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Healthy disabled and unhealthy disabled

ceburdick's picture

The part of the readings that struck me most this week was a part of Margaret Price's "Mad at School" that discussed differences and overlap between "healthy disabled" and "unhealthy disabled" (pp. 12-13). This is an idea that's been in the back of my mind throughout class discussions, as I've struggled with the differences between disabled people and their experiences and how they view their disability. Price discusses Susan Wendell's piece "Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities" and says, "activists in the disability rights movement in the United States have often sought to 'distinguish themselves from those who are ill.'" This makes sense to me, as "healthy disabled" people have a different experience that "unhealthy disabled" people do in terms of stability of their impairment, need for medical care, and needs from their environment/community in order to gain access. I'm looking forward to thinking about this more and this distinction, and also how healthy and unhealthy blur together and what that means for people wtih disabilities. As a person with multiple chronic illnesses, this is something that is personally interesting and I would love to hear more perspectives and thoughts about healthy/unhealthy disability, what these words may mean for different people, and what effect this distinction may have on people with disabilities in their daily lives and in the disability rights community. 


fran's picture


Thank you for posting this. I was also struck by this distinction in the Price reading, and am still very much working through it. Something that troubles me is how emphasizing a separation between the "healthy disabled" and those with chronic illnesses does not address the fundamental problem of valuing people by their privilege to engage in certain types of participation. I understand that disability activists' pursuit of "distinguishing themselves from those who are ill" came out of a long history of conflating the two and their undeniably different needs, and think that understanding the differences in those needs is vastly important. However, I cannot help but wonder if this pursuit further solidified the hierarchy of bodies that naturalizes ableism in the first place. In separating disability activism from the ill, did this movement further de-legitimize the value and agency of those ill, "unreliable activists" often "exhausted, in pain, or experiencing mental confusion"? Instead of challenging the paradigm that health and ability are prerequisites to claiming identity, does this division not just move the goalposts and make it more difficult for folks with chronic illnesses to find care, community, and identity? 

Overall, I have many questions. How do we define health? What does it mean to be well, and what is its significance? Does it mean being content in your body, though there are plenty of conventionally 'well' people who are not, and plenty of conventionally 'unwell' people who are? Does it mean being able to participate in everything that one is 'supposed' to, even though nobody knows what that means? Is it a guaranteed stability in the condition of your body, which arguably nobody has? Is it the absence of pain or pursuit of change? When do we need to pay attention to this dichotomy, and when does it come in the way of meaningful change?

All of this brings me back to Claire's The Mountain. In his discussion of Oliver's dichotomy (pages 6-7) of the social and medical models of disability, I am reminded that any attempt to disambiguate bodies, ability, and illness will fail to hold up to critical self-examination. Lived realities incorporate both social and bodily realities, including illness, health, and everything in between. Supporting and listening to folks with chronic illnesses is a vital part of disability liberation, just as supporting and listening to folks with disabilities is vital to any dialogue about health, illness, and bodies.