Identifying Future Bodies: Towards a New Ethical Paradigm

A few years ago, I re-watched the 1997 film, Gattaca, which imagines a future world where the idea of liberal eugenics (i.e., the practice of tailoring the genetic traits of foetuses) is commonplace, such that a person’s social class is genetically determined by way of her or his DNA.  For this reason, citizens living in this world are frequently screened to determine their “genetic fitness”.  However, the protagonist, Vincent Freeman, is born without the facilitation of liberal eugenics.  As such, he is susceptible to the development of mental disorders, has a heart condition and is projected to live only 30 years.  Nevertheless, Vincent aspires to be an astronaut, even though the odds are stacked against him due to genetic discrimination.  Those who are genetic “superior” tend to hold a strong prejudice against anyone with bodily and cognitive defects.  In a world where babies are treated like commodities and parents can customize the physical characteristics and capabilities of foetuses, the identification of these so-called “future bodies” is fraught with ethical tension.

Despite the fictionality of its content, Gattaca does serve to provoke some serious questions regarding the categorization of people according to their genetic makeup which in turn determines their physical and mental capabilities, a classification system that is similar to the disability/normalcy matrix used in our contemporary world.  Vincent is very much like most of us, a naturally born human being (that is, without the aid of technology) with physical and mental “defects” in the form of myopia, a heart condition, and a potential for developing mental disorders.  In the futuristic world of the film, he is categorically defective and disabled.  In our own world, however, Vincent appears to be a ‘normal’ human being.  He is independently mobile and he does not suffer from any medicalized “intellectual deficiency”.  To us, he may be considered a “regular” guy.  Yet, in the film, he faces genetic discrimination, as he is constantly outperformed by those around him who have been genetically engineered before birth to become “perfect bodies” who are capable of doing what we would consider “super-human feats”.  In order to fulfil his dream of becoming an astronaut, he borrows the superior genetic identity of Jerome, a former elite swimmer whose genetic profile is flawless.  However, his genetic superiority had taken a mental toll on him, when he only managed to win a silver medal at a high-profile competition.  Given his perceptibly sub par performance, he decided to throw himself in front of a car.  The accident left him wheelchair bound.  Nevertheless, he still retains a superior genetic profile, which Vincent is able to borrow in order to qualify as an astronaut.

– Vincent (left) appearing together with Jerome (right) who is seated on a wheelchair.

The appearance of Jerome, whom we would categorically term a disabled person, is striking on two levels.  On the one hand, he is supposed to be the flawless product of genetic engineering and despite his paralysis, he still possesses a genetic profile that is superior to Vincent’s.  On the other hand, because he has mobility issues, he has to rely on a prosthesis (i.e., the wheelchair) in order to move about.  In this sense, Jerome embodies the inherent contradiction between the ideology of genetic superiority and the material reality of his physical condition.  It is due to the gap between the symbolic reality of Jerome’s genetic profile and the materiality of his current state of being that Vincent is able to inherit the perceived superiority of his identity in order to enter the spaceflight facility.  In this way, Gattaca problematizes the notion of identity in relation to future bodies that are supposed to be genetically engineered to perfection, as both Vincent and Jerome exist on both the levels of the symbolic and the real.

The idea of “birth defects” foregrounded in the film is based on the “eugenic model of the human body” (Davis 20).  Eugenics is still alive and kicking.  As Lennard Davis points out,  eugenics is now carried out through prenatal screening and genetic engineering.  While prenatal screening methods such as amniotic testing has proven to be only somewhat effective, genetic engineering has only worked for plants and animals thus far.  There is, as the scientist establishment informs us, quite some way to go before the customization of human characteristics and capabilities can become a social reality.  Nevertheless, what Gattaca foreshadows is the possibility of creating designer babies “who will not contain, for example, genes for breast cancer or high blood pressure” (Davis 22).  But here is where we need to be careful about the potential for controlling a natural process such as sexual reproduction.  As the film portends, the possibilities that genetic engineering offers could also further obfuscate the social and cultural forces that inform the categorization of bodies into the dichotomous distinction between “valid” and “invalid”, “normal” and “disabled”.  Lennard Davis argues that we need a “new ethics of the body that acknowledges the advances of science but also acknowledges that we can’t simply go back to a relatively simple notion of identity” (22).  In order to resist any attempt to further essentialize the body by re-inscribing old cultural attitudes a prejudices onto it, Davis proposes that this “new ethics of the body begin with disability rather than end with it” (23).  Perhaps if we were to reconstitute the administration of social justice through the critical lens of disability studies might indeed serve to react against the prevailing social and cultural prejudices towards the disabled body.

