Monday, March 27, 2006

Part V: Feminist Disability Theory

Due to lack of time, I'm posting a presentation on Feminist Disability Theory in it's entirety, meaning, I don't have time to tailor it to readers so it is in spoken format. It shouldn't be too hard to read and, as usual, I'm open for discussion!

WOMAN feminine, beautiful, sister, mother, daughter, friend, lover; myself, other people with similar physiological characteristics or behaviors; bearer of life; lover; wife; intelligent; married; leader; career; lovable;

WOMAN WITH A DISABILITY unable to do things most other people are abled to do either temporarily or permanently; a woman who experiences a form of mental, physical, or emotional handicap or difference as compared to what’s considered “normal”;

DISABLED WOMAN a woman without permanent abilities, hindered in fulfilling roles completely, or rather easily, must alter surroundings in order to fulfill roles as expected by society; the “disabled” aspect seems more primary in characterizing the person, as if it comes before gender identity; crippled; almost lifeless; asexual;

(I spent the first 10 min going over words and how society think of women, women with a disability and disable women. It was productive and helped them better understand the intersecting ideas, etc. And it was much more fun than writing another paper!)

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines disability as “a restriction or lack of ability to perform an activity in the manner considered ‘normal’ for a human being.”

What is the problem with this definition?
They say it requires a restriction or lack of ability – but what about those with a mental disorder and/or disability? They say in the manner considered “normal,” but who gets to define what normal is?

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 defines an individual with a disability as:
having a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; having a record of such an impairment; or is regarded as having such an impairment.

What is the problem with that definition?
It is very broad and leaves the definition of physical or mental impairment up to individuals therefore its interpretation varies from person-to-person, becoming inconsistently enforced. Making someone report such an impairment means that an individual has to go through the diagnosis process but what if they are homeless, don’t understand they have a problem, or perhaps they have no health insurance for proper meds? This is why the Supreme Court enacted the Olmstead Act which is an “amendment” to operationalize the ADA. For example, making it mandatory that all public facilities make themselves accessible and within a certain set of guidelines. Before the Olmstead Act, the ADA stated within its guidelines that any building over 2 stories didn’t have to put in an elevator; now they do.

Holcomb and Giesen offer an alternative definition that a fellow classmate brought to my attention a few weeks ago which brings the issue back into society as it should be: Persons with a disability are those “who self-identify as living with an ongoing physical (or other) condition such as mobility impairment, blindness, deafness or other circumstances for which architectural and attitudinal social barriers have limited their inclusion and participation.”

Now, with that in mind, Nicola Griffith, in her essay entitled “Writing from the Body,” gives us a brief history on dualism of which Plato was the first to speak. Dualism is a theory that the world consists of two separate states of being: visible meaning your physical self and eternal meaning your soulful self. Plato said that the body is particular therefore imperfect but the soul is universal with its aim to separate itself from the body and return to the divine.

Aristotle took it a step further when he claimed individual substance is made of both matter and form meaning that the human soul cannot exist without a human body. He also stated, in Generation of Animals, that any physical difference (among humans) that ‘departs from type’ – meaning the able-bodied male – becomes a monstrosity that, by its very essence, is less than human. He claims that this first happens when a female is formed instead of a male and that society should look upon the female body as a deformity.

Paul, coming from the Judaic tradition, thought that Plato’s ideals and his Judaism would fit nicely together. Griffith states, “Evil, Paul declared, must manifest itself in the physical. The body, with its needs and functions, is evil, something from which we should seek to distance ourselves. The more physical and messy the body, it seemed, the more evil the person.” So it goes to show that the idea of women bleeding monthly and giving birth would make them anchored much closer to the imperfect physical realm than men, and persons with an obvious disability or disfigurement even more so.

The two women whose stories and ideals I will be sharing with you today have multiple sclerosis. MS is often considered relapsing-remitting MS which means that every once in a while, a persons immune system goes haywire and attacks the myelin sheath on the neurons of the brain and spinal cord. This usually means that they will wake up with something not working such as an arm, leg, foot, hand, fingers and/or various other muscles and nerves. Much like other degenerative diseases, MS worsens with time, eventually leaving the person relying heavily on canes or wheelchairs. Nancy Mair, by the end of her book, has full functioning in one hand only and uses a powered wheelchair. Keep these in mind while I tell you their stories of trying to become, and be, writers.

Has anyone ever read a book by or about someone with a disability? How about Flannery O’Connor? Homer who was blind? Edgar Allen Poe who had diabetes, depression and alcholism? Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy who all had ADD? F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hans Christian Anderson, Agatha Christie who all had dyslexia? A new interpretation of Hans Christian Andersons work puts him as having Aspergers Syndrome, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf were bi-polar, Tennessee Williams had diptheria as a child and so therefore was weak for the rest of his life…

Of the many books I either read or looked at, it is not uncommon for all womens writing to be considered autobiographical regardless of differing abilities. After all, we discussed how some womens narratives are filed away in the self-help section of major bookstores. As for finding a specific autobiographical text written by a woman with a disability, it’s tough, but it is possible. I will expound on this idea later.

