To the Editors, The Baffler
I write to express my disappointment at the choice to run June Thunderstorm’s “Abled-Bodied Till it Kills Us” in Baffler No. 26. The argument of this article is that a few people in one workplace a decade ago believed that they had disabilities, that Thunderstorm does not think they had, and that therefore the concept of “ableism” is merely a means by which the rich perpetuate their power. Even the last part of the article that makes a slight concession to the concept of “disability” shows no awareness of the significant role that class analysis has always played in the disability rights movement and in scholarship. As a whole, however, the article’s main rhetorical effect is to mock disability, ableism, and those who experience them. Evidently, to the author and the editors, reinforcing anti-disabled bias was acceptable for the sake of ridiculing some former co-workers.
With some trepidation – because I have so often experienced bias on this issue, even from people who view themselves as otherwise free of biases – I shall try to explain the basics of disability critique, why I expected better from The Baffler, and what The Baffler might have done on this topic.
“Ableism” is a clunky term, and I wish we had a better one. However, our society does allocate economic value and power based on physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. Rosemarie Garland Thomson proposed the term “normate” for the ideologically constructed non-disabled body. This is the body for which the social world is built, the one it assumes, and the one whose absence it punishes with exclusions. Disability itself isn’t simply a property of bodies. It’s a bodily difference on which social practices them impose additional and unnecessary exclusions.
Some examples. Decades ago, many people who use wheelchairs could not get jobs because few buildings had ramps and accessible toilets. Ability to use steps was, in effect, a job qualification, for no good reason in most cases. Thus a difference in physical ability became a difference in employability, when there was no relevance. A person who is colorblind has a physical impairment, but our society doesn’t rely on color perception for many social goods. Color blindness is mildly disabling, at most, at least under the conditions of 21st Century America. It’s never just about the body per se, but also about the assumptions about bodies that we build into the parts of the environment we control.
Access and accommodation mean adapting the environment or social practices to differences in ability. The widespread perception that this is somehow “special” treatment is incorrect. For instance, I am sighted; I need lights to do my job. My sightedness and need for lights is already accommodated by light fixtures and the expectation that an electric bill must be paid. I have never had to ask my employer to provide me with light so that I can do my job. When a disabled person asks for an accommodation, it’s not different. Only ideology makes it appear different.
Abled privilege, infelicitous term that it is, is living in an environment that is already build to accommodate you. If you don’t believe me, let me know when you need to enter a building with doors 25 feet off the ground because the designers assumed bodies that could flap their wings and fly in.
I use these examples because I think they’re easy to understand. But let me mention the context to which the article refers – higher ed. It’s my context too. I first discovered The Baffler as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. My first Baffler was No. 5, which I discovered in 57th Street Books and quickly devoured. I rounded up every back issue I could lay hands on – all but the first – and bought every new edition as long as I lived in Hyde Park. That issue and subsequent ones from that period resonated with my disaffection with literary theory and with the generational rhetoric surrounding my cohort, Gen X. I have assigned Thomas Frank’s “Why Johnny Can’t Dissent” essay from No. 6 to students into the current decade. That’s The Baffler I remembered and loved.
I was profoundly deaf by that time, too. Born with “normal” hearing, I began to lose it slowly in early adolescence. At the time, many universities didn’t have disability services for students. In college, I had several classes where I could not hear the professor at all, and where other students refused my request to share their notes with me. By grad school, I had learned not to ask for any kind of – accommodation, but I didn’t know that sense of the word at the time. Let’s say, any variation in practice that would have let me obtain the same information that my fellow-students had by means of their functional ears. Thus, I had at best fragmentary comprehension of what was said in my classes. That means every damn one. For eight years. And I went out on the notorious academic job market in my naturally late-deafened state.
I’m going to skimp on details here, because I keep imagining the editors taking the snide tone of this article. Suffice to say that I discovered disability criticism, including its class analysis; undertook a bodily alteration; and through a highly unlikely chain of events, managed to remain in academe. Now I regularly have disabled students who will not ask for accommodations they really need, because they don’t want to be stigmatized for having “special” extras – and in the process, they get less out of their educations than they might. There are not rick kids, so let’s think a little before slamming all of higher ed for being too accommodating, and thus feeding the attitudes that make things even harder for these students.
So please listen up.
Yes, there is such a thing as abled privilege.
People get enormous social power just because they can hear – and enormous social detriment when they can’t. Going to college and teaching in colleges is radically different for those of us who lack a major sense, or have major neurological differences, or major differences in mobility. The details of the experiences differ, depending on the physical-mental differences, but the exclusionary structures operate pretty much the same way. Here’s how they operate: nobody is aware of how the environment and practices already accommodate their normate bodies; disabled bodies are blamed for the detriments that are actually socially imposed; and whether or not we even have a disability is questioned. Meanwhile, our numbers in the student body and professoriate remain very low. And the non-disabled think this is fine and the natural order of things.
There is such a thing as fucking abled privilege.
It’s as real as white privilege and male gender privilege. And The Baffler saw fit to snark at that. I can’t imagine this magazine publishing an article that took a comparable tone to sexism and racism. Then again, I’ve missed recent issues, so maybe this is your thing now.
Here’s what I imagine instead. One of the things I loved about The Baffler of the early ‘90s was its analysis of how post-modern theory enabled the image-driven culture of late capitalism. The rejection of ontological realism in much theory leaves us only with a discourse body, something entirely a fabrication of images and speech. By suppressing the reality of our actual bodies, theory abets late capitalism’s manufactured desires. It rigs curtains so that we don’t see that all of our bodies are commodified fuel for the economic machine. If we have bodies that won’t serve as this fuel, we are disabled and excluded from what most people experience as their main source of value, their ability to produce profit. (For whom?) If we start with “normal” fuel-bodies, when we became disabled by the machine, it spits us out as waste product. Our bodily needs are then seen as “costs” and “burdens,” while other bodies somehow don’t have “costs” or aren’t “burdens.” Maybe the difference between a body that isn’t a “cost” and “burden” and one that is, is whether it’s currently function as fuel. Or not. What or whom does it serve to embed this ideology in so many people? Cui bono?
Disability critique can be, in some ways, more traditional than the faux radicalism of theory, and far more radical than even Marxism, in its potential to undo the human being as seller of his/her labor. That’s where The Baffler could have gone with disability.
But no, you had to punch down. You had to mock the terms that generations of activists have created to construct a language for expressing our lives.
I’m sorry this is so long. I have never written such a long letter to a periodical. In fact, I have never before used profanity in correspondence with a periodical. But dammit, you’re not Fox News, you’re The Baffler.
Or you used to be.