I’ve been thinking a lot about disability of late, which won’t surprise those of you who have been sharing a particular corner of the blogosphere, in which awesome and fail appear to coexist in some kind of proportion in which the latter sadly sometimes seems to be winning out. In this analysis of the “Harmonisation of Disability Parking Permit Schemes in Australia”, I argue that the shift that is being proposed is from the social model of disability, to the medical model.
The medical model suggests that there is a way that the body ought to be, and any permanent ‘loss’ of such ‘normal’ capacities constitutes disability (and that this is a natural, neutral state of affairs that is no one’s fault—except the individual body, of course). This approach is the most mainstream, and it’s constitutive of much of the discrimination that disabled people (or people with disabilities, both terminologies having a different but important political point to make) experience.
The social model, which is offered as a counter to the medical model, suggests instead that the ‘loss’ of capacity occurs not because of the impairment itself, but because of the impairment in combination with a world built for the temporarily able-bodied. (And this doesn’t only refer to the built environment, of course: models of sociality, for example, are very strongly ableist).
There’s actually another step in this little spectrum, one which doesn’t get much screen time in activism (understandably, because it’s so far from the medical model, and such a challenge to it as to appear incomprehensible or nonsensical to those committed to the medical model). This suggests that even understanding particular bodies as impaired is the result of a presumption about the body. That is, it argues that disability begins at the moment when you understand some bodies as naturally unimpaired, and others as naturally impaired: the drawing of that line is not a neutral, naturally-given one, as we like to pretend. It is a political distinction that is, in itself, is invested with the ability system, which, as Lennard Davis argues, is what constitutes particular bodies as disabled, and thus as the problem. Davis recommends that whenever we see such a problem, we ought to ask how it is that this ‘problem’ is constituted as a problem, and be careful to observe the privilege that attends that which is not considered a problem. What makes disabled bodies into ‘those bodies with problems’? The presumption, essentially, that they ought to be otherwise: normal. And this in turn maintains the privilege of the able body.
The group who potentially loses out most dramatically in the proposed parking permit scheme is those with invisible disabilities, as Lauredhel demonstrates so clearly here. In response, I began thinking about what it meant to have an invisible disability. On the one hand, it might be that we could think of those with invisible disabilities as those who can ‘pass’ as able-bodied. And sometimes this is true, at least some of the time, and there’s little doubt that this ability to pass can lead to privilege as well as the problems associate with invisibility. For example, people approaching someone in a wheelchair will often talk to their assistant pushing the chair, as if the person with a disability is incapable of thought, conversation etc, and this kind of discrimination is something those who can walk are unlikely to confront. On the other hand, we can think more carefully, and see that those who have ‘invisible’ disabilities are those whose differences simply don’t fit into someone’s expectation of what disability ought to be. And this means that legislation is likely to discriminate against those with ‘invisible’ disabilities because it is employing the medical model of disability. What does this mean? Well, hopefully this little story of mine might help.
Years ago, now, I was stepping out (sorry, I find that phrase hilarious and had to use it) with a young man who had a visual impairment. As he was doing a PhD, this meant that he couldn’t read at quite the rate he might have liked, and sometimes working on the computer was too much. I encouraged him to make use of whatever assistance the disability office at uni could offer him, even though I understood his fairly intense ambivalence about it. They were singularly unhelpful. He felt that they treated him as if he was ‘faking it’, on the one hand, and expecting too much of them on the other. The extension of his scholarship that he was hoping to get was, they told him, simply not going to be possible. I suggested that perhaps he should look to Centrelink’s Disability Allowance to help him fund the completion of his PhD. He picked up the forms, still unhappy about this prospect, even as he knew it was probably necessary, and brought them home.
I looked over his shoulder at the forms he was trying to fill out. He had ticked the box marked ‘visual impairment’, and been sent to another section. In this section, the form asked him for some proof from an opthalmologist. He hesitated. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well, I’ve seen opthalmologists,” he explained. “But the issue isn’t in my eyes. It’s in my brain.”