In Nancy Mairs book Waist High in the World: A Life Among the Disabled, she writes about her amazement in how advanced England is in accomodating those with disabilities as opposed to the leper-like treatment she gets in the U.S. She first visited England when she and her partner found out he had cancer and so they decided this was the time to visit England since they had never been. On that 1st visit they discovered how much easier it was to travel around England as opposed to the U.S. England quickly became their vacation spot of choice; they even had a cozy, accessible cottage they rented each time. She noted that if the buildings in England weren’t accessible, they would compromise with Mair and her partner to find a way in and around. Such an example is when she visited the home of Virginia Woolf and they could only get in to see the garden. Think about Richmond with its inaccessible cobblestone and brick walkways, steep hills and various other “roadblocks.”

She then discussed how she was acknowledged as one of the Who’s Who of Western Writing yet did not feel she qualified for such a title, because 1. she was not orginially from Arizona but Boston instead (which is not in a western frame of mind) and 2. when you think of the west, you generally think of actions requiring free movement such as walking across deserts, climbing or riding up and down the Grand Canyon, visiting the Alamo, Yellowstone and so on. As she succinctly stated, she had to wait for the west to be paved before she could explore it’s many natural wonders.

In her chapter, “Writing West: A Reclamation Project,” Mair wrote that a couple of editors, who had asked her to write about the west, replied with “No, not that story. We had something else in mind.” They then proceeded to give her some examples: “pieces built around backwoodspersons and long reflective walks by the verges of isolated lakes, about the uses of firearms and childhood encounters with Indians.” Nancy Mair has riden belly-button high for a number of years so her stories would not be like any other woman who had written for that particular publication. They wanted to know her differences but only how they qualify her existence within the mainstream views of mobility. In her words:

But that’s not how disability works. It does not leave one precisely the same woman one would have been without it, only (in my case) shorter. It does not merely alter a few, or even a great many, details in the life story that otherwise conforms to basic narrative conventions: the adventure, the romance, the quest. Instead, it transforms the tale
utterly, though often subtly, and these shifts in narrative tone and type arouse resistance in both the ‘author’ and the ‘reader’ of the outlandish plot.

Nicola Griffith speaks to this very idea in her essay, “Writing from the Body.” In her words:

Multiple Sclerosis changed some things about my life. As I have changed, so has the way in which I draw my fictional characters. Most of them suffer a great deal, emotionally and physically and – compared with my earlier work – solutions to personal and plot problems are no longer wholly physcial. In fact, they are rarely so. One criticism of Ammonite has been
that the confrontation between the Mirrors and Echraidhe was anticlimatic. ‘There should have been a battle!’ But battles, the simple smashing together of armies followed by a body count, no longer interest me that much. What intrigues me now are the minutiae from which such conflicts spring.

Griffith tells readers how she counts on her days being “good” – meaning she wakes up with the ability to use all or most of her body – but when she has her (increasing) “bad” days, she lies on her couch or bed staring out of her window and into the sky to watch its amazing colors, shapes and transformations. She states how this ability to see is attributed to her success in writing her latest science-fiction novels . She is thankful for this ability because most other writers do not get such a luxury and she believes it has led her writing into a deeper dimension.

Griffith also makes a great point in her article when she says that almost all women’s writing is seen as autobiographical, even in her case and she writes only science fiction novels. She uses the example of her first review of her novel Ammonite. The book is about a woman who ends up on another planet and experiences a number of things impossible in our reality today such as aliens, rearrangement of DNA and a deadly retrovirus. What is the reviewer’s obvious mistake? He pegged her novel as being autobiographical. Somehow Griffith herself ended up on another planet and faced aliens. What finally dawned on her was that the reviewer caught on to the fact that the main character in the novel loved another woman therefore since Griffith was a lesbian, she was writing about herself. Interesting how the reviewer took out of the novel the only part that could have been remotely autobiographical – the existence of a lesbian relationship – and dismissed the rest.

Griffith gives us her explanation for the suppression of women’s writing. Because women are still thought to be unable to transcend the physical and actual and soar into the realm of pure imagination, we are still considered to be hampered by our bodies and incapable of seeing beyond personal experience. We are often not considered artists so therefore our writing is most often labeled autobiographical. This theory is telling as to why a woman attempts to keep her disability hidden so her writing will not be judged by this standard.