However, to devise a new ethics that resists essentialism, Davis is mindful that disability needs to acknowledge the instability of its self-defintions in order to transcend the problems of identity politics.  As such, he contends that we need to question the clear distinction between the socially constructed “disability” and the impairment that is thought to be prior to it (23).  In this regard, I think Gattaca has served to foreground the problem with such a distinction, as Jerome’s physical impairment is not prior to his disability.  Rather, both are inscribed at the exact moment that he becomes disabled (that is, right after the car accident).  But because the social context in which he lives privileges genetic perfection over the actual ability of the person (i.e., it is a society that prefers to cite the codification of the body as a basis for the type of treatment that a particular body deserves), he is able to transfer the genetic identity of his body to Vincent, even though in reality, his body as code and his body as material do not coincide.  For this reason, I take Davis’ point that a new ethics of the body has to be rigorously debated, especially as we begin to imagine and identify future bodies.  However, we also need to ensure that this new ethics is not simply a rehashing of old (Eugenic) assumptions about the human body and its capabilities or a straightforward reiteration of an ableist ideology that reinforces the normalcy/disability matrix.  Transposing the ethical frameworks used to analyze our present social and cultural contexts into the future would almost certainly mean that the identification of future bodies will also be based upon the eugenic perception of the disabled body as ‘defective’ and ‘flawed’.

What Davis proposes is not a postmodern ethics, but rather, a dismodernist ethics that reacts to the localization of identity.  He explains that a dismodernist ethics consists of three areas that can be summarized as the caring of/for/about the body.  This form of ethics takes into consideration the impact of global economic forces and the biases of class in terms of the formation of cultural attitudes towards the body.  For Davis, the postmodern subject actually disguises the hegemony of normalcy by presupposing a self that is de-centred and localized but nonetheless complete and able.  It is still an ideal rendition of the body that is at once autonomous and physically and cognitively able.  As such, Davis argues that dismodernism advocates the “commonality of bodies within the notion of difference” (31).  For this reason, a dismodernist ethics aims to “create a new category based on the partial, incomplete subject whose realization is not autonomy and independence but dependency and interdependence” (Davis 30).  What this means is that a new ethics of the body (whether we prefer to call it dismodernist ethics or otherwise) should take into consideration the community within which human beings are situated.  Instead of imagining the human body as singular and independent, it would be more productive to think of the ways in which our bodies relate to one another.  While the contexts of these interactions may be localized, the ethical impulses that drive the relations between different bodies should be universal.  In other words, the new ethics need to be general enough to be applicable to a multitude of contexts, even though the way in which it is applied in each context would depend on its specific social and cultural conditions as well as the agents involved.

The material reality of the social situation cannot be discounted.  As Tobin Siebers explains it, the realist model – as opposed to the social constructionist model – holds the view that “there is no contradiction between identity politics and a certain moral universalism because both rely on the belief that human beings, regardless of culture or society, are capable of rational agency and therefore of cultural and political self-determination” (83).  However, I am inclined to argue that the assumption that human beings are rational beings who are capable of behaving in an ethically responsible manner needs to be robustly debated, especially given that moral universalism works best only when the complexities of specific local contexts are taken into account.  For instance, if we were to look at the case of Gattaca, Vincent’s borrowing of Jerome’s genetically superior identity for the advancement of his own career ambition is ethically contentious, as he is effectively exploiting the latter’s symbolic existence whereas in reality, he remains physically disabled.  Jerome’s disability is a material reality, despite the superiority of his genetic profile.  Vincent’s disability in the film, however, is based entirely on a symbolic projection of his deficiency by way of genetic determinism.

