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Ableism, disability studies and the academy

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary
Guest Contributor This entry is part of a collaborative series on disabilities between the Federation’s Equity Issues Portfolio and the Canadian Disability Studies Association/ Association Canadienne des Études sur l’Incapacité.

The theoretical framework and analytical lens of Ableism is a gift to the social sciences and humanities community from disability studies and the disabled people rights movement.

Among the different social groups seeking equitable treatment and the different academic social groups covering studies fields in existence at universities, the disabled people movement and the academic field of disability studies are relatively invisible. Furthermore, people with disabilities and disability studies scholars are fairly invisible in many discourses around contemporary challenges faced by society and in discourses dealing with emerging societal challenges, despite the reality that people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by these challenges.

Beside the stakeholder argument I could list many arguments why the visibility of people with disabilities and disability studies scholars should be higher. However, here I focus on increasing the visibility of the concept of ableism, which originated with the disabled people rights movement. Ableism is one of the pillars of the academic field of disability studies. It is a concept I see as the greatest gift from the disabled people rights movement and disability studies to the social sciences and humanities community, the policy community, and the like.

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s.

It questions and highlights the prejudice and discrimination experienced by persons whose body structure and ability functioning were labelled as ‘impaired’ as sub species-typical. Ableism of this flavor is a set of beliefs, processes and practices, which favors species-typical normative body structure based abilities. It labels ‘sub-normative’ species-typical biological structures as ‘deficient’, as not able to perform as expected.

The disabled people rights discourse and disability studies scholars question the assumption of deficiency intrinsic to ‘below the norm’ labeled body abilities and the favoritism for normative species-typical body abilities. The discourse around deafness and Deaf Culture would be one example where many hearing people expect the ability to hear. This expectation leads them to see deafness as a deficiency to be treated through medical means. In contrast, many Deaf people see hearing as an irrelevant ability and do not perceive themselves as ill and in need of gaining the ability to hear. Within the disabled people rights framework ableism was set up as a term to be used like sexism and racism to highlight unjust and inequitable treatment.

Ableism is, however, much more pervasive.

Ableism based on biological structure is not limited to the species-typical/ sub species-typical dichotomy. With recent science and technology advances, and envisioned advances to come, we will see the dichotomy of people exhibiting species-typical and the so-called sub species-typical abilities labeled as impaired, and in ill health. On the other side we will see people exhibiting beyond species-typical abilities as the new expectation norm. An ableism that favours beyond species-typical abilities over species-typical and sub species-typical abilities will enable a change in meaning and scope of concepts such as health, illness, rehabilitation, disability adjusted life years, medicine, health care, and health insurance. For example, one will only be labeled as healthy if one has received the newest upgrade to one’s body – meaning one would by default be ill until one receives the upgrade.

As much as science and technology advances enable a beyond species-typical ableism, how we judge and deal with abilities and what abilities we cherish influence the direction and governance of science and technology processes, products and research and development. The increasing ability of changing, improving, modifying, enhancing the human body and other biological organisms including animals and microbes in terms of their abilities beyond their species-typical boundaries and the starting ability to synthesis, to generate, to design new genomes, new species from scratch (synthetic biology) leads to a changed understanding of oneself, one’s body, and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment.

Ableism is, however, not just linked to body abilities.

The report Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science used the term productivity over 60 times and the term efficiency 54 times to sell their story.  Productivity and efficiency are two abilities themselves so the report serves to highlight how science and technology will enable the ability to be productive and the ability to be efficient. These terms – productivity and efficiency – are also closely linked to the term competitiveness, another cherished ability. Indeed one of the introductory lectures at the workshop that was the basis for the report was entitled “Converging technologies and competitiveness” by the Honourable Phillip J. Bond, a former United States Undersecretary for Technology in the Department of Commerce.

And this is still not the end of ableism. Every person cherishes certain abilities and finds others non-essential. Some people cherish the ability to buy a car, some the ability to mountain climb, some the ability to perform academic work and others manual work. The list of abilities one can cherish is endless with new and different abilities added to this or that list all the time. The cherishing of abilities happens on the level of individuals as well as the level of households, communities, groups, sectors, regions, countries and cultures. As well, there is a frequent trade-off between numerous abilities.

