Module 1: Introduction to Disability Studies

1.8 Examined Life Transcript

Judith Butler: I thought we should take this walk together, and one of the things I wanted to talk about was what it means for us to take a walk together. When I first asked you about this, you told me you take walks, you take strolls.

Sunaura Taylor: I do.

JB: And can you say something about what that is for you? When do you do it, and how do you do it, and what words do you have for it.

ST: Well, I think that I always go for a walk. Probably every day, I go for a walk, and I always tell people that I’m going for walks. I use that word, and most of the disabled people who I know use that term also.

JB: Which environments make it possible for you to take a walk?

ST: I moved to San Francisco largely because it’s the most accessible place in the world, and part of what’s so amazing to me about it is that the physical access, the fact that the public transportation is accessible, there’s curb cuts most places. In most places I’ll go there’s curb cuts. Buildings are accessible and what this does is that it also leads to a social acceptability that somehow because there’s physical access, there’s simply more disabled people out and about in the world. And so people have learned how to interact with them and are used to them in a certain way. And so the physical access actually leads to a social access and acceptance.

JB: It must be nice not to always have to be the pioneer, the very first one they meet and have to explain.

ST: Yes, very definitely. The first disabled person they’ve ever seen.

JB: Yes I do, you know, speak and think and talk and move and enjoy life and suffer many of the same heartaches that you do.” And anyway, um, but what I’m wondering about is moving in social space right, moving all the movements you can do and which help you live and which express you in various ways. Do you feel free to, to move in all the ways you want to move?

ST: I could go into a coffee shop and actually pick up the cup with my mouth, and carry it to my table but then that, that becomes almost more difficult because of just the normalizing standards of our movements. The discomfort that that causes when I do things with body parts that aren’t necessarily what we assume that they’re for. That seems to be even more hard for people to deal with.

[camera pans to a shoe on the side of the street]

JB: Is that somebody’s shoe?

ST: I wonder if they can walk without it.

JB: I’m just thinking that nobody takes a walk without there being a technique of walking. Nobody goes for a walk without there being something that supports that walk outside of ourselves and that maybe we have a false idea that the able-bodied person is somehow radically self-sufficient.

ST: It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s about 20, 21, that I became aware of disability as a political issue and that happened largely through discovering the social model of disability, which is basically in disability studies they have a distinction between disability and impairment.

[This quote leads us to the Models of Disability section:]

ST: So impairment would be my, my body, my embodiment, right now the fact that I was born with arthrogryposis which affects, or what what the medical world has labeled is arthrogryposis, but basically that my joints are fused, my muscles are weaker, I can’t move in certain ways and this does affect my life in all sorts of situations. For instance, you know there’s a plum tree in my backyard and I can’t pick the plums off the plum tree. I have to wait for them to drop or whatever but then and so there’s that, there’s that embodiment, our own unique embodiment, and then there’s disability which is basically the, the social repression of disabled people. The fact that disabled people have limited housing options, we don’t have career opportunities, we’re socially isolated. We’re, you know, in many ways, there’s a cultural aversion to disabled people.


JB: So would disability be this social organization of impairment?

ST: The disabling effects basically of society.

JB: What happened, did you come in contact with disability activists, or did you read certain things?

ST: I read a book review actually.

JB: Oh really?

ST: Yeah, I just read a book review, and, and when that happened I lived in Brooklyn and I would, I would really try to make myself go out and just order a coffee by myself, and I would sit for hours beforehand in the park just trying to get up the nerve to do that. In a way, it’s a political protest for me to go in, and order a coffee and demand help, simply because in my opinion, help is something that we all need, and it’s something that is, you know, looked down upon and not really taken care of in this society when we all, when we all need help and we’re all interdependent in all sorts of ways.

[They arrive outside a vintage clothing store]

ST: Can we stop and get me something warm?

[JB picks up a red dress]

JB: I don’t know, honey.

ST: That’s pretty fancy.

JB: Let’s go find something for you.

[JB holds up a red sweater]

ST: Yeah I think that would probably fall off my shoulders. Well I guess we could try it on. Okay so basically that’s the back.

