Ableism Organizes Most Social Life. How Do We Dismantle It?

Philosophy is something I consider a form of suffering. The many forms of injustice I have witnessed belie the peace that philosophy implicitly promises. Philosophy is said to promise lucidity, sober reflection, and lucidity. Socrates was said to have never wept. But I have wept, and unlike Socrates. As a philosopher who cannot ignore the suffering of so many people as a result of oppressive hegemonic and violent discourses, I must continue to bear the burden of human suffering. I try to not obscure the ways in which my complicity in injustices is, and I try to unsurture, to be touched (wounded), by the lived realities. At times when I think that I’ve come to understand the magnitude of social injustice, the ways in which human beings have experienced marginalization, ostracization and exclusion, I am deeply troubled by the limits of my moral imagination. I feel a deep sense of moral failure. I failed others because I was possessed by some overconfident and exaggerated moral sense that I’m on the side of All Many people who are subject to social injustice and the oppressive effects of oppressive regimes, which are not recognized by normative structures of authority, are among them. This sense of moral unmooring is profoundly generative, and it deeply troubles the coordinates of one’s moral self-certainty.

This is exactly why I felt it necessary to have this critical conversation about disability studies with Joel Michael Reynolds. Reynolds provides an important framing of disability studies and its powerful critique of somatic normativity, which defines non-normative bodies as the constitutive outside; in other words, an assumed standard of embodiment functions to relegate those who do not fit this standard to that which does not “belong,” is “deviant,” and “inferior.” In this profoundly rich conversation, Reynolds destabilizes ableist assumptions, revealing the ways in which “abilities do not inhere in individuals; abilities are functions of relationships as shaped by access.”

Reynolds is an assistant professor of Philosophy and Disability Studies, Georgetown University, senior researcher in the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and senior bioethics adviser to The Hastings Center. He is also a faculty scholar of The Greenwall Foundation. He is also the founder of The Journal of Philosophy of DisabilityCo-founder and co-founder Oxford Studies in Disability, Ethics, and Society. His most recent book is The Life Worth Living: Disability and Pain, Morality, and Morality (The University of Minnesota Press).

George Yancy As you all know, Western philosophy was historically conceived as a disembodied way of thinking (from Plato through Ren).é Descartes) where the effort is to search for and discover “Truth” (with a capital T). The search is envisioned as conceptually “neutral” and “apolitical.” In this way, philosophers embrace the fantasy of seeing themselves as being able to leave the body behind and dwell within the realm of pure abstraction. But, because disability studies and philosophy of disability place emphasis on the fact that embodiment is important, the body should, it seems, be the main focus. Discuss your Western philosophy training and how it was important for the dismantling of many body-averse beliefs and apolitical assumptions.

Joel Michael Reynolds: I was born in North America with a clubfoot in 1985. These years and this place are important because they influence how I respond to your questions today. The persistent myth that “contemporary,” “modern” societies treat people differently clings on today. The truth is just as obvious as it is difficult to accept: [as a society]You can still judge the worthiness of a person or entire group based on his/her body. bodymindThis means that they are based on the body and mind of their partner (not split/separated). Most human societies today draw clear lines between what one looks at, how one moves, and what one wants. Your life will be difficult if you are on the one side. If you are on one side, your life will be comparatively easy.

To the extent that a given intellectual tradition, whether described as philosophical, religious or political — keeping in mind that all these terms are blurred, not distinct, across most of human history — downplays or ignores the role of embodiment, that tradition betrays humanity. To believe we are, or to even think we can think without our bodies is to deny that we are human.

Many people are against the idea of systemic racism. These sites of power can also overlap and magnify suffering experiences. Define ableism. How does ableism function in a position of dominance and power What are some of the hidden norms underpinning ableism that have adverse and harmful effects on disabled bodies?

