Review: Disability Politics and Theory
Disability Politics and Theory
By AJ Withers
Review by Karine Wehlm
"(D)isability falls somewhere in a constellation. Like the constellation in the sky, disability is in constant flux and appears different depending on the positioning of the onlooker."(p.99)
Disability Politics and Theory is an excellent new book that critically examines the key models of disability that have shaped how disability and disabled people have been viewed in North America throughout the capitalist era and to this current day. The book's author, AJ Withers applies an intersectional and anti-capitalist analysis on these models and suggests an alternative model, the radical model of disability, as a analytical tool to move the disabled people’s movement forward. Withers' arguments stem from an understanding that multiple oppressions are intertwined with one another and cannot be dealt with separately. The author also argues that capitalism is inherently problematic since, among other things, it assigns individual self-worth and value based on whether one can work for a wage (and so produce profits for someone else). Withers ends with a call for both non-disabled people’s movements and the disabled people’s movement to organize inclusively for social justice and radical access.
The book begins by explaining the Eugenic model, the Medical model and the Charity model – all of which individualize disability and emphasize the necessity to cure, reduce or eliminate disability, rather than focusing efforts on improving disabled people’s conditions by reducing barriers and giving them power back over their lives. These models all stem from the belief that the problems posed by disability are inherent to disabled individuals themselves, rather than products of the negative reaction of society to human diversity. Withers goes on to explain how these models are still widely applied today: the Medical model still being the dominant mainstream model for dealing with disability and the Eugenic model still operating, for example, in the field of genetic research on reproduction.
The author goes on to explain the importance of the Disability Rights movement model and the Social model, while maintaining a critical analysis of both. The Disability Rights movement views disabled people as a minority. This movement fights to end discrimination towards disabled people and to help them become accepted in the current society; the Social model, on the other hand, demands a change in society itself. This model heralded an important shift in thinking about disability and was a response to the individualization of disability posed by the earlier models. The Social model separates impairment, which is part of an individual’s characteristics, from disability, which is "the oppression that people with impairment face" (p. 86.). For example, for a person using a wheelchair to move around town, their impairment could be the fact that their legs are paralysed while their disability could be their inability to access a building because of stairs. In the Social model, a person is only disabled if the environment and society is not accessible or adapted to their needs. It is the environment and society that needs to change and not the person with the impairment. Disability is therefore a social construct and not inherent to the disabled person.
Withers finishes by explaining an alternative model, the Radical model of disability, which tries to address both the oppression of disabled people and disabled minds and bodies while intersecting with other forms of oppression. By choosing to speak in terms of minds and bodies, the author means who and what we are: we are physical, mental, intellectual, sensory bodies and minds. We have different ages, life experiences, cultures, languages, skin colours, genders, sexuality and class backgrounds. The radical model rejects the binary of impairment and disability in the Social model and sees impairment as also a social construct, because of the fact that impairment too has different meanings depending on the society we live in. To take the same example as before, a person unable to use their legs would be in an entirely different situation if we lived in an environment where there were no stairs. In this case, the meaning assigned to this particular physical fact would be something different. Withers chooses to talk about minds and bodies as a much more inclusive and non-oppressive way of discussing our difficulties, because we all have our challenges, disabled and non-disabled people alike. Using the words minds and bodies is an attempt to move away from categorical labels and towards a terminology that includes us all.
Withers also proposes an alternative to universal accessibility. Although universal accessibility is already much more inclusive than just adding a ramp to a building, because it tries to address in a comprehensive way all accessibility needs relating to the physical environment, it only addresses the physical aspect of the environment. Radical access, instead, articulates a broad accessibility analysis that is inclusive of other oppressions, such as the inability to afford a ride on the bus – even though it can be accessed using a wheelchair.
One thing that caught my attention in this book is how Withers dismantles the myth of independence. Being independent means that someone can do a task by themselves, without needing the help of anyone. Withers instead argues that we are all interdependent – after all, very few of us make our own clothes or grow our own food. It is simply that certain dependencies have been normalized, while others have been marginalized. I would also add that we should aim at being autonomous rather than this ideal of being independent, which means being able to make our own choices in our lives. This includes choosing to have help or not. Very few people can say they are truly autonomous because of the way our society grants control and power to a few. Only real social change, including the abolishment of capitalism, hierarchy and the fight against all forms of oppression will make this possible for everyone.
Disability Politics and Theory is an easy-to-read book giving a thorough analysis of the key concepts and models of disability. It is an eye-opener on disability and it should be read by anybody seeking to move this society towards social justice. This book is urging us to fight to create the changes we want, because they won’t be handed to us. "We must work in solidarity with other marginalized groups, and we must get past our differences and fight for justice, dignity, equality and access." (p.120)