What is it that defines a person as an individual? It is how he sees himself or herself in the world? Or is it how the world sees him or her? Is there a particular condition or mannerism or peculiarity or talent or quality that makes a person stand out from others? If there is, by what standard is that concept judged, and by whom? Is that what makes a person good or bad, righteous or evil, kind or cruel, beautiful or ugly, “abled” or “disabled”? Can someone be considered successful despite having imperfections, or deemed a failure though seeming perfectly normal? And what is “normal”, anyway? Who gets to decide? And what if a person far exceeds or is far below that definition?
As sad as this may sound, I did not pay much attention to many of those questions in the past. No, let me rephrase that: when those questions came up in conversation or in thought, I would rarely if ever put myself as the subject. Now, however, it seems I am asking myself these questions practically every day. And with every new reading assignment, new questions come up about how I see myself, my community and the world around me—past, present and future. My head hurts from all the information being poured into it, but at least I am getting answers—whether I like them or not.
I believe the first real smack of reality I experienced in my “Disability in Contexts” class–and at Teachers College in general–came from our discussions and readings regarding eugenics. In one of those readings, Snyder & Mitchell (2006) looked at the rise of eugenics, the explosion of entire medical, sociological and institutional efforts to cure or treat “idiots”, “morons” and the “feeble-minded”, and the wide-ranging effects of eugenics on American society from the late 1800s to today. It was a difficult read, disheartening and stomach-churning yet wholly valid when you consider the ramifications. The belief that those with “deficiencies” could be cured, rehabilitated or outright euthanized in order to prevent the spread of “human debasement” sounds almost nonsensical at first, but in light of such strong evidence—from well-meaning but misguided medical and psychological theories to the creation of institutions to the actions of apartheid and genocide—the concept of eugenics quickly moves from the absurd to the frighteningly real. Adding to this horror was the fact that it was actually done here in America, home of the “all men are created equal” credo. Whenever I hear this line, I am always reminded of one of Napoleon’s re-written “rules” from Orwell’s Animal Farm (1948):
I don’t mean to sound naïve; I have seen how cruel human beings can be to each other, both from a distance and up close, where their differences are concerned. Whether it was watching young black men and women being hosed on TV as a child, or bemoaning the outcome of the recent “stand your ground” cases in Florida, I have seen that discrimination is just a prevalent (and more tangible) than what we learned in our history books about slavery. I have been the target of slurs from both blacks and whites as a child, and until recently had trouble finding my place in the socioeconomic landscape. When I tell people that I am disabled, or someone takes notice of my “dancing eyes” (nystagmus), people tend to apologize or look at me with curiosity, as if I was suddenly stricken with a curable malady which caused some disfigurement or other impairment to what used to be a perfectly healthy body. Telling people I was born with my eyes like that (one of the many “symptoms” of albinism) only makes the pity deepen and curiosity grow. When you add the fact that I come from a multi-ethnic background, have poor eyesight, am overweight, well into my middle-aged years, unemployed, unmarried, and without children…well, the eugenicists would be lining up to put me down in the name of God—oh wait, I’m also an atheist, so that would most likely add more fuel to the already towering inferno.
I had come across the topic of eugenics before, but only as a side note while discussing Darwin’s Origin of the Species in one of my sociology classes. In our class, however, eugenics was laid out in all its ugliness—not just for its anti-racial aspects, but as a whole vile entity, covering the spectrum of what hegemony aimed to create. While Snyder & Michelle’s (2006) article laid the groundwork, other readings—most notably Smith’s (2008) argument that the eugenics movement did not end with the fall of Hitler, and Baker’s (2002) exploration of how eugenics shaped America’s “special education” system—enhanced my knowledge of the subject and to what degree it has (and continues to) affect our lives. Looking at the effects of eugenics also helped to better understand terms such as “ableism” and “disabled”—the latter being far more complex (especially when pitted against the concept of “normal”) than I previously thought.
Armed with this knowledge, I have begun to look at myself—and how others see me—in a different way. I try not to play the “disabled card”, much as I disdain the use of the “race card”, when identifying myself. I go about my life as I normally would, but now I can see why there are stares of disbelief if I do something like pull out a magnifying glass to read a menu in a dimly-lit restaurant. When I see kids in a public school get less funding and poorer-quality technical and faculty support than their more affluent—and less “deficient” peers, I know that it’s not simply a case of “rich vs. poor”, but “power vs. powerless.” And while my own disabilities do not come with accessories like canes, walkers, hearing aids and such, it by no means proves I am more or less “fortunate” than those who uses such items. Unfortunately, I do not get to dictate how others see me, or react to me. For better or worse, understanding their point of view helps me to better relate to them. Understanding my own point of view—where it comes from, what stereotypes I play into or beliefs I need to change–helps me to better understand myself.
I can better understand that everyone has differing levels of “disability” or “ability”, just as there are no living, breathing “normal” people. As Dudley-Marling & Gurn (2010) theorize, the “normal curve” is a fallacy. Those who use standard deviation to assess how far above or below the mean a person’s given characteristic must understand two very important things: 1) “normal” is a relative term, defined only by those who coin their own definition of what “normal” is; and 2) most people fall below the norm, such that the “true” norm is substandard to what the definers would suggest. As such, what you end up with is a group of people who believe they are not only “normal”, but above the norm—or elite.
Whether part of the One Percent of America’s social hierarchy; a genetically or surgically-enhanced symbol of beauty or athletic excellence; an elected or self-appointed leader who believes his or her position was the result of divine order; or one of Dr. Seuss’ star-bellied sneetches (Geisel, 1961), those who follow the idea of eugenics (or any euphemism it may be known as today) are anything but normal—they are the true outliers, the real abnormals…the very things they are trying to eradicate. They would not exist without having someone to compare themselves to—their interpretation of “deficient”. Yet they cannot see this: perhaps they have their own “deficiency”—which even an “idiot” can diagnose as “moral blindness”.
I have learned more in nearly a half-semester of this class than I have in five semesters of sociology and most of my educational life combined. While the reading may be over-abundant, deep and often harsh, it is also challenging, enlightening and viscerally real. It not only arms us to understand how power is gained (or lost)—especially in terms of “ableism”, but how such power can be taken apart, examined, and reconstituted in order to give power to the powerless. The Law of Conservation of Energy states that power cannot be created or destroyed, only converted. After this class is done, I hope to have learned enough to be a very “able” power converter.