Panel 3 Top text: The few inroads that a specifically feminist theory of disability has made have also tended to be advanced by white folks, without much consideration of race. Image: Annaham looks at a pile of books: The Rejected Body by Susan Wendell, Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag, Feminism & Disability by Barbara Hillyer, Crip Theory by Robert McRuer, and Extraordinary Bodies by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Panel 4 Top text: As Karen DePauw puts it, “[women scholars with disabilities] have explored issues facing (mostly white) females with disabilities and have begun to examine the complexity of difference as a result of the confluence of being female and having a disability.” Image: A mashup of the feminist “woman” symbol and the classic symbol for people with disabilities. Bottom text: DePauw, “Space, the Final Frontier…,” 21.

Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Part 4

Previous installments: 1, 2, and 3.

Accessibility note: The image descriptions for this series, since they are very long, can be found under the image .jpgs in each installment, rather than in the alt-text field. 

Click “Read More” to read part 4 of this comic series; click the images to fully enlarge.

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A fat woman in black and white, ruminating.

Not Your Good Fatty: HAES and Disability

Health at every size is a concept embraced by some fat and size acceptance activists. For those not familiar with it, it was popularised by Linda Bacon, and simply put, it suggests that there’s a wide variation of bodies and that people should focus on what makes their bodies healthy, rather than on eating and exercising for weight control. There are a number of components of health at every size, including ‘intuitive eating’ and the concept of ‘joyful movement.’

When I initially heard about HAES back in my nascent days of exploring fat, size, and my relationship with my own body, I was excited about it. I’d been reading a lot of stories about the false beliefs about fat and health, and I liked the idea of a movement specifically reinforcing the idea that being fat doesn’t make you unhealthy, since one of the most common charges levied against us fat folks is that we are unhealthy because we are fat, that fat makes people unhealthy.

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Top text: Unfortunately, the “bootstraps” model of health care and being able to pay for that care has taken root in some Western societies, especially in the U.S.—where “Screw everyone else, I’ve got mine/my needs taken care of!” is something of an ideological stance, especially among conservatives. Image: Several different people object to a different model of health care. Speech bubbles: SOCIALISM! Obama-Care! MY tax dollars going to help poor people? NO! They just need to WORK HARDER to be able to afford insurance! If you’re mad about pre-existing conditions, just don’t get sick! Maybe some of these people without insurance could focus on staying healthy and taking care of themselves, without relying on big government.

Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Part 3

Previous installments: part 1; part 2.

Accessibility note: The image descriptions for this series, since they are very long, can be found under the image .jpgs in each installment, rather than in the alt-text field. 

Click “Read More” to read part 3 of this comic series; click the images to fully enlarge.

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Two images. Top text: I am also oppressed, therefore… Image: Image of a white feminist looking perturbed and defensive. Speech bubble: But I’m a feminist! I can’t possibly be racist! ; Top text: Naïve, with a side of STFU. Image: Two people—one a fat white woman with curly hair, and a thin white man with a goatee—stand side by side, looking angry. Speech bubbles: But we’re POST-RACIAL, since the U.S. elected a BLACK PRESIDENT! Stop complaining.

Drawing Out Whiteness and Disability: Part 2

Previously: Part 1.

Accessibility note: The image descriptions for this series, since they are very long, can be found under the image .jpgs in each installment, rather than in the alt-text field. 

Click “Read More” to read part 2 of this comic series; click the images to fully enlarge.

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Image of author Melody Moezzi standing in front of a grafittied wall; image via http://www.penguinspeakersbureau.com/speakers/page/melody_moezzi

“We cannot talk about mental health without talking about prisons”: A Conversation with Melody Moezzi

Human rights activist, attorney, writer, Iranian American, and Muslim American feminist: Melody Moezzi is all of these. She is the award-winning author of War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims and published her memoir Haldol and Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life last September. She also blogs for the Huffington Post, Ms., and BP Magazine and has provided commentary for CNN, NPR, and BBC, among others. Her memoir is a frank account of her journey with bipolar disorder, her times in and out of mental health care facilities, as well as her life as an Iranian-American woman in Middle America and the South. Written with grace and often hilarious, Moezzi’s book fills a gap in mental illness memoirs, in that is told from her perspective as a Muslim American feminist activist and attorney.

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Image of a snake eating its own tail; via http://theunrecordedman.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/snake-eats-own-tail.jpg

Misunderstanding the Mind/Body Connection

Many people with chronic health conditions, chronic pain, and/or mental health conditions are well aware that the mind can influence how the body feels on both acute and more long-term levels. A Google search for “chronic pain and depression” brings up around 42 million results; it’s not surprising that mental health concerns are a problem when it comes to chronic physical health problems, whether mental health issues precede chronic illness or spring up long after a person has been dealing with chronic pain and illness. In many cases, mental health issues and chronic illness/pain affect each other, but for those who have both, it’s not so much a chicken-or-egg problem of “which came first?” rather than trying to deal with and manage each issue on an ongoing basis.

