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Interrogating Ableist Perspective in A Life Beyond Reason

gcat's picture

First, let me say, those were some emotionally tough readings, y'all! Pats on the back for everyone getting through them. 

I struggled with deciding that I wanted to challenge "A Life Beyond Reason" publicly,  but reading through the other works, while I have strong opinions, I feared I would mostly repeat what others have already said or sound simplistic. That said, I want to acknowledge I do not know the author, and based on the article alone, it is obvious he loves his son, and he makes some great theoretical points regarding the perception of disability. Moreover, I do not object to opinion pieces from those related to someone with a disability. Their experience is unique. Especially in cases when self-advocacy is harder, it is important for society to hear their voices too. My opinions, then, rely solely on how I interpreted the piece as it is presented. It is a "rough draft" idea that makes me feel very complicated. Nevertheless, here we go: 

My main philosophical issue is how far can a non-disabled person analyze disability before that analysis turns into objectification/inspiration porn? Are they even aware of this happening? Gabbard explains that "August's disability does not form a part of "God's plan" and does not serve as a tool for God to teach me or anyone else wisdom." This quote marks a stance against inspiration porn and the idea that a disabled person exists to serve a purpose in the lives of non-disabled people. Yet, as I read through the article, I questioned possible hypocrisy in Gabbard's argument. My biggest concern regards his repeated mention of his childhood. He recounts bullying Peter a child with disabilities. Later, he ponders, " If I did not have August in my life, I probably never would have reconsidered my behavior toward Peter, or read Morrison's story carefully, let alone begun to teach it." I do not doubt that family members gain more empathy from a disabled family member. The problem, however, is Gabbard presents this incident as a story in which August provides the happy ending, despite August also acting as the object in the sentence. It is not the experience of being a father with a disabled child, but rather August himself, which connects to idealization. 

Gabbard mentions how he initially was not opposed to infanticide. Throughout the article, it feels as though Gabbard needs to justify his change of opinion by telling how August brings joy or inspiration to non-disabled people's lives. The daughter changes her dollhouse to be more accessible, August laughs at the father's jokes. Gabbard describes August as "the most amazing and wonderful thing that has ever happened to me, for he has allowed me an additional opportunity to profoundly love another human being." Again, the sentence relates to the author and the advantages he gains. You could replace any person with a disability for August, and the sentence would still function. Gabbard only changes from being ambivalent about his child's birth because of "the way he resembled me. Nothing had prepared me for this, the shock of recognition, for he was the boy in my own baby pictures, the image of me when I was an infant." Initially, one could read this as a shared empathy, and perhaps, in reality, it was. Yet, if people with disabilities are "fully equal" as Gabbard suggests, are they not deserving of their own identities? Why must people with disabilities connect to non-disabled people to be viewed with more than "ambivalence"? It is a piece about Gabbard's experience, but why are there no specific anecdotes with August? Other than the "joy" he brings, what do we know about him?

If non-disabled people do not recognize the separate and individual identities of disabled people, they risk objectifying them. When Gabbard lists their schedule, several objectifying phrases are used: "carry him," "strap him," "drive him," "lift him." I understand that these verbs may apply to what Gabbard physically does. My problem is that now that August is not bringing joy in these hectic moments, his emotions disappear. The list is supposed to stress the "consuming regimen" of Gabbard taking care of August, but surely the constant movement must exhaust August as well. It is exhausting for a parent with a disability, but the two exist in a symbiotic relationship of sorts. The disability tires the child just as management of the disability may tire the parent, but they are always connected. I worry Gabbard's list attempts to elicit pity for Gabbard from its reader as if Gabbard is a victim in a parasitic relationship. The differentiation occurs again in Gabbard's academic studies. He repeatedly calls his questions about disability "awkward" and differentiates himself as an "academic," saying "it is harder for us than for most people to steer clear of prejudice." Notice how he does not say academics are more likely to be prejudiced or discriminatory. Instead, even though they are inflicting prejudice, they are again the victims for "running into it," yet we should still pity them because it is "harder" for them to avoid. One of his "awkward" questions asks, "Is it really true that the unexamined life is not worth living?" Gabbard questions this statement then as an objective truth he challenges, rather than an opinion or theory. Disability then transcends from being an "awkward" topic into a matter of discussion among (likely non-disabled) academics who determine whether the disabled life is worth living. Either way, the connotations of disability not belonging become clear. Whether physically or philosophically, the person with disabilities becomes the "awkward" object in a non-disabled person's life. 

