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Disability History- Disability and Value of Life

gwatkins's picture

Something that struck me from A Disability History of the United States was how societies value or devalue different disabled people dissimilarly and how this has been tied to labor and profit.  I thought that it was really cool how Indigenous people saw everyone regardless of impairment as having a gift and how the word disability didn’t exist because their community was inclusive and not built on ableism.  Indigenous use of sign language was really inspiring and a great example of how creating a more accessible world benefits everybody; this removed the disabling aspects of Deafness and improved cross-cultural communication for everyone.  

Our colonial and capitalist past and present enforces the ideal that lives should be valued mainly on their ability to labor.  Instead of valuing everyone and striving to create an accessible world, the concept of disability was exploited to further oppress groups.  Neilson stated, “Disability, as a concept, was used to justify legally established inequalities” (50).  Colonialists used this to boost white supremecy and patriarchy, using bigoted idealogies based on disability to wrongly justify slave labor as best for Black people, violence against Native Americans and the idea that white women weren’t intelligent enough to work outside of the home.  Furthermore, the intersection between Blackness and disability had horrific implications in the slave trade as many were deemed not profitable enough and abused and killed.  One other tragic element brought up in class is that when fighting for rights, white women, for example, had to argue that they were not disabled to earn the right to vote.  While true women as a group are not inherently impaired, it just sucks that this was the argument they had to use because it further devalued disabled lives.

On the other side of this, veterans who became physically disabled in war were treated with greater care and benefits than other people with disabilities.  Physical disabilities being more normal at the time was part of this, but it’s also disturbing how the mannerism in which someone becomes disabled plays a large role in how one’s life is valued.