A U.S. History of People with Disabilities
(Page 3 of 5)
But . . . what is disability? Who are people with disabilities? And conversely, what does it mean to be nondisabled? When the US Supreme Court struggled to define obscenity in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart threw up his hands in frustration and wrote, “I know it when I see it.” It’s temptingly easy to do the same about disability. We generally assume that disability is a clearly defined category, unchanging and concrete. Closer inspection, however, reveals that disability is often elusive and changing. Not only do people with disabilities have a history, but the concept of disability has a history as well.
The dominant method of defining disability assumes disability to be a medical “problem” with a clear “cause” that must be “treated” in an effort to find a “cure.” This framework considers disability to stem from bodily-based defects and tends to define disabled people almost exclusively by those diagnostic defects (and supposedly nondisabled people by their lack of such defects). It erroneously presumes disability to be ahistorical—that is, to have always had the same, unaltering definition. Such a narrow conception erases the widely diverse and rich lives of so many people with disabilities—for whom disability likely matters, but who also define themselves according to and whose lives are shaped by race, sexuality, gender, class, political ideology, athleticism, their favorite hobby, whether or not they like yappy dogs, and the like. Disability can include disease or illness, but it often does not, and nondisabled people can be ill. Illness sometimes leads to disability (but it often does not), and when it does the illness can go away but the disability remain. Illness, disease, and disability are not synonymous.
Defining disability is difficult—and that’s part of my argument. Although the definition theoretically has been based on bodies, the categorization of bodies as disabled has been shaped by factors such as gender, race, sexuality, education, levels of industrialization or standardization, access to adaptive equipment or privacy, and class. With age and medical care, as well as the vagaries of life, or simply daily context, one can move in and out of the category of “people with disabilities.” One can be temporarily disabled due to accident or illness. Disabilities can be easily “read” by others (signified by the presence of a wheelchair or the sounds of a speech impediment), or more difficult to discern (such as some psychological disabilities or neurological disabilities).
Disability can be contextual, and its meanings have changed over time. A simplistic example: a fellow historian and I once spent a delightful few days in Montreal at an academic conference. Those around me read my body as nondisabled. The white cane of my friend led others to read her as blind and disabled. Waiters and cab drivers always looked to me to take the lead. However, and to their dismay, I don’t speak French. Luckily, my colleague is fluent in French. In that context, my linguistic deficiencies became far more of an impediment, far more disabling, than her blindness. Disability is not just a bodily category, but instead and also a social category shaped by changing social factors—just as is able-bodiedness.
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