This post has turned into an essay, and I am sorry about that. I thought it was important to express my views entirely. I encourage you to comment. Additionally, if you feel like something needs more explanation, you can feel free to talk to me too. Again, I take no issues with Chris Gabbard, his relationship with August, or even many of his ideas. I want to emphasize through my post the importance of representation, in writing and other media. We must be conscious of our language to respectfully change perceptions on disability. 





marisa's picture

Grace, this is an awesome post. Thank you for sharing your personal, honest thoughts. I absolutely agree with you that I thought that Gabbard's article was more in line with Singer's piece than with Johnson's, as arguing against the worth of a child with disabilities. The entire article was centered around himself and how having August has basically stunted his career growth and has severely limited his life. He complains about how the lack of available trained caregivers and daycare facilities take time away from his career and time with his non-disabled daughter. He makes it sound like August is a burden to his life. Albeit, there are few moments where his true motives become clear in saying that he just wishes he had more access to resources, but they come out as my life is significantly harder because my child has disabilities. 

I think that Gabbard exposes himself as being the equivalent of Singer. They are both older, white men in academia. The only difference is that Gabbard has a child with disability and Singer does not, and it seems like he acknowledges that he would not have the opinions he holds now if he hadn't had a personal, direct relationship with a person with a disability. I think you shined a lot of truth about the hypocrisy of Gabbard's article and I wanted to say that I am with you. This piece does not seem like a pro-disability rights article, but rather would fit more aptly under Singer's examples of how disabled people lives aren't worthwhile. 

fran's picture

Grace, this is a wonderful post. I read this article for the first time my freshman year, but I didn’t really understand why it made me feel uneasy until you shared your thoughts. Gabbard does, completely, objectify his son. Objectification is not representation. Though Gabbard clearly loves his son, the way he describes their relationship is entirely self-centered: August has furthered his career, his worldview, his strength in navigating life. Never does he acknowledge that it is not his son’s purpose to make him a better person, and that he will always be responsible for the ableist beliefs and actions he held and committed before and after fatherhood.


I would disagree with Marisa’s point that Gabbard is equivalent to Singer, because he certainly argues that August has had a positive impact on the world, and I think it is important not to lose the distinction between someone who is self-centered and arrogant and someone who is advocating genocide. However, I do agree that in the continuum of ableism, Gabbard is still far closer to Singer than he might like to think because he seems unable to accept, much less voice and fight for, the fact that August’s life has intrinsic and vital meaning for August himself. The fact that August’s existence has provided “productive” benefits for his nondisabled family members is nice but has nothing to do with his value as a person.


Something else I struggle with in this piece is the question of agency in representation. The objectification in this piece is unacceptable, but to a certain extent it can only be ameliorated by a more complete portrait of August as an individual. However, I would have been incredibly uncomfortable if Gabbard had included details about August’s personal life, likes, dislikes, and experiences because – from my understanding – August would not be able to consent to that representation, nor correct any misrepresentations. I suppose I would rather see a parent write about their experience being a parent than to write speculation about how their child experiences the world, but only if they can do so without objectifying the child (which shouldn’t be too hard, I hope – parents don’t see their kids as objects, right?). How do we reconcile the need for representation with both the need for agency in representation and the reality that for some self-advocacy is difficult/impossible?