CREATING DISABILITY – INVISIBLE BODIES AND PUBLIC SPACE
AN ESSAY BY DEA BUSK LARSEN
It is commonly suggested that heterosexuality is a condition that we, by nature, embody. This is summed up in the term compulsory heterosexuality, as coined by Adrienne Rich (1980). Heterosexuality ‘just is’ – it is natural default assigned to us before we ‘come out’, as something else or nothing at all. Compulsory able-bodiedness has not been dealt with and theorised to the same extent as compulsory heterosexuality. This term means that certain bodies are made invisible and excluded. As stated by Robert McRuer (2006: 1), “able-bodiedness, even more than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a non-identity, as the natural order of things”.
The idea that some bodies are natural and normal creates disability since the abled body presents a norm which ensures that the ‘differently abled’ body can only ever be considered abnormal and disabled (in the same way as queerness exists as the space of the Other to compulsory heterosexuality). It reproduces the idea of a singular type of abled body and insists on its existence as the norm. Compulsory able-bodiedness assumes the abled body is preferable and something that we all should strive for.
This is manifested in the example of Down syndrome statistics in Denmark, which mark a near extinction in children born with Down syndrome. This is because all pregnant women are offered a test to determine if the fetus is likely to have Down syndrome after which they are offered an abortion if the case is so. In 2011, nine out of ten women accepted the test and 99 % of those who were told that their child was likely to have Down syndrome chose to have an abortion (Richter 2011). This reinforces a social ideal of the abled body, and devalues Other bodies the opportunity to exist on their own terms.
This results in a normalisation of discrimination and structural exclusion of the ‘non-abled’ body. However, this bias leads to the belief that the fetus is aborted because we cannot offer it a ‘non-disabled’ life. The best option for the fetus is thus deemed a ‘normal’ life, which it cannot possibly embody. The definition of normal makes someone’s ‘disabled’ life, a life not worth living.
This is further demonstrated on a more structurally invisible level through the way cities are shaped. The city and public space is created to accommodate the abled body. The steps, pavements, stairs, doors and so forth are built to assist the normalised body. The steps into a shop are as obtrusive to a wheelchair user as a sign saying ‘no wheelchair users please’. The public space helps and privileges the abled body whereas the body with so-called disabilities becomes excluded. When the ‘differently abled’ body insists on being helped it creates an uncomfortableness because it demands a communal approach to public space rather than, the anticipated, individualised. In the documentary Examined Life (2008), Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor go for a walk in San Francisco – one of the most accessible cities in the world. Taylor is a wheelchair user and she insists on being helped just like everybody else are being assisted when they go for a walk by the shape of the city and public space that has been built for the abled body. The physical access renders social accessibility real and visible. It demands a right to be in a world that structurally tries to exclude it. Taylor makes people uncomfortable by demanding a space for her body. She mentions how when she is in a coffee shop, she will carry the cup with her mouth, destabilising ideas of what body parts are used for. The gesture is a political protest, which denaturalises what we assume to be the natural ways of using our bodies. It indicates how the abled body exists only by virtue of its exclusion of the ‘disabled’ body. Not only is it excluded but it is also made invisible by being placed outside the parameters of public space. By failing to accommodate a broad and diverse spectrum of bodies, society ends up disabling those bodies.
Public space is understood as neutral when it in fact is anything but. It is a battlefield, which the abled body does not realise because it is a battlefield, which favours it. This fuels the belief that the abled body is the natural default and other bodies are the abnormal deviant and socially abject. Not only does this make the non-abled body invisible but also it creates a discourse in which we assume ‘the good life’ belongs to the abled body exclusively and thus we avoid and actively discard deviant bodies.
McRuer, R. 2006 Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, London: New York University Press
Rich, A. 1980 ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Desire’ Signs 5(4): 631-660
Richter, L. 2011 Downs syndrom er et uddøende handicap [online] Available at:http://www.information.dk/273149 [Accessed 3 June 2014]
Taylor, A. 2008 Examined Lives [online] Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0HZaPkF6qE#t=843 [Accessed 3 June 2014]
Artwork © ELYA LAPOVOK