Elegy for Reeva Steenkamp: A Wake Up Call for Dis/ability Cultural Theory?

This post is in response to Marie Garland-Thomson’s article “Elegy For Oscar Pistorius.”

Oscar Pistorius, a South African Paralympic and Olympic star, is currently being charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.  Pistorius has previously and publicly been violent towards women, not merely his girlfriend.  Four years ago, Pistorius’ then-neighbour Cassidy Taylor-Memmory alleged that the man slammed a door at her during a party in his home.  Pistorius was arrested after this incident and spent a night in prison, but no further action or investigation into his behavior was taken.

The lack of understanding surrounding Pistorius’ violence against his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in Dis/ability Cultural Theory circles, although completely understandable, might be attributed to a severe lack of research in Dis/ability Theory in regards to masculinity studies.  Although feminist, queer, and other gender/sexuality research has been taken up in the last few years by dis/ability theorists, including the author of this article, there has been little scholarship regarding the power dynamics of privilege, masculinity theory, white studies, or heterosexuality in relation to dis/ability.

I think it’s important to dis/ability theory that we stop seeing ourselves solely as victims (which is honestly hard to do when Crip Theory remains very isolated in academia).  The vulnerability socially placed in dis/ability as a marginalized identity is at odds with the privilege of white heterosexual masculinity, as well as rape scripts defining men as always/already perpetrators of violence, and dis/abled people as always/already victims of violence.  It’s especially important to consider cultural constructions and expectations of specifically physically dis/abled victimhood, (although, since Pistorius’ charge, the defendant has been discussed and referred to as a “gun crazy, unstable celebrity” in multiple contexts, including highly frequented internet sites and even news articles, such as this example that uses such sanist language). I would argue, the most disturbing of these, is Time Magazine’s photo portrayal of Oscar Pistorius, which highlights the athlete’s disability and his prostheses as part of his difference (not to mention the narratives of the “supercrip”).  In Time Magazine’s photograph and text, these visual and semiotic tools are used to make Pistorius a fearful specter.

In thinking about Pistorius and Reeva’s death, however, we must think about the man himself and his context.  I’m thinking particularly about Pistorius’ distancing of his father’s comments surrounding his guns as self-defense weapons.  Henke Pistorius blamed the South African ANC government for its apparent unwillingness to protect white South Africans.  How can we discuss white racism and colonialist attitudes in relation to, and in the context of visible physical dis/ability?

This story of the violent death of Steenkamp is much more complex than what is commonly connoted.  Not only is Pistorius privileged in South Africa as a white heterosexual cis-gendered male, he is also incredibly wealthy.  In this context it is very important to read dis/ability in the context of Pistorious’ complex identity bound by privileged expectations of success.  I would argue that the very factors that allowed Pistorius to become the first dis/abled Olympian are the very same factors that are implicated in the gendered violence that has come to light.  It is also interesting, (and rather disturbing) that less admirable traits of Pistorius were not presented to the public simply because we focused on him solely as a revolutionary rule-breaker who gave other dis/abled people hope, to desegregate the Olympics, to break down social barriers and expectations of the body and identity, to make being dis/abled socially acceptable (without the patronizing “super-crip” or “tiny Tim” attitudes).  The first people to break such boundaries, including the first dis/abled Canadian politicians, including the infamous Sam Sullivan (ex-Mayor of Vancouver, Vision Vancouver, Liberal), and many Conservative MPs, are much like Pistorius: white cis-gendered heterosexual wealthy men, who are specifically physically and visibly dis/abled.  It is extremely important to think about just why this is.  Of all things, we cannot mirror the failings of Second-Wave Feminism in ignoring how we might be reinforcing power dynamics of privilege in our work by neglecting discussions of class, sexuality, race, post-colonialism, cultural heritage, language, and nuances of gender outside essentialist categories.

We, as theorists, researchers, and social workers dealing with dis/ability, have been so caught up in writing about female and/or dis/abled victims of physical and sexual violence, we have not bothered to look at the flip side of the culturally constructed vulnerability of dis/ability (this is not to say that such work is not extremely valuable and vital).  Cisgendered white heterosexual middle to upper class men in power of course do not like feeling vulnerable, especially those without prior experiences of marginality.  This is partly where narratives and perceptions of dis/ability as symbolic “death” or “tragedy” as well as the expectation to “overcome” dis/ability, because it is a fall from privilege (if one is not dis/abled from birth of course).  Concerning gendered violence, cis-women, trans* people, and genders other than cis-men grow up experiencing marginality and even daily expectations or fears of physical and sexual violence.  For the vast majority, dis/ability merely compounds this supposed “inevitability.”

In order to think about how the culture of rape and violence against women/marginalized genders is implicated within dis/ability, we must negotiate the languages of victimhood and survival, but also engage complex intersectional readings that complicate simplistic reductions that: “he must have killed her because he’s crippled” or “he can’t have killed her because he’s crippled.” Western culture has had more than its fair share of one-sided dis/abled villains and victims already.  It’s time for a more complex critique outside of simple notions of dis/abled as one-dimensional victims, villains, or “cripspirational” heroes.  No wonder dis/ability theorists are surprised.  We did not think before making Pistorius our “mascot;” we did not judge him by the content of his character, but by the international visibility of his dis/ability.  Dis/abled activists and theorists have uncritically glorified Pistorius in such a manner, and in doing so, we have overshadowed the generations of hard work, activism, and hard-won technological change in sports technology design for dis/ability it took to get people like Pistorius to the point of competing in the Olympics.