The bumper sticker definition for ableism is Discrimination against disabled persons. It’s certainly a useful definition. It is, however, a bumper sticker that trades the laborious depths and reflection for a quick flash of insight. As I argue in my book, The Life Worth Living: Disability, Pain and Morality,Abilityism is actually far more complicated than what first appears. It’s also pervasive: It centrally organizes most social life. In chapter five, an analysis of theories of ability, I note that “if one looks to the ableist imaginary at least as it operates in the United States today, an idealized body confronts one relentlessly in advertising, fashion, and a host of other vehicles through which consumerism ever engorges itself…. This framework allows one to use absences to identify what isn’t really/fully there, and which, thereby has less meaning, or even no meaning at all. The person born with both legs is fully/truly/fully human. An absence relative to the imagined ‘perfect’ form — a form that has ‘all’ the things present thought to constitute a thing as what it truly is — renders one incomplete. Ab-normal. De-formed. De-ficit. De-viant. Disable-abled. Humans often, all too often, desire this idealized presence, which is to say, humans desire in ways that run counter to the variability of our actual existence.”

As I define it, ableism presumes two things: (1) a “standard,” “normal” body; and (2) that disabled ways of being involve pain, suffering and disadvantage. To be disabled is undesirable, not desirable, given both of these presumptions. Technically, the first presumption refers to ontological: It holds that psychological norms and physiological norms are sufficient to distinguish between people. normality from abnormality. The second presumption can be called evaluative. It considers that disability is experienced in a similar way to or always alongside pain and suffering. The second presumption is what I call it. The ableist conflation. The task of The Life Worth LivingIt is to understand why the ableist confusion has been so prevalent over many centuries and across many cultures. I don’t want to give away the punchline, but everything turns on the meaning of disability, pain, and, most fundamentally, ability.

I’ve written a great deal about questions of racial embodiment, especially within the context of Black embodiment and the power of the white gaze, which attempts to truncate and invalidate the integrity of the Black body. On this score, Black bodies are rendered “dangerous” bodies, “criminal” and “lazy” bodies. The white gaze is a historically distorted and habituated way of seeing racialized Black body. Of course, the process of white gazing isn’t an isolated activity, but one that is supported and shaped by myths, prejudices, lies and institutional material power. It is vital that the white gazing process is challenged, interrupted, and dismantled. Describe what we might call an “ableist gaze.” How does it work? How can we get rid of it? I also imagine that there will be pushback from those who will argue that an “ableist gaze” is just a nonviolent, normative way of seeing the world. Yet, I suspect that this is exactly the problem.

Similar to the white gazing, the ableist gaze relies on an inverted universe. It posits a “lack,” a “deficiency” in the other that is not only not there, but that is a direct result of an error and a fear on the part of the one looking, the one judging. Let’s take an example from our own lives. My family attended Sunday morning services at an evangelical church in the Pacific Northwest. I was raised in that church. Jason, my best friend and brother, was born with cerebral paralysis, muscular dystrophy, and hydrocephalus. Because of the way his bodymind worked, he needed 24-hour care. Although it was difficult to bring him to church (not least because we had never owned a vehicle with a wheelchair lift), we were able occasionally to do it. Jason received the same response each time he entered the church: People wanted to pray. Many were praying for his healing. There are many things to be aware of. Many people assumed that he was suffering. You will need healing. That’s just false. He lived one of the happiest, least-filled-with-suffering lives of any human I’ve ever met. His seizures were indeed a problem — but often the prayers started without any thought to what he Actually Not what you need or want. The ableist gaze, looking at his uniquely shaped body in a wheelchair, simply assumed that his life was bad and needed “fixing” to become better or even worth living. Many people were praying for Jason to help them get over their fears of becoming disabled. They were praying for their idealized bodies.

Wow! The idea of them “praying for themselves at the altar of an idealized body” is so powerful, especially as they were thinking otherwise. The idolatrous implications of this are evident to me.

