Intersections of Race and Queer Theory and Disability Studies: Is There a Proper Definition of Disability?

Throughout history, multiple cultures classified disabled bodies and homosexuality under the same category of pathological conditions that deviate from the norm, and that they have emerged as the result of sexual aberration, and unnatural and perverse actions. But how and why have these societies come to classify disabilty and homosexuality as such? Even though in certain countries disabled people and homosexuals have been assigned the rights every human being should enjoy, we are still witnesses to numerous instances of disability and gay rights activists rightfully demanding that “their legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged” (Foucault, History of Sexuality). In his book Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer tries to analyze and explain how the changing economic, political, and cultural systems create abled and disabled conditions. However, McRuer does not present us with a typical study on disability and queer studies where the main focus would be placed on disability and homosexuality, but he takes a somewhat different, perhaps an even more complex approach. In the opening chapter of the book, “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence”, McRuer remarks that his focus is on the construction of able bodies, or “the system of compulsory able-bodiedness” (McRuer 2) and compulsory heteronormativity. In addition, the article tackles how human societies came to regard heterosexuality and able bodies as invisible, but homosexuality and disabled bodies as something starkly visible, something that will always stand out in the crowd. One thing that stands out in this article is McRuer’s reference to the definition of heterosexuality as provided in the 1971 issue of the Oxford English Dictionary. As McRuer notes, a heterosexual person/heterosexuality was defined as “pertaining to or characterized by the normal relations of the sexes; opp. to homosexual.” This definition is very problematic, because it marginalizes non-heterosexual people as abnormal or disabled bodies. I cannot stop but wonder what this concept of “normal relations of the sexes” is supposed to convey to the audience. First of all, how many sexes are there—is the number of sexes limited only to two, just because that is what we have been taught in schools? Secondly, what do normal relations stand for? Does the concept of “normal relations of the sexes” include anyone taking part in an orgy, since the definition obviously excludes one group of people only, “opp. to homosexuals (OED).” Definitions of this kind have turned homosexuality into a marginalized concept, transforming members of different sexual identities into undesirable and disabled bodies.

While disabled bodies and homosexuality have become more visible to the eyes of able bodies and heterosexuals, they have been invisible within their minds, because societies and cultures have taught the people to suppress that which is not to be named or talked of, or that which is unheard of. By not being mentioned or talked of, homosexuality became subservient to the dictates of heteronormativity: anyone deviating from sexual identities in which societies had instructed them has to hide or suppress their sexual desires and conform to the practices of the majority! If a parent gives a child a carrot and tries to feed it to him/her, and the child refuses the carrot because s/he does not like it, the parents will most likely stop with the same practice, but if someday that same child wishes to share their life with a person of the same sex, in most cases the parent will insist that their child supresses his/her feelings. It is interesting how we have been taught that refusing the food that may benefit your body is not a big problem, but being with a person who may nourish your body, soul and mind is a completely different thing. When you think about it, our whole existence comes down to the concept of a norm, which, as noted by Lennard J. Davis, “implies that the majority of the population must or should somehow be part of the norm” (Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, p. 29). McRuer’s stance on compulsory able-bodiedness perfectly ties in with Davis’ concept of deviations or extremes. One of humanity’s greatest fears is losing a sane mind, or losing a normal body, and it is due to this that humans, in their aspirations to reach the ideal, succumb to embracing what they were told about able-bodiedness. If we fail to embrace the compulsory able-bodiedness or to follow in the footsteps of heteronormativity, does that mean that our bodies transgress the boundaries of normalcy and ordinary bodies? This makes me think of an Oscar winning movie based on a true story, Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hillary Swank, in which she plays a teenage girl wanting to be a boy. Mistreated and rejected by her own family, Brandon Teena (the name of the girl) runs away from home in search of a better life, falls in love with a girl, and dreams of saving enough money to undergo a sex reassignment surgery. The movie ends brutally: Brandon Teena gets raped by two boys from the town and murdered, simply because her body and identity were different. The community in which she lived could not accept her extraordinary, transgender body, because it did not fit within their norm of able-bodiedness and compulsory heteronormativity.

Reflecting on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s analysis of the four modes of visual rhetoric applied to the representations of disability in photography, in his article “Crip Eye for the Normate Guy”, Robert McRuer tests our understanding of the exotic or transgressive mode of representation. McRuer takes a different approach from Garland-Thomson by expanding his analysis on the famous self-proclaimed “supermasochist” Bob Flanagan. As suggested by Garland-Thomson, photographs characterized by the mode of the exotic create a certain distance between the viewer and the viewed, since the viewers perceive the exposed body as alien, unknown, mysterious, or terrifying. Bob Flanagan’s shows and photographs depicting him and his masochistic desires stand out as examples of the visual mode of the exotic, nonetheless, his viewers came to identify with that exoticism, because Flanagan represented the desires they were taught to alter and suppress. Considering the fact that Flanagan was born with cystic fibrosis, I cannot stop but wonder if he was trying to overcome his disability through “supermasochism”, or simply to escape it? McRuer proposes a fifth mode of visual representation, that of the hegemonic, which in the era of freak shows would symbolize “a combination of the exotic and wondrous” (McRuer 192), of something that satiates the humans’ need for “extravagant and indisputable otherness of the freak” (Garland-Thomson 65).