Different cultures might cherish different abilities. Views on which abilities are ‘essential’ or valued change over time and space, and this will continue to be the case. The tendency to favor certain abilities often morphs into ableism, where one not only cherishes certain abilities but where one sees certain abilities in oneself or others as essential and labels real or perceived deviation from or lack of these essential abilities as problematic. This often leads to disablism where the ones without (whether real or perceived) the ‘essential’ abilities are treated as the ‘others’ often experiencing inequitable and unjust treatment. To give the example of sexism: women in many countries were told that they lack the ability to be rational and as such were prohibited from the abilities of voting and the owning of property. Racism was often justified by claiming that one group (White people) has a higher cognitive ability than another group (Black people) lacked that ability; the book, The Bell Curve is a case and point. We see increasingly ableism that plays itself out between generations of the young and elderly.

We see a break between the young and the old where the elderly experience ageism (negative perception and/or treatment and lack of support of the elderly) due to a decrease of abilities of their youth and at the same time the perception that the remaining abilities the elderly hold have no particular use for the young or even society at large. And we see youthism where even the elderly try to regain the abilities of youth in order to escape ageism. Ableism influences how humans judge and relate to each others.

What abilities one favours and what ableisms one exhibits is a dynamic that also defines human-nature relationship (anthropocentrism versus biocentrism), which in turn has an impact on which strategies and priorities are envisioned and employed for gaining water, energy climate and disaster security and avoiding insecurity. (An example is the recent legal developments in Ecuador and Bolivia that give rights to nature.) One could also say that speciesism is based on ableisms, such as the favouring of cognition.

Ableism reflects the sentiment and value system of social groups and social structures that promote certain abilities and view others as nonessential. The Capability Approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum is an increasingly influential framework. The approach also exhibits certain forms of ableisms. In Sex and Social Justice Nussbaum generated a list of 10 capabilities, which really are ten abilities to experience, to act upon.

Ableism leads to an ability based and ability justified understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment. Ableism as such does not have to be negative – it just highlights that one favours certain abilities and sees them as essential. One could choose as a culture to cherish the ability to maintain equity for one’s members and members of a society could see this as positive. Ableisms historically have been used and still are used by various social groups to justify their elevated level of rights and status in relation to other social groups, other species and the environment.

Ableism and equity, equality, inequity and inequality
An ability lens is essential for examining equity and equality discourses. Many definitions for inequity and inequality exist. According to Cozzens (Science and Public Policy) inequity is, “a normative term denoting an unjust or unfair distribution, and inequality, a descriptive term denoting any uneven distribution, right or wrong.” Given these definitions one could say that equity is a normative term denoting a just or fair distribution and equality is a descriptive term denoting any even distribution.

Ableism and ability preferences are not just about distribution but also about judgments. As such, Box One drawing on Cozzens as a starting point gives a more differentiated set of definitions. The disabled people rights movement coined the term ableism to highlight among others an inequitable treatment based on body ability judgments and preferences. At the same time humans frequently generate new abilities such as, for example, through advances in science and technologies. These new abilities often are not usable for people with disabilities due to design flaws of the products. Access to such products – for example, web pages or washrooms – are inequitable. Furthermore we often generate products with negative consequences (e.g. weapons). In such contexts, people with disabilities have fewer abilities than others to protect themselves from the negative consequences (such as war).

The concepts of ‘Ability inequity’, inequality, equity and equality also impact so called species-typical people. As I wrote elsewhere, “Ability inequalities also are experienced by so called species-typical people. Eating certain food leads to better abilities, but not everyone has access to this food. Clean water leads to better abilities, but not everyone has access to it. And when some modify their bodies and add to their abilities not everyone will be able to follow suit. ‘Enabling’ enhancements will lead to ability inequalities for those who do not have access to them or who choose not to modify their bodies. Which ability inequality will be seen as inequitable is still debatable. As the right to water was just labeled a human right one could say that clean water access inequality is also inequitable. It will be interesting whether body access modification  inequalities will be seen as inequitable in the future and if yes which modifications.

Box 1: Ability inequity, inequality, equity and equality

Ability Equality has two aspects. One aspect deals with non bodily abilities and the other is linked to bodily abilities.

