Disability Studies

Feminist Disability Studies

One of the things I like best about working at SU’s Writing Center is that students schedule their appointments online, so sometimes you get to work with someone who chose you because your academic interests mesh. Last week, I got to talk to a fellow graduate student about Feminist Disability Studies (FDS), which was awesome. A couple weeks ago, I wrote a paper attempting to map out some of the theoretical components and constraints of FDS, and since then, I’ve been stewing over what I think it is–How is FDS useful as a discipline, a methodology, or even a pedagogy?

My first encounter with FDS was with Kristina Knoll’s articulation of what an FDS pedagogy looks like. I was immediately drawn to the interrogation of power and privilege, the importance of respecting rather than erasing differences, and the emphasis on contextualizing disability and gender within other contexts of race, class, and nationality. Until this semester, though, I didn’t really have a context for this work—no clear understandings of how FDS functions as a discipline that does more than combine feminist theory and disability studies. I certainly don’t exact understandings now, but it’s getting clearer.

Cover of Feminist Disability Studies, edited by Kim Q. Hall
Feminist Disability Studies edited by Kim Q. Hall

The overlaps between the interests of feminist theory and disability studies are clear: both are concerned with oppression (sexism and ableism), centralizing marginalized identities, creating alternative or counter-discursive understandings and knowledge, and connecting theory and activism. And as disciplines, both encounter academic resistance. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes this resistance as an assumption of niche interest groups; that is, people assume that feminist theory and disability studies are too narrow to contribute to mainstream academic practices and knowledge-making (14).

FDS offers an intersectional and transformative approach for thinking about embodiment. In the introduction to her collection, Kim Hall describes FDS as a complex framework that “make[s] visible the historical and ongoing interrleationship between all forms of oppressions” (4), particularly as these oppressions are rooted in bodily difference. The body, then, becomes central to analyses of oppression and a reimagining of our social, cultural, and political relationships to the body.

With its reimagining of the body, FDS also provides an opportunity to reimagine the social model of disability. Hall writes, “Just as disability studies shows how disability is irreducible to bodily impairment, feminist theory shows how gender is irreducible to biological sex” (1). Instead of examining either as biological, FDS analyzes disability and gender as identity categories, cultural concepts, embodied ways of knowing. But herein lies some of the tensions.

Disability studies has rallied around the social model to gain credibility and to show disability as something other than an individual issue. If disability is only a biological, individual issue, it holds no bearing to others and can only be addressed in medical terms (e.g. a “cure”). One of the most prominent sayings within DS is that if we live long enough, we will all become disabled. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson complicates this a little: “I would argue that disability is perhaps the essential characteristic of being human. The body is dynamic, constantly interactive with history and environment. We evolve into disability” (34). If we imagine disability as the most human of all conditions, we discredit the idea that disability is also a social construct.

Enter Nirmala Erevelles. In her book, Erevelles argues that FDS fails to “seriously engage ‘difference’ within its own ranks along the axes of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and national difference” (129). She argues that instead of focusing on—and flattening—physical conditions of the biological body, FDS should address the larger material conditions that structure those bodies.

For me, then, FDS is an opportunity to reimagine not only the material conditions of our bodies but also the social structures the police those bodies. The benefits of such an opportunity seem multiple. FDS has potentials for academic activism that feminist theory and disability studies alone may not. Together, they work in ways that promote disciplinary intersectionality and ask us to rethink our relationship with and to bodies as they act and react within the world. FDS also creates spaces for social activism. If we imagine disability as socially constructed, it is difficult to advocate for rights; similarly, if we imagine disability as physical or biological, it is difficult to imagine changing those conditions. By acknowledging people’s material conditions and the social structures in place that affect their physical realities, there are more productive avenues for challenging those structures.

And by acknowledging and respecting the complex matrix of differences that affect us, rather than flattening identities and focusing on just disability or just gender, FDS lends itself to reimagining a social model of disability that is based on more holistic understandings of the conditions that affect people every day.

***

Erevelles, Nirmala. Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” Feminist Disability Studies. Ed. Kim Q. Hall. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2011. 13-47. Print.

Hall, Kim Q. “Reimagining Disability and Gender through Feminist Studies: An Introduction.” Feminist Disability Studies. 1-10. Print.

Knoll, Kristina R. “Feminist Disability Studies Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 19.2 (2009):122-33.

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