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.