JB: Other arm?

ST: Other arm. And I like it, it’s stylish!

JB: It’s very stylish, it’s kind of you know, sporty and fancy.

ST: It’s gonna be a new show: shopping with Judith Butler.

JB: For the queer eye!

ST: Maybe I can just get it while wearing it.

[They arrive at the cash register]

JB: Hi! We put the sweater on. So we just want to buy it.

ST: Yeah, I’m actually buying this one that I’m wearing.

Cashier: Okay! So it’s by weight.

ST: Oh, it’s by weight?

JB: Can we guess?

Cashier: I can probably just do it for four bucks.

JB: That sounds good.

ST: Can I get the bills first and then give me the change? Oh oh, I just meant. yeah I just can’t hold both at the same time.

Cashier: There you go!

ST: Thanks! Thanks so much.

JB: I think gender and disability converge in a whole lot of different ways, but one thing I think both movements do, is get us to rethink, um, what the body can do.

[This quote leads us to the Intersectionality section:]

JB: There’s an essay by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze called “What Can a Body Do?” and the question is supposed to challenge the traditional ways in which we think about bodies, right? We usually ask, you know, what is a body or what is the ideal form of a body or you know what’s the difference between the body and the soul and that kind of thing. Yeah, uh, but what can a body do is, um, is, is a different question. It isolates a set of capacities and a set of instrumentalities or actions, and we are kind of assemblages of those things, um, and I like this idea it’s, it’s not like there’s an essence and it’s not like there’s an an ideal morphology, you know, what a body should look like. It’s exactly not that question, or what a body should move like, um, and one of the things that I found in thinking about gender and even violence against sexual minorities or gender minorities, people whose gender presentation doesn’t conform with standard ideals of femininity or masculinity, is that very often, um, it comes down to, uh, you know, how people walk, how they use their hips, what they do with their body parts, uh, what they use their mouth for, what they use their anus, for or what they allow their anus to be used for.

There’s a guy in Maine who, I guess, he was around 18 years old, and he walked with a very distinct swish, you know, hips going one way or another, and very feminine walk. But one day, he was walking to school, and he was attacked by three of his classmates, and he was thrown over a bridge and he was killed. And, um, the question that community had to deal with, and indeed, the entire media that covered this event was, you know, how could it be that somebody’s gait, that somebody’s style of walking, could engender the desire to kill that person and that, you know, that makes me think about the walk in a different way. I mean, a walk could be a dangerous thing.

ST: I’m just remembering when I was little, when I did walk, I would be told that I walked like a monkey, and I think that for a lot of, you know, disabled people, the violence, and the the sort of, that, the hatred exists a lot in in this reminding of people that our bodies are going to age and are going to die and, you know, in some ways I wonder also just, you know, just thinking about the monkey comment, if it is also a level of, and this is just a thought off the top of my head, right now, but just, um, the sort of, where our boundaries lie as as a human and what becomes non-human.

JB: Well, it makes me wonder whether the person was anti-evolutionary. Maybe they were a creationist. It’s like, why shouldn’t we have some resemblance to the monkey? I mean.

ST: Well the monkey’s actually always been my favorite animal to this day, actually, quite a lot of the time. I was flattered.

JB: Exactly!

ST: Yeah but that, when, when in those in-between moments of, you know, in between male and female, or in between death and and health, when, when do you still kind of count as a human?

[This quote leads us to the Epistemology section:]

JB: My sense is that what’s at stake here, is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency, and I think, you know, when you walk into the coffee shop, right, if I can go back to that moment for a moment, and and you, you ask for the coffee, or you indeed even ask for some assistance with the coffee, um, you’re basically posing the question do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? Do we, or do we not help each other with, with, with basic needs? And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just my personal individual issue or your personal individual issue? So, I mean, there’s a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment in which you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup, and hopefully people will take it up, and say “yes, I too live in that world in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs, you know, and and I want to organize a social political world on the basis of that recognition.”

[This quote leads us to the Transformative section:]


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