Analyzing the relationship between Vincent and Jerome from the perspective of moral universalism, we might be tempted to conclude that Vincent has committed an ethically contentious act by exploiting the identity of a person with a disability.  However, if we were to consider the specific social and cultural context in which their relationship takes place (i.e., the futuristic world where liberal eugenics and genetic discrimination are commonplace), then we might well arrive at a different conclusion.  Perhaps we could argue that given the inherent prejudice against Vincent’s genetic profile, a social barrier that effectively deprives him of any opportunity to become an astronaut, he has “no other choice” but to borrow the superior genetic identity of a person who happens to be physically disabled due to a car accident.  Yet, no matter how we may choose to analyze the ethical quality of his relationship with Jerome, what this relationship actually foregrounds is the dominance of an ableist ideology in the future world of the film.  Thus, in order to deconstruct this ‘problematic’, it is imperative that we should work towards the development of a new ethical perspective that takes into consideration the social and cultural forces that inform the identity politics surrounding future bodies.  However we choose to name it, this new ethical paradigm should be continually challenged and subjected to rigorous debate, so as to expose its contradictions and biases.

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Critical Disability Studies

 

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Resources on Disability Studies and Performance

Recently, I have been conducting preliminary research on the relationship between disability studies and performance, in preparation for a conference. Indeed, there has been a considerable amount of work done in this area.  However, most articles and books on disability and performance tend to focus on situating physical and mental disability within the performative phenomenon rather than the intersection between disability studies and performance. Studying the role of disability in performance only accounts for the way in which the presence of a performer with a disability might potentially alter the performative experience, as perceived by the performer and the audience. But an examination of the relationship between disability studies and performance would help to shed light on the extent to which the critical theorization of disability impacts upon performance practice as well as the scholarly field of performance studies. As such, I have located two major academic sources that I plan to draw upon in my writing.

The first source is Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance by Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, published in 2005 by the University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor).  This book is a collection of essays that explore the relationship between disability and performance through the critical lenses of disability studies and performance studies. Touted as the first collection on the topic, the book explores disability as performance across a wide range of meanings ranging from disability as performance in daily life, as metaphor in dramatic literature as well as the work of disabled performing artists. Most significantly, Sandahl and Auslander provide a comparative genealogy of disability studies and performance studies as academic disciplines and explore the points of intersection between them. This is especially useful, as it offers a new critical perspective with which to examine the implications (social, political, and cultural) of situating the disabled body within the realm of the performative phenomenon. In an artistic medium that emphasizes both the visual and the auditory (re)presentation of the body (through physical gestures, movement, and voice), it is important – from the perspectives of academia and social advocacy – to critically examine the intersection between disability and performance.

The second source that I plan to draw upon is a special issue on disability studies and performance studies that appeared in the 2008 edition of Text and Performance Quarterly (Vol 28, Issues 1-2). This collection of articles, creative works and reviews provides an overview of the topic by exploring the different ways in which disability is represented in performance as well as the artistic and political challenges of staging a show that involves actors with physical and cognitive disabilities. An article from the issue that struck a chord with me is Petra Kupper’s work on the relationship between autism and dance. Kupper approaches the topic from the perspective of a performance scholar/artist by offering an artistic interpretation of the staging process as well as a critical response to the representation of autism through dance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Bedlam. Autism has been represented in several Hollywood films, but the reception of these works by the medical establishment and the general public has been plagued by controversy. For the ‘untutored audience’, they may be led to assume that the representations of autism in these films are well-researched and therefore accurate. For the medical practitioners, however, they are often times inclined to deride these works as a distortion of what autism really is from the perspective of the scientifically ‘superior’ medical gaze. The intersection between disability and performance is fraught with ambiguity, as artists and medical professionals compete to offer their own interpretations of disability (both physical and cognitive) to the general public. Perhaps the onus is on the audience to read widely and think critically about disability as an individual embodied experience as well as a social phenomenon with real-life implications for anyone with a disability.

This special issue of Text and Performance Quarterly is available online at: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rtpq20/28/1-2

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Towards a Generative Understanding of Disability?

Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at theories and applications in relation to Disability Studies. But throughout the course of our inquiry into the bodily rhetorics that shape our understanding of disability, some important questions have emerged. For instance, how do we think of disability as something that is not only a material and individual experience located in the individual body, but also a social force? Where does this intersection happen? How can we understand disability in a generative sense – that is, to make it more meaningful? In order to move towards a generative understanding of disability, we need to first understand the relationship between persons with disabilities and nondisabled people. While many nondisabled people in society may view disability as an exclusively individual experience located in the individual body of the person with a disability, such an assumption is often frustrated by the numerous encounters that happen on a daily basis between persons with disabilities and so-called ‘able-bodied’ people. Even though the notion of disability has been part and parcel of our social consciousness for over three decades now, the presence of a person with a disability in our midst tend to generate a flurry of emotional responses ranging from anxiety to confusion. Simply put, a person with a visible disability tends to be the focus of attention whenever she or her enters the public sphere. Sometimes, her or his presence is the source of fascination. Other times, it is the object of scorn. Despite the material reality of the intersection between disability as an individual experience and its situation within a melange of social forces (be it in terms of legislation and policy, infrastructural accommodations or social attitudes), the presence of the disabled body in public spaces still seem to generate much debate and controversy.

