though, if you’re disabled, there’s shame attached in this society—and with shame often comes abuse. Abuse is present in many forms across society, and will take different forms across classes. Abuse is almost always perpetrated by someone the victim knows. In cases of higher-class disability, abuse is generally done by hired caregivers. In cases of lower classes, it is usually by family members, who are caregivers by socioeconomic necessity.

However, there are a few terms I must clarify. These terms include class, disability, power, and contact zone. According to Palomar College, in anthropology (my chosen discipline), class can be defined as “a group of people thought of as unit because they are similar in social and/or economic terms.”(O’Neill) Class also usually carries other intangibles in societies that are defined by other terms: in this case, I have chosen to define this society as American culture, as one of the major themes in Exile & Pride is the change in the spheres of interaction in Clare’s life, such as the shift from his hometown of Port Orford to urban queer life.

Class is also a set of power relations designed to self-perpetuate. June Jordan’s 1982 essay, Report from the Bahamas, while not directly related to the intersection of disability and class, discusses the intersection of class and race.  As Jordan so succinctly puts it, “We are parties to a transaction designed to set us against each other.” (41). Though the author and the woman she uses as inspiration for the essay, Olive (the woman who cleans her hotel room), share an identity of blackness, it is their differing socioeconomic classes that serve to divide them from ever being able to reconcile their differences. For Clare, the pressures of class and the pressures that arose out of his disability are two of many factors that intersected to exile him from his hometown.

According to Eli Clare (6), citing the disability theorist Michael Oliver, disability can be defined as “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organization which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of society.” More common definitions of disability will take also mention medical issues: most disabilities are now classified as medical or psychiatric conditions that impair “normal functioning”.

It is the intersection of class as governing a disabled person’s life, even more than disability itself perhaps, which serves as a contact zone. According to Pratt (34), a contact zone can be defined as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power …” Pratt often takes this to mean heavily localized spaces, such as colonized countries (the subject of her article), but can also be used to refer to situations in that localization, such as the interaction of two parties with asymmetrical power. Contact zones tend to be an attempt at some form of equalization, in the form of a space of communication (Pratt 39), and transcultural (Pratt 36, for definition of transculturation). Eventually, in an ideal situation, a contact zone would become a place of cultural mediation. (See Pratt 40 for further discussion) Disability and class occupy an uneasy contact zone. As pressures of class strain on a family, the disabled member, already at risk, will often be the one that suffers most.

This was heartily the case for Eli Clare, and one of the main reasons for his leaving of his hometown. As Clare describes (37-38), Port Orford is a small town based around the dying industry of logging. Relatively, at the time, he considered himself and his family to be middle class; they were well off compared to their neighbors. They had relatively great access to resources compared to the general population of the town, such as healthcare and education.

However, they also had the economic problems that the rest of the town did too (38), serving to make them a part of the community. Most of the town collected welfare, worked at the gas station—but they still had their community, formed from shared economic misfortune as the logging industry is dying. The community of the town was also a signature of the lower-class logging town: everyone knew each other, supported each other in small ways would forever know Clare as “Bob’s kid” (36). It was this selfsame community that served to exile Clare: there is no way he could ever return without constantly being reminded of the ways that his father sexually abused him, and the friends of her father’s that helped to perpetrate it. Indeed, he might be at risk for further assault. As accepting of certain kinds of eccentricities as a lower-class rural town might be (38-39), it would not accept a queer, transgender, disabled person. That violated some of the many in-group identifiers that go unsaid, qualifiers like being straight, cis, abled, that become the norm and thus part of the group identity.

It’s quite likely, as with other people with disabilities, that the shame surrounding having a disabled child exacerbated the abuse that Clare’s father visited upon him (10, 35). Disabled children are far more likely to be sexually abused than other children[1], and it’s likely these same forces were at play here. The stress of life can bring out and worsen an abuser’s violence, and children who are visibly other, such as disabled children, are seen as much less able to fight back.

For Eli Clare, the combination of his disability and the socioeconomic situation he grew up in served to help drive him to exile himself from his natal situation, to survive and to develop himself as a human being. The intersection of his family’s class, their associated society, and his disability served to worsen his situation. Now, later in his life, it is his queerness and realizing of his transgender identity that was allowed to flourish in the higher-class contact zone of queer urban culture that serves to isolate him from his home further.