Think back to the times you have encountered a person with a disability within a work of literature. More often then not, they have not had a viable status within their society. Deborah Kent, in her essay “Disabled Women: Portraits in Fiction and Drama,” states how the literary image of disabled women may influence how they are seen and judged in real life. She conducted her own research because she was trying to find a role model for herself, yet came up short on finding positive depictions of women with a disability. The overwhelming issue that I have found, which Kent supports, is that women with disabilities don’t have the necessary ability to take care of a man in a relationship. A man might feel as if he lowered himself within society because he was only able to obtain a substandard partner. On the other hand, a woman with a disability is intriguing to other men because she is seen as mysterious or vulnerable.

Now, what makes this all so interesting is that a woman is more likely to get involved with a man who has a disability because of her purported nurturing behavior. It is said that most women have a maternal instinct to care for someone or something and it is this instinct that perhaps drives the relationship. She sees a man who is disabled as needing something from her while most men might see a woman who is disabled as not being a whole woman and therefore not able to bare children, clean the house and/or other socially defined wifely duties.

Kent also brings to our attention how, in literature, women with disabilities are often portrayed as victims to whatever their disability may be. She is often characterized as having been victim to some outside onset of the disability, which is a man in many cases. Looking at this from a victim’s point of view portrays these women as vulnerable, weak and helpless in the eyes of readers, therefore forming the societal perceptions on how we view persons with a disability whom we may encounter in our everyday life.

Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asch cite in their essay “Nurturance, Sexuality and Women with Disabilities: The Example of Women and Literature,” statistics obtained in the early 1980s from a Current Population Survey. It reported that 60% of men with disabilities were married while 49% of women with disabilities were married. 14% of men termed “severely disabled” were divorced while 26% of women termed “severely disabled” were divorced. What it boils down to is that divorce rates are higher when the onset of the disability comes after marriage with women in the largest percentage bracket.

Asch and Fine go on to explain the “attractiveness stereotype” which, as some of us are aware of, is persistent in our mainstream society. Those who are attractive are seen as more sensitive, kind, interesting, poised, sociable, sexually warm and will often hold better jobs, be more successful in their marriages, and have happier lives. The stereotypical measure of attractiveness is also somehow linked to virtue. What Asch and Fine also state is that a woman’s attractiveness is seen as a reflection of the male partner’s social status. Because of this attractiveness quotient, it should come as no surprise that heterosexual women with disabilities are more likely to be alone than are heterosexual men with disabilities. Men may assume incorrectly that a woman with a disability could not contribute either physically or mentally to a growing relationship. The example Asch and Fine gave is that “if a woman cannot sew on a button because she cannot use her hands, she may be thought unfit to help with the mending of emotional fences as well.” Asch and another research partner, Sacks, discovered in a review of autobiographies from women and men that the men sought out sighted wives so that they would be complimented, to ensure the normalcy and successful status and to be sure their navigation throughout society was smooth both literally and figuratively.

This then brings me to my main argument: why Feminist Disability Theory, or at least Disability Theory, should be integrated as a separate component in all sociological, psychological and women’s studies programs across the world. Much like Felski and her argument for the need of a Feminist literary criticism which helps to shed some light on the way society affects the lives of women. We then read and understand these theories through the literature feminist critics write, and so the same could be said for a Feminist disability criticism. By reading the biographical and/or autobiographical texts of persons with disabilities regardless of their gender allows those of us who live on the outside to acquire the proper terminology and knowledge for acceptance into yet another level of sociological difference.

Feminist Disability Theory will allow us to learn that the term disability is really an oxymoron because the persons this word is used to describe are not disabled at all, but simply have differing abilities. We will begin to learn the history of such words as handicapped, which dates back to the return of the men from World War II, who would hand out their caps to collect money because they were homeless and hungry. We will also learn that such phrases as “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound” are also oxymoronic in that persons using a wheelchair are not confined or bound to their chair, but instead are able to adapt and move about society with greater ease. Feminist disability theory will allow us to examine the relationships between heterosexual and homosexual couples were one or the other has a disability and how these differing abilities become yet another facet of their identity. We talked about such theorists as Patricia Hill Collins who stated that we shouldn’t forget she is black and only see her as black at the same time; a concept that goes back to Plato’s original idea of dualism. Women with disabilities are asking the same thing. We shouldn’t see them as only their disability, but we shouldn’t forget that they have one either. My friend Lori is going through this very concept right now. Certain family members are constantly reminding her that because they can’t see her disability it is contained only in her head yet because of her disability her outlook on life has changed significantly in the past few years since its onset.

I would like to leave you all with two questions that Griffith posed to her readers and I think they are a perfect to leave with you in closing:

1. Who are you when you have nothing left but your inner resources?
2. Once a particular self-image has been shown to be patently untrue, who and what is there to replace it?