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Race, disability, and shame

nbarker's picture

While there are many threads that weave into a complex tapestry for our discussion this week, there's one particular thread I'm seeing interwoven in many of these readings: that of shame. Disability, especially intellectual and mental disability more generally, is something that far too many cultures regard as shameful. This we see in Esther's work, and in too many other places. It's all too common a practice to "hide away your defectives"--in institutions in the modern day, for instance, but all across Western history. Our readings for today somewhat show that this is present in other cultures, too, but the influence of Western conceptions of disability are ever-present.

I can't help but think of the case of Rosemary Kennedy. (We must acknowledge whiteness is a race/ethnicity too--albeit the most dominant and influential one, the one in power. Who but the Kennedys epitomizes the "ultimate" American family?) She was deprived of oxygen at birth, and exhibited many different behaviors we would now call developmental disabilities. Her father forced her to undergo a lobotomy at 23, one of the first women to undergo the procedure--which rendered very severely disabled: unable to speak, and unable to control her bodily functions. Her sisters were greatly affected by her life, though--Eunice Shriver later went on to found the Special Olympics. (Here, by the way, is an article on a new book about her. The article is cringeworthy at points, but gets the point across--I hope the book is better) Her father treated her as shameful, and not up to the standards of the rest of the family, and so ended up by subjecting her to horrible treatments in a desperate attempt to control her, then hid her away until she died. 

I also must think of the case of police killings. What I was distressed about, and still hasn't made anywhere near enough of the discussion, is that so many of the victims of police killings over the past two years have been people with mental and/or developmental/intellectual disabilities. People seem to be more comfortable with talking about these victims' race and leaving disability out of the discussion. Few people know how many of them (not just Sandra Bland) had histories of various kinds of disabilities, which certainly influenced how police treated them. Make sure to take a look at this white paper by the Ruderman Foundation, which illustrates this incredibly well--half the people just covered by the media as being killed by police had disabilities. 

Instead of fear and cloistering, I hope we can move away from the shame and violence we see in our treatment of disability, and instead embrace the love that we see, embraced in such things as Wong and Chiang's work--using the good in each ethnic/racial group to make good for each disabled person and their family, embracing the power of intersections.