Getting a public recognition of a Crip theory/culture point of view of major news events is a notable achievement, when news publics prefer to ignore disability when it is not spectacular or exotic enough. However, I can’t help but think, as dis/ability theorists, activists, and others who propped up Pistorius as less than a person and more of a symbol, are we doubly implicated in the success of Pistorius and the death of Reeva Steenkamp?  How might have Pistorius’ international fame as an athlete led to this event? Would this gendered violence have simply continued out of the international public eye?  But that questions begs yet another question: if dis/abled men can rape and kill, are they brushed aside just as female sexual predators are so commonly overlooked?

(This was supposed to be a quick observation on Garland-Thomson’s article.  Unfortunately, this topic is too disturbing for a lack of words.)

The State of Dis/ability in Canada: Patients and Dis-citizens

In this blog, I am to complete research towards an understanding of contemporary dis/ability (more specifically, the politics, medicalization, and representation of physical dis/ability), assistive technology, and our representations in posthuman theory and science fiction.  Before I begin interrogating sites of representation and technology, I will discuss some contemporary conditions many people with dis/abilities in Canada, Britain, and the United States face.  I will quickly note how dis/abled people are produced and constrained through government, legal, and welfare policy, and how dis/abled people are continually defined and pathologized by medical authorities through public attitudes and government policy.  I wish to consider these social, political, and state constructions of dis/ability in order to illuminate the production and maintenance of hegemonic definitions of dis/ability as apolitical biological defect and tragedy, with a particular focus on individuals with physical dis/abilities who use forms of assistive technology.

Dis/ability is continuously defined by hegemonic assumptions that dis/ability is a biological failing, an abnormal corporeality, and a “problematic thing inserted into a person’s life . . . [as well] as a personal tragedy.”[i] Government, medical, and social discourses continually define dis/ability as only, or largely, a health issue, perpetuating “the biomedical culture that has historically applied the sick role to people with disabilities and treated them as a segregated minority group.”[ii] Governmental policy, charity and welfare organizations, medical discourses, and other collective bodies assume the status of able-bodied/ non-dis/abled persons as a universal norm.  Dis/ability’s social and political position is defined in binary opposition to able-bodiedness, as essentialist biological difference and abnormality.

The Dis/ability Rights Movement slogan “Piss On Pity” reflects the dis/abled community’s experiences with charity, welfare, and day to day paternalism that systematically exclude, marginalize, and constrain dis/abled people.  As dis/ability is continually pathologized, any popular notion of Crip Culture or a large and diverse dis/ability community is unimaginable for many non-disabled and dis/abled people.
Government policies discourage our employment, lack of social and health services, consistently inaccessible and/or segregated employment, job discrimination, segregated and/or poorly accommodated education, and institutionalized poverty and/or financial insecurity contribute to the large numbers of socially and economically marginalized dis/abled people.

Dis/ability Cultural Theory itself is still considered a relatively new field in western academia.  Disability Theory has only officially been a field of study in North America since 1999 with the advent of many peer reviewed articles, the beginning of an annual dis/ability conference in Chicago at the National-Louis University, the beginning of a dis/ability studies journal entitled Disability, Culture, and Education, a book series called Disability Studies in Education, and in lieu of many graduate concentrations in disability and education in Chicago[iii].  Around this time as well, the first Disability Pride Parade took place in Chicago.

Public views regarding many different embodiments and experiences of dis/ability, temporary dis/ability, illness, mental health disability, aging, in addition to able-bodiedness (or perhaps preferably termed, non-dis/ability[iv]) are changing.  Dis/ability is no longer ostracized in ways it once was (depending on individual impairment, mental health disability is still very much under fire in many mainstream publics).  There are many more public, governmental, and medicalized efforts to assimilate, accommodate, and represent dis/ability into the public sphere dominated by non-dis/abled people.  However, it is important to remember how ableism affects both dis/abled as well as non-dis/abled people. This is why I use the term dis/ability instead of disability in the contexts of social and spectrum models of dis/ability, where non-dis/abled people, temporarily dis/abled people, dis/abled people, and others are placed along various spots of the spectrum.  These models of dis/ability theory and the term dis/ability reveal ableism as a defining part of all bodies within dis/abling cultures.

Despite that dis/ability studies, activism, politics, and art have been around for at least thirty years in various English speaking countries, only in the last few years has dis/ability cultural theory really gotten off the ground.  Only now is dis/ability politics slowly coming into public view on television shows such as The Colbert Report[v] and in corporate news television media. Crip Cultures and Mad Pride are still very obscure, but not out of reach because of the work of dis/abled artists, artist-run-centres supporting dis/ability politics, and dis/ability art organizations.  Can Crip Culture and Art, Mad Pride, Dis/ability Pride, and Dis/ability Cultural Theory, Dis/ability Politics, and activism be enough to deconstruct the dis-citizenship, pity, fear, and pathologization that so often define dis/ability now?


[i] Titchkosky, Tanya. Disability, Self, and Society. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003. 213.

[ii] McColl, Mary Ann, Alison James, William Boyce, and Sam Shortt. “Disability PolicyMaking: Evalutating the Evidence Base.” Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law. Eds, Dianne Pothier and Richard Devlin. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006. 27.

[iv] Please comment if you have suggestions, questions, or comments regarding the terminology I use in this blog.