Ability Equality is a descriptive term denoting any even distribution of access to and protection from abilities generated through human interventions, right or wrong.

Ability Equality is a descriptive term denoting any factual judgment of abilities intrinsic to biological structures such as the human body, right or wrong

Ability Equity has two aspects. One aspects deals with non bodily abilities and the other is linked to bodily abilities

Ability Equity is a normative term denoting a just or fair distribution of access to and protection from abilities generated through human interventions

Ability Equity is a normative term denoting a just or fair judgment of abilities intrinsic to biological structures such as the human body

Ability Inequity has two aspects. One aspects deals with non bodily abilities and the other is linked to bodily abilities Ability Inequity, a normative term denoting an unjust or unfair distribution of access to and protection from abilities generated through human interventions

Ability Inequity is a normative term denoting an unjust or unfair judgment of abilities intrinsic to biological structures such as the human body

Ability Inequality has two aspects. One aspects deals with non bodily abilities and the other is linked to bodily abilities Ability inequality is a descriptive term denoting any uneven distribution of access to and protection from abilities generated through human interventions, right or wrong

Ability inequality is a descriptive term denoting any uneven judgment of abilities intrinsic to biological structures such as the human body, right or wrong

Conclusion
Disabled people rights movement and the field of disability studies do not only engage in questioning the disablement one experiences due to one’s body abilities. Such scholars also are involved in ability studies. Ability Studies investigates: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, and which may lead to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms; (d) the impact of new and emerging technologies on ableism and consequent favouritism towards certain abilities and rejection of others; and (e) identification of the abilities that would lead to the most beneficial scenario for the maximum number of people in the world. We have to engage in Ableism governance and foresight and look into ethical frameworks for the exhibition of ableisms.

A glossary and short bibliography of articles can be found at the ‘Ableism and Ability Ethics and Governance’ network site.

Gregor Wolbring , assistant professor, Dept of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary; and president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association. Email: gwolbrin [at] ucalgary [dot] ca 

Category

Equity Matters

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Ableism and disability

Comments

Hi lGregor
Looking forward to reading in more detail and maybe dropping you a line - is there a downloadable version?
Regards
Mark Haydon -Laurelut
University of Portsmouth UK

There are other approaches to ableism from critical disability studies. For instance, Fiona Campell (2008) argues that instead of continuing to interrogate disability, our inquiry should refocus on the non-disabled identity, the “normality-which-is-to-be-assumed,” or what she calls “The Ableist Project.” This is move similar to considering the unacknowledged, and naturalized place of “whiteness” in the question of race (Bell, 2006). Disability Studies has raised awareness of the disablism in society. Disablism is defined as “a set of assumptions (conscious or unconscious) and practices that promote the differential or unequal treatment of people because of actual or presumed disabilities” (Campell, 2008, p. 1). Here, political activity is directed towards attitude change, social inclusion and compensation such as income support. However, Campbell argues that a focus on disablism “reinscribes an able-bodied voice/lens towards disability” where disability “continues to be examined and taught from the perspective of the Other” (p. 1).
Shifting the spotlight to ableism, on the other hand, underlines the normative and compulsory preference for the “ideal” body and, therefore, the devaluation of bodies that do not match this ideal (McRuer, 2006). Following Butler, this ideal body is out of the reach of every body and for that reason needs to be continually repeated, performed and reestablished. Rob McRuer explains, “Everyone is virtually disabled, both in the sense that able-bodied norms are intrinsically impossible to embody fully and in the sense that able-bodied status is always temporary, disability being the one identity category that all people will embody if they live long enough” (p. 95-96). Further, ableism functions to “inaugurate” the norm: “Ableism sets up a binary dynamic which is not simply comparative but rather co-relationally constitutive. This formulation of ableism not only problematizes the signifer disability but points to the fact that the essential core of ableism is the formation of a naturalised understanding of being fully human.” (p. 2). The disabled body, then, is not mis-placed or dis-placed matter, “The disabled body has a place, a place in liminality to secure performative enactment of the normal.” Or following Titchkosky, “The notion of disability functions as a discursive mechanism in service of normal society” (2007, p. 151).
Respectfully,
Beth DeVolder
University of British Columbia