Joel, there is a way in which many of us who are “able-bodied” see ourselves as invulnerable, autonomous, and not to be grieved because there is nothing “wrong” with our bodies/minds or our mode of embodiment/cognition. Given this, we seem to notice what is “anomalous,” “strange,” perhaps “jarring” to our normative sensibilities of ourselves as “just fine,” “nonproblematic” bodies. There is a way that all of us can be indexed to a future or any moment in time where we might be placed, whether it’s through aging or an accident. How might thinking about disability and how vulnerable we are help us understand it?

This is a tricky question. On one hand, “able-bodiedness” is a myth, a comforting lie many, if not most, people tell themselves. If you think long and hard enough about your life, I bet you’ll find that you have various impairments. You probably just don’t think about them under the umbrella of “disability.” So, yes, there is a general, broad sense in which we are all always already disabled in some way. This is further supported in the fact that even if you live a long time, you will eventually become disabled in different ways by aging. If you have any questions, please contact us. want To live a long and healthy life, you must do everything in your power want It is possible to become disabled in certain ways. It is clear that this truth causes cognitive dissonance in people. This is a sign of the ideological power of ableism within our individualistic, health-obsessed culture.

On the other side, able-bodiedness is a classification that excludes people who are not subject to discrimination based on disability. As disability scholars have demonstrated explored in great detail, it’s not just that there is a significant difference in lived experience between those who are judged able-bodied and those who are judged disabled — even within various disability categories, one finds massive variation. If one examines the lives of people with Down syndrome, infantile Tay-Sachs or paraplegia, Deafness, in a capital D sense, ADHD, type-1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, one can see huge differences in how they move around the world. To put it another way, We are all always already disabledIt flattens different experiences of disability and ability in a way that is absurd, perhaps even offensive.

Thank you for that distinction. For those who are “able-bodied,” they/we often feel sorrow or pity for those who are disabled, or even “inspired” by the achievements of those who are disabled. My sense is that those who are embodied differently, however, don’t need our sorrow or pity. How do we change the kneejerk reaction, for example, that communicates, “There but for the grace of God go I?” Also, what is it that reinforces that response? Within such contexts, we don’t get to hear from those who are embodied differently. We speak from an echo chamber of judges. It is the judged who are further erased, rendered without agency and self-understanding. What appears to be a “compassionate” response is really a failure to critique such a response. If this is so, what should be our response vis-à-vis those who are said to be disabled?

Disability activists and scholars have long condemned pity. “Piss on pity” is a slogan used across the globe for decades now. Inspiration is the flip side of pity. Inspiration porn, as it’s called, is everywhere once you know how to look for it. A local news team reports that someone with Down syndrome goes to prom and the entire framing will be: “Wow, look what they did!” A TED Talk is structured around someone with disabilities “overcoming their disabilities” with the punch line that “if I could do this, imagine what you could do!” Both pity and inspiration are fundamentally extractive and dehumanizing. They reduce the real lived experience of people and lead to an affective surge that runs the subject from the object or inspiration to the subject. Disabled people don’t need your pity or charity, and we don’t exist for your inspiration. What we do need is Action To make the world more open, to provide better services, and to reverse eugenics inherited discrimination and exclusion.

Abilityism must be fought and overthrown as a disempowering and dangerous (even deadly) hegemonic system. I am interested in your thoughts on a post-ableist future because there are so many dominant structures which harm and degrade our humanity and try to marginalize, stigmatize, and eliminate our complexity.

A post-ableist society would not be based on equality and liberty but on equity, interdependency, and solidarity. A post-ableist world would be centered on care for and solidarity with all — and not just all human others, but non-human animals, land and ecosystems, and the Earth as a whole. This is decidedly not a variation on Karl Marx’s famous dictum, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In many ways, it is an explicit refusal of that way of organizing social life, for abilities do not inhere in individuals; abilities are functions of relationships as shaped by access. The genuine communitarian ethic From all according to interdependence to all according our needs

This is how you think Ability as access.

On the other hand, it is possible to imagine of Ability as access It is obvious if one takes the time and reflects on the nature of the ability. On the other side, Ability as access This idea is revolutionary and radical. It could completely change the world if we let it.

This article has been lightly edited and clarified.