by Akosua Tuffuor, WGS Minor (’16)
At Dr. Gupta’s talk, she first discussed the history of the disability rights movement, out of which disability studies was born. Next, she described disability as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon, and presented a variety of definitions of disability. She noted that disability is often conceptualized as a medical problem in need of fixing even though many disabilities are not curable medical conditions.
Dr. Gupta described albeism, or the oppression of disabled minds and bodies, as a social construct similar to racism or sexism, which stems from fear of illness, death, decay, aging, as well as unpredictability and loss of control of the body. She explained how ableism manifests itself in different ways: some include the assumption that disabled bodies are not sexually attractive and can’t have good sex, the condescending image of the “super-crip” that defies stereotypes of disability “against all odds,” and the “freakish” nature of disabled bodies (exemplified by P.T. Barnum’s freak shows).
Dr. Gupta concluded her presentation with mentioning ways that disabled people pushed back against this negative imagery: some include the de-medicalization of disabled bodies, the emphasis on universal and inclusive design to ensure that all bodies can access public spaces, the critique of the pro-choice movement for using eugenics rhetoric, and activism for trans, intersex, and fat bodies.
During her presentation, Dr. Gupta underscored the importance of considering the intersection of other identities with disability. I found the intersection of masculinity and femininity with disabilities very interesting. She explained how these identities are often contradictory. Masculinity usually supposes physical dominance, yet women typically care for male bodies when they become sick or disabled. On the other hand, femininity is connected to weakness and physical inferiority, yet women are supposed to be caregivers, not receivers of care.
Since I took Dr. Gupta’s class, “Gender and the Politics of Health,” I was familiar with this topic already. I actually wrote my final paper for that class on the intersection of disability, race, and gender, so I was really glad that she underscored the importance of intersectionality to the audience members. I’m particularly interested in connecting disability studies with fat studies. The rhetoric around fatness has serious implications for public health movements that claim to promote physical and mental wellbeing. I think disability studies can help us to critique some of the rhetoric surrounding the fat/body acceptance movement. This rhetoric sometimes fails to address the acceptance of people who are classified as “super morbidly obese.” It also frames fat acceptance as a tool to become confident enough to “get healthy,” which is often coded language for losing weight. A disability studies approach sheds light on the fact that public spaces can’t accommodate fat bodies and that being “fat” does not equate to being “unhealthy”.
I was also able to connect Dr. Gupta’s talk to an article we read in my Introduction to Women’s, Gender, and Studies class: Michael Messner’s “When Bodies are Weapons: Masculinity and Violence in Sport.” In many ways professional athletes set the standard for what a fit and healthy person looks like. However, the article noted that athletes disproportionately suffer from permanent disabilities, heart disease, alcoholism, substance abuse, and a host of other serious medical problems. Although I hesitate to suggest that the “victims” of ableism are people who seem fit the physical ideal, I do think it’s worth considering that a perfectly able body is impossible to achieve and that socially constructed notions of what “health” looks like hurt us all.