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Disabling ideas: Douglas C Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History”

Douglas Baynton argues in this article that historians should see disability as a central issue in American history, rather than a special topic of interest only to those who study the lives of disabled people. To illustrate this point, he draws together historical narratives of three major political debates in American history that do not–on face value–seem related to disability: the women’s sufferage movement, debates over slavery and civil rights for black Americans, and the implementation of immigration restrictions. In each of these debates, Baynton argues that the concept of disability plays a key role in justifying the discriminatory practices laid out in law. For instance, politicians and scientists in the 19th century frequently argued that enslaved black Americans were constitutionally unfit for full civic participation; their bodies and minds were built for captivity. Similarly, women’s constitutional infirmities were used to justify excluding them from the franchise.

Interestingly, because disability is key to way social exclusion or disenfranchisement is justified, in order to contradict the logic of exclusion, women and ethnic or racial minority advocates often devoted their energy to proving that they were not in fact disabled, and thus didn’t deserve to be treated as such. Implicit in all of these arguments, Baynton argues, is a naturalized assumption that it is, in fact, logical and justifiable to exclude or keep disenfranchised people who really are disabled.

One project in this article is to show how negative stigmas deployed about race, gender, and nationality current throughout the 19th century all deploy tropes of disability. To get us here, Bynton summarizes the pre-19th century conception of “the natural” and “the monstrous” as opposing poles in relation to a perceived notion of what God intended humans and animals to be. In the 19th century, as Davis has argued, the concept of “the normal” and “the abnormal” emerged. The normal became a category that idealized white male virtues as the standard, and framed women, people of color, and foreigners as abnormal, often attributing their differences to some sort of hereditary deficiency.

This argument makes me recall debates about open admissions and the exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities from college education in America. Indeed, as I think further, I think of the kinds of justifications examined by Virginia Woolf regarding the exclusion of women from British universities as late as the early 20th century. She talks about this most concretely in A Room of One’s Own, and it would be compelling to read this piece for its engagement with disability arguments about women’s capacities for education.

In his article, “The Language of Exclusion” Mike Rose analyzes the language administrators use to talk about “remedial” students. Like Baynton, he shows that we tend to deploy metaphors of disability in order to justify our exclusionary stance toward people with racial or cultural differences from our own perceived “normal” position as white, middle-class educators and administrators. Rose argues that this is inappropriate: that our students are not disabled and are not illiterate, but that we use terms like this to discuss them because we hold an overly medicalized view of their differences. We see student difficulties as pathological, so that the student whose language and learning abilities make them a good fit for the university become cast as “normal,” and students who have trouble learning or performing in university sponsored literacy tasks possess abnormal or underdeveloped abilities. He argues that the history of basic writing and remediation are, in essence, histories of disability.

I will think more about this idea on Mark’s list, particularly in reading Rebecca Mlynarczyk and George Otte’s Basic Writing. I wonder if those who argued for including women, minorities, and foreigners on our colleges also had to distance the stigma of disability in order to do it. That is, did they have to maintain that there indeed are populations of people who need to be excluded from college life, but that women/black people/immigrants didn’t fit into this category? Something to follow up going forward.


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