Tag Archives: invisible disability

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Queer Analogies and Crip Intersections: Ellen Samuels, “My Body, My Closet: Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming Out”

In this article, Samuels investigates analogies between the experience of non-visibly disabled people and queer people. While she explores experiences that these two groups share (such as their shared relationship to discourses of “passing” and “coming out”), Samuel’s main objective in this piece is to put pressure on the ways analogies of identity and oppression can oversimplify the complex differences between analagized groups. Rather than accepting easy analogies that tend to make all experiences seem equivalent (epitomized in sex-race analogies, for instance when white feminists have analogized their own oppression to the oppression of black civil rights activists), Samuels believes investigating analogies can provide a more nuanced understanding about of marginal identities like femme lesbian and nonvisible disabled person.

While it is commonplace to use language of “coming out” to discuss both queer and invisibly disabled experience, Samuels argues that the two kinds of coming out differ in significant ways. Within disability contexts as in queer contexts, “coming out” is often used with two different meanings. On the one hand, “coming out” as disabled can sometimes mean claiming a positive self-identity as disabled, rejecting internalized ablest beliefs about the inferiority of disabled people. For those who have invisible disabilities, especially chronic illnesses, coming out takes on a second meaning, most often in the sense of “coming out to” as in revealing oneself to be disabled to others. Here the analogy with queer identities is most concrete, as it is those who can “pass” as able bodied who are in a position to do this second sort of outing.

Within both discourses, queer and disabled, passing as normative is often seen as evidence of internalized oppression. To pass is to reject public recognition as disabled or queer. But for those whose disability isn’t written on the body, there exist limited options for publically performing their disability. And when disability is claimed in the absence of physical signifiers, it is often disbelieved by both disabled and nondisabled people alike.

Some have claimed that femme lesbian identity may serve a disruptive force to cultural gender norms by recasting traditionally heterosexual femininity within the context of lesbian erotic desire. However, there tends to be no disabled equivalent to the eroticism of femme identity. The one expeception to this limitation, Samuels argues, can be found in the border identity of the disabled femme. Samuels closes by examining the ways femme lesbians reframe their own self image to include their own disabled bodies.

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I’ve thought about analogies between queerness and invisible disabilities before, especially in considering LD experience and gay male notions of coming out. In particular, I’ve thought about these issues in relation to Sieber’s idea of disability as masquerade, and I’ll likely think about them again when I dig into Sieber’s work in Disability Theory.

I take away from this reading a deeper anxiety about using analogies between different identity experiences. I am already wary about analogizing LD experience with other disabled experiences, particularly because I am so easily able to pass as able bodied in most social contexts. I am used to having to come out as LD, and to people being surprised. Because I am well acclimated to academic life, I usually know how to appear comfortable and at home in environments where other, more severely LD people would be conspicuous. Even if I accept that LD and other disabilities share analogous qualities in relations to the ideas of “normalcy,” as Davis-style disability theory would hold, I feel great unease approaching any analogies between my experience of LD and other disabilities that I (problematically) imagine as more real (because more visible), for instance disabled people who use wheelchairs or have sensory impairments.

One avenue where problematic analogies are most likely to emerge in my thinking about LD and literacy-related disabilities relate to issues of race and ethnicity. ESL students and people who speak with nonstandard (usually racially marked) dialects are often functionally disabled within mainstream literacy education. The stigma of illiteracy affects these populations in similar ways to how they effect LD people, and indeed, medicalized language often works its way into discussions about the deficiency of basic writers or the remediation of ESL students. However, as I ‘m sure I will discover when I investigate the histories of ESL and BW teaching over the last few decades, there are likely important distinctions between these populations as well. I will have to think about this further as I read Patricia Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled and George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s history of basic writing–both of which are next on my lists for Jason and Mark, respectively.

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Coming to Terms with Madness, Illness, and disabilities of mind: Margaret Price, “Defining Mental Disability”

In this article, Margaret Price examines a range of different terms that are used to refer to “mental disability.” Her aim is to examine the different context in which each of the terms is used, examining the social and cultural function of each of the following: madness, consumer/survivor/ex-patient, mentally ill, neurodiverse, mental disability, and psychosocial disability. Price sees the business of examining names in this way to be integral to disability studies politics, as the names might often signify of inequality or oppression or alternately fuel coalition building and activism. Names teach us a great deal about the culture of our “here and now,” as much as they have potential to direct the future.

