Whenever I’m asked to explain what disability studies is, I usually don’t know where to begin. Part of the problem is the words themselves. Learning the language of DS is a practice of design, of imagining futures where cure and diagnoses are not the only ways to heal and be well. DS thrives on words that carry the weight of disability history and flex to shape futures where we once thought there were none. Attending one of the first private institutions to form a DS program of study, Georgetown University students could not be more aptly situated to put these terms to use. Some good places we can start to make conversation about care and accessibility on campus include the terms normate, ableism and intersectionality.
Normate: Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are confronted with the utter breakdown of normalcy. Besides the disruptions of no longer commuting to work or having in-person classes, the authority of the norm is further scrutinized by Rosemarie-Garland Thomson’s concept of the normate. The normate is an idealized figure whose independence, intelligence and physical ability represent the qualities of a legitimate U.S. citizen. Put bluntly, “the disabled figure — the cripple, the invalid, the idiot — comes to represent everything that the normate is not.” Whereas the normate is defined as complete and whole, the disabled body/mind is an insufficient or excessive deviation. Most importantly, the normate is imaginary; everybody is a product of politics and culture. No such neutral being exists.
Ableism: From T.L. Lewis’ influential definition, ableism is the name given to the system of oppression that assesses the value of a person’s body and mind based on their ability to “satisfactorily [re]produce, excel, and ‘behave.’” Ableism sorts the productive from the unproductive, the normates from the deviants, the worthy from the undeserving. Moreover, ableism has been used to justify the power structures that produce “anti-Blackness, eugenics, colonialism, and capitalism” (Lewis). Some historical cases of such justifications include the use of the psychiatric disorder drapetomania as a medical explanation to account for a slave’s desire for freedom, or the belief that women were too mentally feeble to meet the demands of getting an education. Through them, we understand ableism’s role as a fundamental rhetoric in maintaining other forms of discrimination.
Intersectionality: “Disability justice” is sometimes used interchangeably with “disability rights,” but in fact, disability justice was coined as a friendly departure from the U.S. disability rights movement. Specifically, the DRM’s homogenous leadership of white men with mobility impairments led to the marginalization of unrepresented groups on the basis of race, gender, age, sexuality, immigration status, nonmobility impairments, disability type, etc. Although the DRM was critical in securing civil rights for people with disabilities, it did not consider and therefore obscured the disabled experiences of those most impacted by discriminatory practices toward minority groups.
DS and disability justice are powerful not in spite of their characteristic heterogeneity, but because of it. There is no one body whose history and position in society is nonpolitical or exempt from the effects of ableist practices. For us, promoting this justice means holding fast to cura personalis by striving to liberate each other from ableism and the myth of the normate through advocacy for the whole, intersectional person.
Esther Kang is a sophomore in the College. Reconstructing Disability appears online every other Saturday.