“You’re not as blind as I thought you were…” A look at the marginalization of women with physical disabilities
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In 1911, the city of Chicago passed a law that stated: Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in this city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 [about $20 today] for each offense (quoted in Schweik 2009: 2). The “unsightly beggar ordinance,” as it was called, essentially banned disability from the public eye (Schweik 2009: 167). Similar laws existed across the country, appearing in the city codes of San Francisco, Portland, Denver, Lincoln, Omaha, and New Orleans, as well as various cities in New York and Pennsylvania (Schweik 2009: 3-10). During this time, femininity and domesticity were closely linked, and so “a woman’s disease or deformity exposed to public view was particularly transgressive” (Schweik 2009: 145). Such laws served as a legal dividing point between the beautiful and the ugly, the so-called normal and the abnormal, the disabled and the non-disabled, the feminine and the masculine, and the public and the private. The “Ugly Laws,” as Susan Schweik calls them, demonstrate a history of discrimination against disability in America. The Ugly Laws existed in Chicago, as well as other cities across the country, until 1974, and indicate a historical context in which disability has been marginalized formally through laws, and informally through social attitudes. While these laws were not enforced consistently, they reflect a codified discrimination against disability, which still exists to some degree today. Discomfort surrounding difference, particularly in regards to bodies, remains an issue in American society today. There is a strong cultural pressure to have a perfect body, in terms of that body’s beauty and health. There are also social consequences, for having a body that does not fit within the culturally constructed category of “normal.” Bodies that society considers ugly or unhealthy invoke fear: “the fear of bodily alteration, and even death itself—and to the extent that the singular human body represents the body politic, the fear of social upheaval and chaos” (Wilkerson 2011: 193). When American society considers a body ugly, unhealthy, or otherwise fear-inducing, it results in different treatment of that body, particularly discrimination and marginalization. Social stigma against different bodies is particularly relevant to people with visible, physical disabilities, as people with disabilities tend to face discrimination in many aspects of life. After becoming disabled, for example, feminist disability scholar Alison Kafer recalls being stopped in the hall by another (non-wheelchair using) patient, who “recommended suicide, explaining that life in a wheelchair was not worth living” (Kafer 2013: 1). It is worth noting that because the man who made this comment did not use a wheelchair, he had no way of knowing what life in a wheelchair might actually be like. The comment that suicide is preferable to wheelchair-use reflects the cultural construction of disability as less valuable than able-bodiedness, as well as the openness with which some people feel comfortable voicing this opinion. For many people with disabilities (PWD) in America, it is not the physical limitations that come with disability that prove difficult, but the discrimination associated with being valued less by society than non-disabled people in many aspects of life. Of course, there is not a singular experience of disability in American culture, and differences in race, class, ethnicity, religion, and personality are likely to result in different kinds of experiences for different people. However, looking at some of the common themes that appear when discussing and researching disability is important, as it reveals a great deal about what is important in American culture, particularly health and beauty. Like disability, gender is also culturally constructed, so disability and gender then interact and intersect. Because American society marginalizes women in comparison to men, the disabled woman can face even greater challenges than the disabled man. A study by the World Health Organization, for instance, found that although women live an average of 3.9 years longer than men do, they spend more of their lives living with a disability (Lorber and Moore 2006: 169). Women’s increased likelihood of experiencing disability is especially problematic when discrimination against physically disabled women is routine. Femaleness and disability are connected in that there is a culturally constructed idea that both are inferior to their counterparts, either men or people without disabilities. In both cases, the stereotypes surrounding these categories involve a lack of power, which “[encourages] the misunderstanding that those who are different from perceived norms are missing something, that it is their doing, that they are locked out for a reason” (McDermott and Varenne 1995: 326). The cultural construction of disability and femaleness as a lack of power or a deserved exclusion therefore promotes discrimination against women with disabilities, and is hegemonic in the way that it makes everyday discrimination against the physically disabled seem acceptable and normal to many non-disabled people. In North American culture, there is a great deal of importance placed on women’s appearance. While both (all) genders face pressure to look a particular way, there is more emphasis on beauty for women than men. Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne, authors of Culture as Disability, explain: “In every society there are ways of being locked out. Race, gender, or beauty can serve as the dividing point as easily as being sighted or blind” (McDermott and Varenne 1995: 327). For women with disabilities, often all of these factors come into play, creating even greater challenges for them. Because American society constructs women and the disabled as inferior to men and the non-disabled, the intersection of being a woman with a disability often results in increased marginalization in many aspects of life, more so than being either a woman or a person with a disability. The current study aims to better understand the experiences of women with physical disabilities in American culture, particularly in terms of how cultural constructions of disability and femininity affect the lives of disabled women. American society tends to infantilize women with visible, physical disabilities, which has repercussions for the way that the non-disabled perceive and treat disabled women. In looking at three case studies and a wide body of literature, I hope to open up the anthropological discourse surrounding disability by exploring the topics of body image, fashion, dating, sexuality, and reproduction for women with disabilities.
Franklin and Marshall College Archives, Undergraduate Honors Thesis 2014
- F&M Theses Collection