Lily Mae’s Response to Feminism in Disability Studies

Feminist and disability studies will often go hand in hand when discussing intersectionality and often the lack of representation that is accurately given to both feminism and disability either connected or on their own. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s piece, Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory gives the reader background information on the topics of feminism and disability studies including the past and present practices dedicated to the two theories. Sheila Black’s piece, What You Mourn is a powerful poem about how women with disabilities are often seen and looked down upon based on certain stereotypes and expectations of women that are far from current feminist ideals and practices. Arguments regarding theories in feminist disability, the current systems of ability vs. disability as well as the representation of both theories, can be formed in response to the need of equality and integration that is still lacking within current society as well as strives still needed to be made in order to better reach the intersectionality of both topics. 

Garland-Thomson introduces the idea of feminist disability theory as a way of thinking that encompasses the practices of feminism through the lens of disability where intersectionality can often be found. When understanding the teachings of both feminism and disability studies one must open their eyes to the larger picture that encompasses both the cultural and personal aspects of individuals rather than focusing on just one piece of a person whether feminism or disability theories are present. “By considering the ability/disability system, feminist disability theory goes beyond explicit disability topics such as illness, health, beauty, genetics, eugenics, aging, reproductive technologies, prosthetics, and access issues. Feminist disability theory address such broad feminist concerns as the unity of the category ‘woman’,…” (Garland-Thomson 258), while many topics may fall under the umbrella of disability, 

being able to connect the feminist theory into said topics is what makes the theory so vital in understanding and representing women, particularly women who have disabilities. While this wave of feminism is indeed reaching more of the public through media and the discussions being had towards feminist ideals, it is still evident that work must still be made in relation to the gender based biases that are still being taught and believed by current and past generations. In Black’s poem, the stereotypes of women in relation to their wedding day is tied to the disability where walking is difficult and the thought that this disability would certainly interrupt the “perfect” wedding; “The year they straightened my legs, the young doctor said, meaning to be kind, Now you will walk straight on your wedding day, but what he could not imagine is how even on my wedding day I would arch back and wonder about that body I had before I was changed,…” (Black lines 1-7). The expectations placed on women for generations is exactly what feminism theories have begun trying to shine light upon as well as how damaging these stereotypes can become on women who often will not fit perfectly into such expectations.  The same can be said for those with disabilities where the stereotypes and expectations should simply be eradicated due to the loss of individuality that is caused when such cookie-cutter mentalities are the only ones being practiced. 

The topic of disability is often one that is found to be difficult and awkward for some to talk about but, nevertheless it is still a topic that requires much discussion in order for the equality needed to be found and put into motion. Over the past several decades the field of disability theory and study has developed into a nation conversation while the inequality is unfortunately still in practice. Those with disabilities are often looked down upon or even pitied while seen as “less than” individuals who are “normal”. Whether it be mental or physical disabilities that one has this should be no excuse why they should not receive the same opportunities and respect that their able-bodied peers are receiving. Disability is often a term that is used to describe a number of different ailments rather than focusing on the individual and more so on the disability itself, “Moreover, disability is a broad term within which cluster ideological categories as varied as sick, deformed, abnormal, crazy, ugly old, feebleminded, maimed, afflicted, mad, or debilitated- all of which disadvantage people by devaluing bodies that do not conform to cultural standards” (Garland-Thomson 260). This quote outlines the exact themes of Black’s piece of the crooked legs of the speaker being seen as an obstacle that must be overcome in order to better conform to the image society has in their minds of what a bride should look like on her wedding day; while also playing into the ideas of feminist theory that stem back to the beginning of marriage where brides are placed in a very specific role. When these roles and expectations are not met these individuals are seen as unusual and “upsetting” when individuality is tossed to the side and forgotten because they are now seen as an object that should be ridiculed or pitied for not fitting the predetermined image that is expected. The ability and disability system within this current day and age is still considered so problematic because individuals with disabilities are given the umbrella term of “disabled” and thus treated in a certain manner which is not conducive to encouraging independence and equal treatment of those given this label. 

Representation in both the feminist and disability realms has been something that people have been fighting for spanning over generations. While representation can be be a difficult topic for argumentation, due to the fact that representation should be unique and individualized, the broad generalizations of certain groups of people can be more detrimental than no representation at all. When overgeneralization are placed on groups of people it can be difficult to view these individuals in any other light creating a negative environment for those with disabilities and those with feminist ideals in particular. Garland-Thomson breaks down several of the common stereotypes in her writing and how intersectionality can be harmful when not used correctly, “Female, disabled, and dark bodies are supposed to be dependent, incomplete, vulnerable, and incompetent bodies. Femininity and race are the performance of disability. Women and the disabled are portrayed as helpless, dependent, weak, vulnerable, and incapable bodies” (Garland-Thomson 261). Representation, when accurate, is difficult to come by in all meanings but especially representation for those who have been so stereotyped and overgeneralized it is difficult to remove those labels from someone standing directly in front of us. While it is true that the individualized aspect of representation can be difficult because everyone has their own wants and their preferred identification, the answer is not going to be found in throwing around umbrella terms. In Black’s poem, she speaks to the notion of labeling and the language associated with those with disabilities calling to attention the wide variety of terms that can be used when talking about disabilities. Individuals with disabilities will of course have their own preferred language in regards to how they would like to be identified, “Crippled they called us when I was young later the word disabled and then differently abled, but those were all names given by outsiders, none of who could imagine that the crooked body they spoke of, the body which made walking difficult and running practically impossible,…” (Black lines 16-22).  Representation and language are often closely related when talking about feminist and disability theory as it has changed greatly over the years while at the same time being problematic still for those who the ones being labeled. 

Discussing feminist theory as well as disability studies can at times seem to be daunting and can feel awkward for some with the fear that the wrong phrase or misguided interpretations may be use but these are not things that should be used as excuses to completely ignore these topics. Being an active questioner to the systems in place is what makes a more rounded individual as well as a better informed ally to those around us who are faced with the battle everyday of negative stereotypes and must fight the overgeneralization pointed towards subsets of the population. Within the disability community the act of overgeneralization and the use of umbrella labeling can be incredibly damaging when looking at individual cases where those with disabilities are often pitied or looked down upon simply due to the fact that they have some sort of disability. When a topic is found to be difficult to discuss it is often the case that it is difficult because it forces individuals to take a look inside themselves and their fear of either those who are different from themselves or because they believe that they must treat those different from themselves in a unique or unusual way. Toxic ways of thinking in regards to feminism or disability is long overdue for an upgrade where treating people differently just because they are “different” from our own selves is no longer the appropriate way to think. Remaining open minded and questioning the current systems in place are the only true ways that change will be able to occur where the hope is that one day people will not be treated so differently just because they are their own unique versions of themselves. 

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