Clare, Eli. Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: SouthEnd, 1999. Print.

Jordan, June. "Report from the Bahamas, 1982." On Call: Political Essays. Cambridge, MA: South End, 1985. 39-49. Print.

O'Neill, Dennis. "Cultural Anthropology Terms." Palomar Anthropology Program. 2002. Web. 27 Sept. 2014. <>.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Profession 1991 (1991): 33-40. JSTOR. Modern Language Association. Web. 20 Sept. 2014. <>.


Author's Note

In searching for a topic, I thought greatly on my own experiences as a mixed-class individual. Eli Clare cites his own experience of being a mixed-class individual between working- and middle-class (42). I myself have a similarly mixed class identity: the education and cultural values of a liberal academic (a societal division often thought of as upper middle- to high-class), yet the economic experiences of a person teetering on the edge of lower middle- to working-class. The main difference is that I grew up in an urban-to-suburban area, as my parents had. Both Clare and I have experiences as disabled people also, though I only discovered my main disability diagnosis just before arriving at Bryn Mawr--different factors othered me in different ways long before. It's rather darkly ironic, for me, and a rallying point too, when I'm reading of disabled domestic violence survivors. Clare's disability likely made him an "easier" target for abuse from his father, and the abuse that my father meted upon me likely triggered my disability's development. 

[1] For more facts and figures on the subject, see the US Department of Health & Human Services’ 2012 report on Child Maltreatment at


Anne Dalke's picture

So much here to feel, talk, think and write through.

The single passage that grabbed me most strongly here is your very last comment, which is deeply intersectional: that while “Clare's disability likely made him an ‘easier’ target” for his father’s abuse, the abuse that you suffered from your own father probably triggered the development of your disability.  In each case, you note a correlation between abuse and disability, but as you develop the comparison, you see cause and effect working in opposite directions. “Darkly ironic” indeed—but also the site for much more digging, and possibly the site for more research and writing. What more might be said about the intersection of disability and abuse? You have a single source for your horrifying claim that “disabled children are far more likely to be sexually abused than other children,” and just begin to say why that might be—that stress “can bring out and worsen an abuser’s violence,” especially against “children who are visibly other, “ “seen as much less able to fight back.”

You don’t get to abuse, as a topic, though, until later in your paper. You frame that topic by saying that you want to look first @ questions of power, and particularly @ the forms of inequality that we call class and disability. Many of your claims intrigue, and many of them make we want to know more: what are your sources? Wherefrom your belief that “in cases of higher-class disability, abuse is generally done by hired caregivers,” while in the “lower classes, it is usually by family members”? Wherefrom your claim that “as you get higher in class…the societal pressure of shame regarding disability gets larger and larger,” whereas “as you get lower…more of a general community is present--everyone in an area tends to know each other and helps each other out in small ways”?  (I seem to remember one story Solomon tells, suggesting that disability is more shaming for the upper classes, who have more pronounced expectations of perfection, but I am needing to see the citation—and the details on which he stakes his claim.) You describe Eli’s hometown as a “community formed from shared economic misfortune”—but that misfortune also gave rise to multiple cracks in the community fabric.

Many of your claims, in short, could be more carefully inflected. Very striking to me, as I have gotten involved in the Society of Disability Studies, and come to know some of its members, is how the power dynamic you describe gets switched up: it is often those who are more disabled (or @ least those who are more physically disabled) who are granted more authority to speak, whose testimony is given more weight. When Clare and I presented @ SDS this June, along with two non-disabled colleagues, Riva asked us why we had begun in “ambivalence,” rather than “from the space that is implacable”—that is, with the least, rather than with the most disabled conditions. She later assured us that not “only the implacable get to talk.” And/but I’m not yet done worrying her comment. What is the implacable? An impairment that cannot be accommodated? And why is it that someone impaired in such a way is more authoritative? Is this another of those “transactions” Eli describes, “designed to set us against each other”?

You end your remarks by saying that the combination of disability and class drove Eli into exile, and that gender and sexuality have since enabled him to flourish-- thereby introducing two more identities in the “snarl and wrap-around” of self. And so I end curious about how you see those two additional axes intersecting with the tangle of three you’ve already been tracing….

As I said: so much!