In her article “Critical Race Theory, Feminism and Disability: Reflections on Social Justice and Personal Identity”, Adrienne Asch mentions “the universializing of disability” (Asch 3). As Asch contends, disabled people should not be aligned with the minority group model, rather, the laws should be adapted to everyone’s impairment, for even similar impairments do not affect every disabled person in the same way. Why can’t people without impairments adapt to those with impairments; why can’t disabled people be given the same privileges, the same jobs, or be paid the same amount that the average worker gets? Without a job or a decent income from their states, many disabled people are not able to afford their extremely expensive medications or any means of sustenance. On top of all, many societies have prevented their disabled people from educating themselves in regular schools and achieving any success in life. “Perhaps the world really just does not want people with disabilities to be around after all. Until it is legitimate, respectable, and acceptable to be a person with a disability in the world, until the nondisabled majority recognizes how ubiquitous impairment is and how likely it is that everyone will experience it themselves or in someone they love, and until the nondisabled majority perceives that the millions of people with impairments are fully human and can contribute in meaningful ways to the economy and the family, that world will fight against every legal or moral claim made upon it to change institutions, cultural practices, and institutional and physical structures to become readily inclusive” (Asch 4). That everyone will experience an impairment at some point in life is true: at least, we are all aware that we will grow old, and then our motor and cognitive skills will wane. If we are aware of this notion, then why are we afraid to accept differences when sooner or later we all will become a part of those differences? Like many other theorists, Asch claims that disability is a social construct, but it is a construct that is affecting our everyday lives, because it strips non-disabled people of the skills and knowledge that disabled people have. For example, if sign language were a compulsory subject in elementary and secondary schools, we all would have a broader knowledge. How come that non-disabled people who do not know sign language are not classified as disabled? Are we ever going to witness the era when TV shows, news and music videos will become adapted to hearing impaired people? Why can’t all the big publishing houses also adapt their books to vision impaired people? Considering the fact that “characteristics like ethnicity, race, sex, and disability are all interwoven” (Asch 11) in one’s experience, an important question comes to the fore, the question of authenticity. If a person does not come from the Native American community, do they have the right to write about the history and tradition of Native American people? Likewise, if a person is not disabled but they write about disability, does that mean that their analyses and representations of disability are less authentic than the accounts written by people with disabilities? The answer is it really does not matter, because marginalized members must become integrated within their respective societies; they should not be succumbed to exploitation, degradation, violence, ridicule, lack of any power, and to everything that “cultural imperialism” (Iris Young) has brought upon them.

In light of Asch’s essay, I am posting a link to the official music video for the song of the Serbian singer Željko Joksimović, “Nije ljubav stvar” (Love is Not a Material Object). The video proves that people with disabilities, in this case hearing impaired people, can and have the right to experience audio-visual mediums. Along with the singer, we have a hearing impaired boy in the video who translates the song into sign language, and breaks the cultural-accessibility boundaries by conveying the song to disabled and marginalized members of societies. Perhaps this is the future of music industry, and I truly hope it is, because music—not only narratives or photographs—should serve as a medium for the display of self and identity, both for disabled and non-disabled people. The song ends with the following message: “Languages may differ, but the message remains the same”, and that message is that disabled people are no different than non-disabled people. Disabled people also possess emotional abilities; they cry and suffer when hurt; they laugh when happy; they fall in love just like any ordinary human being; in sum, they share the universal human experience—love and grief.

In “Who is Disabled? Defining Disability”, Susan Wendell analyzes the criteria for defining and classifying certain disabilities. As Wendell argues, the classification of disabilities differs between countries, depending on the society’s perception of what constitutes a disability, as well as on the incidence of certain disabilities. What Wendell tries to achieve is the recognition of illnesses into the category of disabilities, because for some strange reasons AIDS and chronic illnesses are not recognized as disabilities according to the American Disability Act. Is disability an illness, and is illness a disability? The fact is that illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, heart and respiratory problems are “major causes of disability in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain, and many people with disabilities in these countries are also ill and/or old” (Wendell 13). Even when we catch a slight cold, we all become disabled. Our mind and our motor skills do not function at its best, but the greatest illness of the modern man is laziness/sloth. Even when we have the capacity to walk, we prefer to lie in our comfortable, warm sofa, watch TV and eat. If we also consider the fact that today we have more cars than humans, and that every fourth human being on this planet drives a car, then the majority of us is already disabled. In what ways do cars and wheelchairs differ from each other? Isn’t a car just another type of a crutch? Wendell also points to how different societies look at similar disabilities. She mentions the examples of the North American continent and Africa, stating that in the U.S. or Canada walking less than 500-1000 meters a day might be considered a disability, whereas in some parts of Africa where people walk miles and miles for a drinking water, walking only 1 kilometer, even 3 kilometers a day would be considered a disability. While this whole stigma of disability mainly affects people whose bodies and identities are seen as deviant or undesirable, Wendell points to the fact that sooner or later, we will all grow old and be affected by some of the disabilities we perceive in the other. There is a saying in Bosnia-Herzegovina that human beings are always disabled: first we walk on four legs (as babies), then we walk on two legs, and finally, when the old age comes, we walk on three legs since the third leg would be some kind of support—a cane, for example.