#FTF: Susan Wendell & the gendering of disability

It’s Feminist Theory Friday, people, and I’ve decided we should take a brief interlude from critiquing so-called “third wave” feminist politics to explore the idea The Rejected Body by Susan Wendellthat “disability, like gender, is a social construction” — a social construction that disproportionately disadvantages women.

As I’ve mentioned a number of times, I am the overbearing older sister of a young man with both Down Syndrome and Autism and recently married into a family which gave me a brother-in-law with a similar profile. This undoubtedly shapes my understanding of disabilities but, readers will notice, both of my developmentally disabled family members are male and so their experience navigating the world doesn’t give me much insight into how women with disabilities experience the combination of sexism and ableism.

I’m going to speak from a place that I typically avoid. At sixteen I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (which the current diagnostic manuals call ADHD Inattentive). Later on in life I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the symptoms of which had been presenting themselves before my ADD diagnosis, but weren’t legitimized or treated until every other possible diagnosis was ruled out. This took over 15 exhausting years of testing, filling out forms, going to specialist appointment after specialist appointment, and trying to convince medical professionals that my inability to keep my eyes open for more than a few hours wasn’t “all in my head.”

Technically, these two factors make me a person with “an invisible disability.” I don’t call myself a “disabled woman” and I don’t like to talk about it for several reasons. First, while I believe that any feminist practice that excludes women with “multiple oppressions” is not a feminist practice at all, I also can’t support the idea that in order to talk about sexism in a meaningful way, a woman must have an additional trump card or risk being called out for non-intersectional feminism.

Secondly, while I experience systemic problems as a woman who has ADD and Chronic Fatigue, I don’t experience overt person-to-person ableism in which others question my worth and capabilities because of a visible condition which cannot be hidden from the world. For this reason, I experience most of the privileges that come with being of able body and typical cognitive development.

Thirdly, I’m aware of the stigma that comes with being considered disabled. I accept that many of the ways I operate are influenced by having ADD and Chronic Fatigue (like my inability to notice mess, my tendency to lose important paperwork, or the fact that I’m unable to stay on top of the bureaucratic shit-storm that comes with receiving any sort of support for my conditions). However, I’d much rather have people treat me like a human rather than a walking pathology. The fact that this is something I can more or less choose is part of abled privilege.

Back to the socially constructed part. That is why we’re here after all. In Susan Wendell’s “The Social Construction of Disability” she asserts:

… Neither impairment nor disability can be defined purely in biomedical terms, because social arrangements and expectations make essential contributions to impairment and disability, and to their absence. […] [The] distinction between the biological reality of a disability and the social construction of a disability cannot be made sharply, because the biological and the social are interactive in creating disability.

Wendell argues that disability can be a device of our own creation (societally) in three ways.

First, “Social conditions affect people’s bodies by creating or failing to prevent sickness and injury.” Take, for example, the “work/life balance” culture of the North American workplace.

As Health Sciences PhD student Zoe Krupka notes in her article “No, it’s not you: why ‘wellness’ isn’t the answer to overwork,”

“We’re working longer hours than ever before, and as our employment conditions continue to worsen, they’re simply repackaged into a new version of normal in an effort to make the truly pathological state of many of our workplaces appear acceptable.”

This kind of (socially constructed) workplace culture (minor compared to the disabling features of war, domestic violence, prostitution, physically dangerous labour, poverty, and elitist refusals to inoculate our children from things like measles and polio) has physically disabling implications. As Lauren La Rose recently put it in The Globe and Mail:

Researchers cited studies associating overtime and extended work schedules with heightened risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, stress, depression, chronic infections, diabetes and death. They also noted some studies found evidence of links between long working hours and an increased risk of occupational injuries, including among construction workers, nurses, miners, bus drivers and firefighters.

The culture North Americans (and much of the rest of the world) have created around work is, in many cases, physically disabling.

Secondly, we fail to provide people with physical, mental, and developmental challenges with the supports they need to fully participate in the parts of life that many of us take for granted. When we fail to challenge the backbreaking pace of the workplace, or the fact that many places people go to socialize are not equipped to service someone in a wheelchair or someone who is non-verbal, it is us and not people’s individual limitations that are disabling people.

Lastly, we construct disability when we stereotype people with disabilities in ways that create obstacles to full participation in life. As Wendell says:

Stereotypes of disabled people as dependent, morally depraved, superhumanly heroic, asexual, and/or pitiful are still the most common cultural portrayals of people with disabilities. Stereotypes repeatedly get in the way of full participation in work and social life.

We do this all the time don’t we? Take, for example, the fact that many people believe prostitution is necessary in order to satisfy the needs of disabled people (okay, let’s be serious, just disabled men). Many people consider themselves enlightened for having this opinion because it counters the idea that disabled people are non-sexual beings. However, if you look at it more closely, it also reinforces the false and socially constructed stereotype that portrays the disabled as people no one would consider sleeping with for free or people that always need extra (read: burdensome) help during sex. Progressive? Far from it.

So what does this have to do with feminism? For starters, many of the ways that we classify or recognize disabilities are based on male experience. Because male socialization and female socialization are different, the sexes often don’t present disability in the same way. I was well aware as a child that I didn’t fit well into the mainstream school system. However, I wasn’t diagnosed with Attention Deficit until the eleventh grade and had never been given any learning support (in elementary school, high school, and even university) because I didn’t exhibit any symptoms of hyperactivity, a symptom which is more common among males than females.

Additionally, we’re less likely to take conditions experienced by women more often than men — like Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, and Anxiety — seriously. For myself this meant a 15 year battle with the medical system to prove that I wasn’t somehow hysterical, chronically lazy, faking my experience, or simply overreacting.

Lastly, women with disabilities are penalized more harshly for failing to live up to the gendered expectations placed upon all women. When we treat women as a class as a population of sex objects, guess who is the most severely ostracised? The women who have been stereotyped as asexual by abled people. (P.S. For those of you who think hypersexualizing disabled women will solve this… you’re wrong. And a pain in the ass.)

Unfortunately, Wendell doesn’t have any quick fixes for us in this essay but I have a few (non-exhaustive) pointers based on my personal experience:

1) We need to make women’s experience of disability a topic of interest and pursuit in feminist scholarship.

2) We need to challenge the fallacy that employers can recklessly expect more work while blaming the resulting disabilities on individual employee’s failure to practice “work/life balance” or “wellness” or whatever horseshit term is the flavour of the corporate week.

3) Women need to congregate in numbers to insist that medical communities take their experiences with illness seriously. The isolation and privacy is working against us in this way. It’s much easier to tell a single woman that she’s hysterical than a massive group.

4) We need to challenge both the stereotyping of women with disabilities, and the sexual objectification of women as a whole.

It’s critical to develop strategies to deconstruct disability and ensure that we are not, as a society, disabling women as a class.

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.