Module 1: Introduction to Disability Studies
Judith Butler makes open-ended reference to the ways that gender and disability “converge.” Social location is never singular, and context is always complicated. Disability, race, gender, Indigeneity, sexuality, class, and other facets of identity and experience converge in the individual; when these intersections are not acknowledged, the knowledge and experience that forms at these points of convergence are suppressed.
Theories of Intersectionality understand that different forms of oppression typically overlap in the individual. When a school of thought, such as disability studies, ignores this overlap, it suggests that an assumption has already been made about the identity of the disabled subject. When disability studies ignores race, sexuality, gender, and colonialism, the field normalizes an assumption that disabled people are white, heterosexual, cis-gendered settlers.
The assumption of whiteness in disability studies has been pointed out by many scholars within the discipline. These scholars often have first-hand knowledge of how interlocking oppressions are experienced. In 2017, Chris Bell stated that what we have termed “disability studies” is actually “White Disability Studies”, because it “by and large focuses on the work of white individuals and is itself largely produced by a corpus of white scholars and activists” (p. 407).
Nwadiogo Ejiogu and Syrus Marcus Ware (2008) build on Bell’s work in a reflection on their time as students in a disability studies classroom, observing,
Whiteness was normalized in this class and within the broader field of Disability Studies, in the use of colonialism merely as a metaphor to theorize ableism and the marginal position disabled people (read: white) inhabit in dominant spaces. What we are specifically speaking to are the ways in which white disabled people were understood as “colonized” by normate culture and pedagogies. While it is necessary to pay close attention to the many violences done onto particular bodies in order to maintain notions of able-bodiedness, intelligence, sanity, and productivity within a capitalist market, the appropriation of the term colonialism erases violent histories and contemporary realities.
Disability studies begins with the questioning of dominant notions about disability. However, in challenging clichés and oppressive, outdated ideas about disability, the discipline risks forgetting its own internal biases, and the limits of its own perspective.
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