The situation of the disabled body in public spaces is always already a social spectacle that plays into the desires of the passers-by who want to make sense of their encounter with the ‘deviant other’. As nondisabled people attempt to isolate the person with a disability from their quotidian lives by placing her or him into a ‘special’ category of existence (i.e., the ‘abnormal’ category of the disabled), the meaning of disability as a social phenomenon becomes increasingly obscure and degenerative. This inclination to segregate the disabled body from the normative ‘able-bodied’ populace is most blatantly articulated in the Paralympics that traditionally happens after the official Olympics are over. Once the international media spotlight has turned away from the high-performing ableist spectacle of the Olympic Games, the stage – which has now outlived its original purpose – is left for the assemblage of physically and cognitively disabled athletes from all over the world who perform their craft for a non-audience.

There is almost no media coverage on the Paralympics, no daily highlights bulletins or dedicated television programmes that discuss the performance of the Paralympic athletes. Perhaps the world simply doesn’t care. And why should we be surprised? The fact that the games are called the Paralympics (i.e., the olympics for the physically and mentally ‘para-lysed’) already suggests that it is somewhat inferior to the grandeur of the Olympic Games, where top athletes from all over the world push themselves to the utmost physical limits of the human body to bring glory to their nations. But where is the glory for the athletes who compete in the Paralympics? Yet, the athletes who wish to compete in the Paralympic Games are expected to subscribe to the ableist ideology of overcoming one’s inhibitions in order to achieve success. Take for example this recent advertisement by the Canadian Paralympic team.

– 2012 Advertising Poster by the Canadian Paralympic Committee.

The athlete depicted in this poster undergoes a progression from the initial acquisition of a disability due to an accident to the attainment of sporting success by being able to participate in a running competition. The rehabilitative rhetoric in this poster is most apparent, as everyday stage of his ‘progress’ from being a patient whose disability is medicalized by the paramedics and doctors who are treating him to his dependence on a prosthetic limb to help him compete as a runner is recorded like an Eisenstein montage. The essential message of this poster is about success through sheer hard work and determination in overcoming one’s physical inhibition. The athlete depicted in this poster did not allow his loss of a limb to deter him from running, let alone to compete as a runner at the Paralympic Games. Instead, he willingly participated in the rehabilitative regime mapped out by the medical establishment, where a team of doctors and sports therapist are on board the ‘journey of success’ to help transform his debilitating disability into a high-performing ability. But the fact that he has to depend on a prosthetic limb to achieve success only serves to reinforce the salience of his disability, which is a material reality that he has to live with on a daily basis. Indeed, the course of rehabilitation depicted in this poster is very much a visual performance of ableism, whereby the ability of the athlete to overcome his disability communicates a bodily rhetoric that is predicated upon the assumption that all disabled bodies are equally capable of overcoming their inhibitions and attain success.

But what constitutes success for the athletes who compete at the Paralympic Games? Is it necessary for them to win a gold medal in order to be considered successful? Would an athlete with a disability be deemed ‘useless’ if she or he were to lose in a competitive match? Perhaps there are two ways of looking at the Paralympic Games. On the one hand, it could be seen as an opportunity for athletes with disabilities to practise their sport in a competitive setting, much like their ‘able-bodied’ counterparts in the Olympic Games. On the other hand, the Paralympic Games could be viewed as just an inferior derivative of the Olympics, a scaled-down version in which the standards are re-calibrated to accommodate the abilities of the athletes. No matter which perspective we may be inclined to hold as most valid, it is clear that the Paralympic Games is the material embodiment of the intersection between disability as an individual experience in the individual body and disability as a social force that is intertwined with the cultural politics that inform our understanding of disability in society. Nevertheless, if we do want to work towards a generative understanding of disability, then perhaps we might want to start by examining the social, political, economic and cultural implications of representing disability and the disabled body in the ableist spectacle that is the Paralympic Games.