“Mad” offers the same kind of blanket appeal as “queer,” taking in huge diversity but also providing a coalition-building power, as in MindFreedom International and the Mad Pride movement. Emerging from this movement have come terms like “psychiatric system survivor” and other iterations that identify a person as a current or former recipiant of psychiatric medical “care.” Here people identify that they now or once held a patient role, and it is from this postition that they often argue agaisnt the oppressive treatment of the medical establishment.

The medical industrial complex (including doctors and insurance providors) use a definition of “mental illness” to conceive of madness, wherein individuals are seen as mentally unwell and in need of treatment to return them to a state of “mental health.”The mental illness paragigm is especially powerful because the mad person must comply with their diagnosis and submit to prescribed “care,” “which may include medication, incarceration, or electroscock.” One faction of doctors and activists, the postpsychiatry movement, have rejected this paradigm as inherently oppressive and argued instead argued for establishing a psychiatric care system that would serve the desires of c/s/x folks as well.

Mental illnesses don’t seem to fit within the paradigm of disability, since under this definition they are temporary and potentially curable. For instance, it seems as if the interests of c/s/x people and those in the neurodiversity movement may be incompatible. Price draws on the work of Cyntia Lewiecki-Wilson to offer the term “mental disability” to unite these disparte groups under one theoretical frame: as disabilities perceived to reside in the mind, these conditions, she believes, share a similar rhetorical disenfranchisement. Those believed to be mad or autistic or otherwise mentally impaired are disempowered as rhetors.

Price offers a final term that may be especially useful to my own discussions of cognitive difference in higher education. She argues that these disabilities are not “invisible” in the traditional sense, but instead “apparitional,” in that they appear through behavior and in specific circumstanses. This is essentially what I was trying to get at in my last post on stigma of mental illness in universities. She calls these conditions “psychosocial disabilities,” mental disabilities that emerge in relation to particular social conditions. It acknowledges that the experience of mental difference is embodied, but that it’s also rendered as disability not through inevitability but through social convention. While Price finds this last term most theoretically useful, she acknowledges that it is too theoretically complex for much coalition building. In the end, she settles on mental disability as the most practical and powerful term available for conceptualizing mental difference.

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Price’s work continues to prove important to my thinking. The concept of mental disability may work well for helping me define academic disability, which is essentially a specific iteration of psychosocial disability. I’m aware that definitional distinctions like these work at an untennible level of abstraction without some kind of real-world applicability. What good is it, really, to fuss around with terms like this? Price claims that the terms we use have impacts on the power dynamics that end up surrounding the labled person. So, if the terms we accept are “mental illness” and the like, it–what? causes?–requires that those so labled accept their role as patient and submit to normalization under the guise of cure. Or, if we use terms like “mental disability” we are more prone to see these conditions for their social and cultural components, motivating those so labled to seek coalition with other disabled people.

I’m not sure I fully comprehend the relationship between terminology and change. That is, I’m curious about the connection between the discourse Price identifies and the contexts in which she sets it. She shows how the language we use to define mental disability often matches the social structure in which it has meaning, but I wonder if she’s saying there’s causality. That is, does using the term “mental illness” really perpetuate the system of psychiatric discrimination? Is the problem discursive, and thus best addressed through a discursive critique?

To be clear, Price states early on that she’s not trying to advocate one term over another. She only claims that the terms we use right now show us something about the social contexts in which they exist. That they explain, in some way, the workings of the psychiatric establishment or the mad power movement or disability activism. Still, I find the connection between the discourse and the social context as it’s actually experienced to be difficult to untangle.

Price spends a great deal of this essay modeling her own idea development process as she moved from one term to another; it’s pretty hard not to read her progression of terms as a development toward the most empowering and politically effective term. There’s a politics of activism behind this search, and experiences of activism and coalition building throughout the rhetoric of personal narrative used in this piece.  Indeed, this is one of the most admirable things about the piece, which I now realize I omitted completely from my summary. Price employs her personal experiences to walk us from her history of medical treatment, to seeing herself as a survivor as a possible participant in the s/c/x movement, to a moment of claiming disability at the end. It tracks her own journey for definition.

I was leading toward this method myself in my paper on learning disabilities I have been working on for Joe. This article might provide a useful model, since my work was trying to lead up to a definition of terms in this same way. I could explore how my own self definition of dyslexia, LD, and academic disability have evolved, and consider some of the contextual implications of each.

*** Up next from the Disability Studies Reader: Liat Ben-Moshe, “‘The Institution Yet to Come’: Analyzing Incarceration Through a Disability Lens”

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