His visual impairment, you see, wasn’t a loss of vision due to some problem in the eye, as the form assumed. He had been prone to migraines as a kid, and at some point (I think the age of 11, but this was a while ago), he had had an incredibly severe migraine. He recounted looking downwards, and having his entire left leg disappear in his blindspot. The auras had hung around—a permanent fixture, as it turned out. He saw multiple copies of everything, more or less depending on how good a day it was. Sometimes things looked like a badly tuned TV set, sometimes there were lines, sometimes… you get the idea. But although this interfered with his vision, it didn’t fit the form’s idea of what a visual impairment was. It didn’t seem to fit into any of the other categories either, as far as either of us could tell, although he might have argued a case under ‘having suffered a stroke’ except that that category seemed to think that difficulty speaking and walking would be the primary problems he’d have then. Frustrated and embarrassed, he stepped away from the idea, away from the forms. His impairment wasn’t real, couldn’t be argued for, proven, justified. Everyone would think he was faking it. I couldn’t think of what to say.
This is part of the problem with the medical model. It has a particular image of disability, generally involving the assumption of some level of dependence on others (because of course the temporarily able-bodied are so independent – [snort!]), and it institutes this, medically, legislatively. And in so doing, it requires that people with disabilities be people with particular, recognisable kinds of disabilities. Instead of testing for how one is disabled by a particular thing—by inaccessible parking, by stairs, by having to stand to be served, by the university’s expectations of a student’s reading speed—that is, instead of testing for a real problem with the way the world works, it instead requires that you fit an existing imagining of disability. And this existing imagining of disability is very limited, and thoroughly bound up with able-bodied fantasies (nightmares) about disabled bodies: as people in wheelchairs, people who are blind, people who are deaf. And indeed, it assumes that it already knows the effects of each of these impairments, a point which the Deaf community knows and battles, arguing against the idea that Deafness is a lack, or a loss, or an impairment at all. The medical model homogenises disability unnecessarily, and more than this, it renders numerous disabilities invisible because they do not match up to this fantasy of what constitutes disability.
When we legislate according to the medical model, we legislate what disability ought to be, what disability ought to look like. We legislate the visibility of disability, and we do it by rendering a whole mass of heterogeneous bodies imperceptible, invisible, ignore their capacity to be disabled by an able-bodied world. We imagine visual impairments after a singular model where vision is only located in the eye. We imagine mobility restrictions only through difficulty with walking. We imagine that the solution to PWD (and it is a solution to, not a solution for) is compensating for their recalcitrant body, a body we assume to know all about. We reject the idea that the world might need to be reworked, rethought, rebuilt, and instead maintain disability by maintaining the world as a place which expects certain ‘normal’ things of bodies, and which privileges those bodies which can live up to this ideal as a result. When we legislate according to the medial model of disability, we maintain the disabilities of those who don’t adhere to our nightmare visions of disability, because we’re busy pretending they don’t exist, erasing them from our construction of the world. We ensure that some people remain disabled because we don’t have the imagination to allow the category of ‘disability’ to be shaped by the heterogeneity of real bodies, the heterogeneity of real needs, the heterogeneity of the real ways that people live their lives. We refuse to produce legislation which tests not for ‘the impairment itself’, but for disability, because that might implicate the able-bodied, our standards of normalcy, might trouble the extraordinary privilege maintained only at the disadvantage of those who don’t live up to our standards. We render bodies which might trouble our limited imagining of difference invisible, and then shrug, and raise our hands in the air, and ask how we could possibly have known that such people even existed, and how we could possibly be expected to ‘cater to’ such exorbitant, excessive difference. The perceptibility of bodies is a key stake in the politics of disability, because disabilities aren’t invisible. They’re invisibilised.
P.S We’ve done a whole lot of the work of being active for you! Beppie, Lauredhel and I have given you some quick and easy ways to respond to the supposed “Harmonisation Scheme”: a form letter, and a letter encouraging organisations to submit a response.