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A young person receiving a vaccine from an adult.

Arguing About Vaccines While Rome Burns

The United States is deep in the throes of measles outbreaks on two coasts, in the Bay Area and New York City, with isolated patches of the disease elsewhere. This fully vaccine-preventable illness, which was officially ‘eliminated’ from the US, is experiencing a renaissance for one simple reason: people aren’t vaccinating their children, and they aren’t getting their adult boosters to ensure continued immunity throughout life.

It seems absurd, given that measles can be fatal and it can cause long-term neurological impairments in patients who recover from the infection. This applies not just to children, but also immunocompromised adults who can’t get vaccinated; people who are HIV+ or have autoimmune disorders are at serious risk if they get infected with measles. When an easy preventative step is available to address an illness with potentially serious consequences and people aren’t taking advantage of it, one is, quite reasonably, led to ask: why?

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Photo of the author with a book featuring a black and white image of a Heaven's Gate member post-mass suicide. Photo by Anna Hamilton.

Beyond Human: The Heaven’s Gate Cult, Transhumanism, and Me

Heaven’s Gate was an American UFO religious Millenarian group based in San Diego, California, founded in the early 1970s and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985). On March 26, 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an alien space craft following the Comet Hale–Bopp, which was then at its brightest.

–From Wikipedia’s entry on Heaven’s Gate (content warning on link for description of suicide and photos)

I’ve been fascinated with the Heaven’s Gate cult ever since I saw–as an 11 year-old–a huge photograph of the members’ dead bodies, apparently peacefully posed on bunkbeds,  on the front page of my local paper, under the rather alarmist headline (and all-caps) headline HOUSE OF HORROR. As I picked up bits and pieces of information on the group that the news media breathlessly reported throughout April and May of 1997, I began to wonder if the “house of horror” headline was overblown; yes, these folks had committed mass suicide, but they had also found people to whom they could relate and live with peacefully (albeit in a fringe religious group). Was that so horrifying? To most people–and to the media–it seemed like the answer was a resounding yes.

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UC Berkeley's Sather Gate, a metal gate arching over Sproul Plaza.

When Education is a Privilege, Not a Right

In the United States, the government promises free universal access to education through high school (grade 12), providing funding to a vast network of public schools across the nation. The education system in practice is a deeply flawed, troubled institution, one rife with discrimination, inequality, and gross imbalances; children of colour going to school in a facility with clogged toilets and peeling walls while their wealthy counterparts enjoy an airy, leafy campus with impeccable facilities and the best, most modern technology, for example.

But on the surface, education in the United States is supposed to be a fundamental right, something accessible to all children. In fact, the country so aggressively pursues it that to not go to school is to find yourself meeting the truancy officer; if you don’t go to public school or who have parents with the power to pay for private education, you must be homeschooled with a curriculum approved by the state. In other words, this is more of an enforced right, as it were, at least for some students; again, inequality shows here when it comes to which students are closely watched and encouraged to stay in school.

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Two stacks of books against a blue background; image via Horia Varlan on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons (CC) license.

Why Feminist Disability Studies?

Every so often, I remember that even though I’ve left academia for good, there was one part of feminist and disability studies that made me feel less alone, and still does: feminist disability studies.

Although a solid anthology (which I reviewed for Global Comment) on the discipline was published in 2011, feminist disability studies and theory are still on the margins of feminist academia in some places; at least, it was when I was pursuing my M.A. and dealt with higher-ups who couldn’t reconcile the personal and the political (or “real life” and “scholarly praxis”) being so intricately interwoven for people like me. Before I start to sound like one of those “back in my day” grumps (I’m still in my twenties, after all), it’s probably a good idea to give a general overview of why feminist disability studies is necessary, and how it formed.

In doing so, I hope to also make the case as to why a specifically feminist focus on disability–in both academia and activism–is not just “splitting the movement apart” or “making the movement weaker” like some critics of the very idea of intersectionality say happens whenever a person who’s not white, abled, middle-class or higher, straight, or cis points out the issues within feminism. Because despite the best efforts of disabled feminists on the web, in the academy, and in activist groups, disability is still not on the feminist radar by and large.

Although Women’s Studies within the academy has opened up new understandings of gender, sexuality and their interactions with various systems of oppression, it has, like its activist counterpart, been critiqued—and rightly so–for leaving certain people out.

Scholar Chandra Mohanty contends that some Women & Gender Studies programs in the U.S. academy have implicitly supported “a kind of careerist academic feminism whereby the boundaries of the academy stand in for the entire world and feminism becomes a way to advance academic careers rather than a call for fundamental and collective social and economic transformation.” Unsurprisingly, something similar has happened in social justice circles, and online social justice continues to experience  controversies over careerism, representation, and who gets to speak on behalf of “the community.”

In another essay from her 2007 collection Feminism Without Borders, Mohanty argues that some Western feminist groups and texts “[have been] critiqued for their homogenizing, even colonialist, gestures; they have been critiqued, in fact, by those most directly affected by the exclusions that have made possible certain radical and cultural feminist generalizations.” Though Mohanty also notes that such critiques sometimes “have the risk of falling into culturalist arguments,” her point still stands, particularly for feminists and women who have been mostly left out of the movement because they do not fit what has been constructed as the mainstream “feminist” subject position: that of the white, middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, “liberated” feminist from the global north. Similar to some of the characteristics of the “normative” Western feminist described above, abledness has been and overwhelmingly continues to be an unspoken norm in both the academy and activist circles; reliance on these unexamined norms continues to take place in feminist spaces as well.

These “social patterns of bias and exclusion,” as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson call them, are “based on ability norms that operate similarly to gender and racial systems.” While such seemingly disparate groups as feminists of color, disabled feminists, trans feminists, and queer feminists may have different issues, they have something significant in common: they’ve all traditionally been excluded from mainstream feminism. Members of these groups, in various venues, have also raised important questions that interrogate who is excluded, why, and what steps can be taken to break that cycle.

However, those with the most privilege have traditionally called the shots as to where the energies, focus and concern are directed within feminist activism and scholarship, and middle-class, heterosexual, able-bodied, white feminists with access to media power have tended to not want to share the spotlight. Like many other groups that don’t quite fit more privileged feminists’ ideas of what “real” feminists are or what a “feminist” issue is, widespread attention paid to feminists with disabilities, and thought given to disability in feminist scholarship, seem noticeably absent within the feminist academy.

Feminist disability theory has been going on, however covertly and perhaps unnoticed by the mainstream, within Women’s Studies and Cultural Studies for many years. Central texts, at least in the U.S., have included Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1978), Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (1985), Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s full-length cultural studies work Extraordinary Bodies (1997), and anthologies such as Gendering Disability (2004), edited by Bonnie G. Smith and Beth Hutchison, as well as the work of scholar-activists such as Barbara Hillyer, Cheryl Marie Wade, and Simi Linton.

Feminist philosophers such as Anita Silvers and Susan Wendell have done invaluable work on invisible disability, chronic illness, and the Western myth of bodily control; additionally, many queer theorists and activists, including Eli Clare, Robert McRuer and Abby Wilkerson, have taken up the disability studies cause under trans, queer and feminist activist and scholarly banners, thus showing that transgender theory, queer disability theory and feminist disability theory are, in fact, related–and are all important to cultural and area studies.

Garland-Thomson offered some useful working guidelines for feminist disability studies and theory in a 2005 article first published in Signs:

 Feminist disability studies…questions our assumptions that disability is a flaw, lack, or excess…it defines disability broadly from a social rather than a medical perspective. Disability, it argues, is a cultural interpretation of human variation rather than an inherent inferiority, a pathology to cure, or an undesirable trait to eliminate. In other words, it finds disability’s significance in interactions between bodies and their social and material environments.

In a 1988 article, feminist philosopher Susan Wendell contended that feminist disability studies cannot be totally, abstractly theoretical: “To build a feminist theory of disability that takes adequate account of our differences, we will need to know how experiences of disability and the social oppression of the disabled interact with sexism, racism and class oppression” (“Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability”).

Feminist disability theory and studies not only offer new possibilities for feminist theory as a whole, but powerfully illuminate issues that have traditionally been important to feminist theory in new and exciting ways, including include abortion and prenatal testing, assisted suicide and the right to die (or live), pace-of-life issues, media culture, cultural messages about the body, the experience of chronic illness and pain, the social construction of “normative” versus non-normative bodies, the medical establishment, labor, and sexuality. However, many feminist theorists and activists currently do not consider these issues from a feminist disability viewpoint at all–much less consider how these issues affect or might affect those living with disabilities and/or chronic health conditions.

Even as it continues to make inroads, feminist disability theory will need to acknowledge and bridge perceived “gaps” between theory and “real life” if it is to remain on the cutting edge; such a continued process could perhaps be modeled on Bonnie Zimmerman’s contention that successful theory should “[root] the production of knowledge in real social relations and commitment to social change.” While the many linguistic accessibility issues with disability theory, feminist theory, and feminist disability theory are beyond the scope of this piece, it’s been a common (and correct) criticism of academic theory that it is written and designed to be understood by an ever-shrinking number of people who have the “right” college or advanced training in the Humanities, social sciences, and/or area studies. This, unfortunately, leaves out people who could also benefit from using theory to understand sociopolitical issues in their own lives–but who might not have the “correct” (or any) credentials.

Although the theoretical is important, in matters of disability and ability, it is equally important to remember that peoples’ lives are still being talked about; no lasting social change is possible if this goes unacknowledged or minimized. Theory that doesn’t take lived experience into account is not very useful, and this is one of the many qualities of an academic approach to social issues that feminist disability theory–like feminist theory, disability theory, and other area studies–needs to keep at the forefront in order to remain vibrant, useful, and interesting.

Disability, through an intersectional lens