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The Embodied Rhetoric of Disability

Through the cultural conditioning of print, television, and filmic media in Western societies, we may have come to accept the dichotomy between “able-bodiedness” and “disability” as a natural occurrence that does not need to be subjected to further scrutiny and critique. As markers of identity, these terms have been reproduced in legal, political, medical, and literary narratives to distinguish between people who are deemed “physically abled” and people who are considered “physically disabled”. Indeed, it is important to note that the term “disability” also applies to persons with mental disabilities. Nevertheless, the categorisation of individuals by way of the disability/normalcy matrix depends on an exclusionary gesture that manifests itself in the formulation of social policy that impacts upon the livelihood of anyone who has a disability. Underlying this exclusionary gesture is an embodied rhetoric of disability that connects the clinically defined condition of a disability to its physical representation on the human body. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson explains it in Extraordinary Bodies, the physically disabled body is “constructed as the embodiment of corporeal insufficiency and deviance” and as such, it becomes “a repository for social anxieties about such troubling concerns as vulnerability, control, and identity” (6). Because physical disability is highly visible to those who encounter it, the physically disabled body then becomes the embodiment of our existential anxieties about human finitude. Persons with physical disabilities are deemed ‘incapable’ by society. For this reason, many of them are housed in special schools and nursing facilities. The institutional exclusion of persons with physical disabilities has serious social implications, as people who see themselves as ‘normal’ and possessing ‘normal bodies’ begin to project their anxieties onto the ‘abnormal body’ of someone who has a physical disability. For instance, when I worked with young children with down syndrome, many of my friends asked me if I had begun to worry about my own body. At first, I was puzzled by their concern. But as I pondered over the question, I came to realise that they were actually expressing their own fears about the possibility that their bodies were deficient and therefore ‘abnormal’.  “Do you feel normal being with those children,” they probed.  In our culture, we have been conditioned to think of disability as an embodied experience. The disability is not only a physical condition that a person with a physically disability has to live with, it is also subjected to rhetorical representation, which in turn shapes our perception of disability as inextricably wedded to the human body. We are not just talking about any human body, but a body that is constantly compared to its ideal source that is ‘able’ and ‘normal’. As such, the embodied rhetorics of disability provides a material reinforcement – albeit an ethically contentious one – to the narratives of deviance and corporeal insufficiency that have been constructed around the physically disabled body.

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Eugenics: Racialism, Nationalism, and the Originary Myth

When we think of eugenics, images of Nazi soldiers and concentration camps immediately spring to mind. For many decades, we have been cultivated by our culture – whether through books, television or film – to believe that only the Nazis practised eugenics and that it took place only during World War II. Many of us might be shocked to find out that the eugenics movement had gained traction in Britain and the United States way before the Germans actually took these ideas to the extreme (i.e., by incarcerating and executing masses of people deemed to be racially inferior to the dominant ‘Aryan’ race). A racialized biopolitics was already in existence in the United States in the early twentieth century and the rhetoric that reinforced it was inextricably linked to American nationalism, which is in turn related to the interplay of racism, xenophobia, and class bias. People were categorized according to their racial profile, beginning with the classification of recognizable phenotypes. Indeed, white people were placed at the top of the racial hierarchy, while blacks occupied the bottom rung. To consolidate the power of this spectrum of racialized identities, eugenicists began to work closely with legislators to formulate laws that would effectively legalized the exclusion of ‘inferior’ races from mainstream society. Consequently, a complex power play emerged, thereby resulting in the passing of the 1924 National Origins Act in the United States Congress.

As a young nation, America needed a ‘originary myth’ that could consolidate its national identity. To this end, eugenicists and government officials began to devise laws that presupposed a common origin for all citizens, an origin that is best characterized by the acronym WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). For those involved in the eugenics movement, being an American ‘naturally’ meant being a white person of Anglo-Saxon heritage and a protestant religious conviction. Anyone who falls outside of this category could not be considered a true citizen of the country. The American nation had to be purified and  free from non-white individuals. As such, ‘hygiene’ became an apt metaphor for a deeply racialized impulse to ‘clean up’ the society.

In order to justify this exclusionary definition of national identity, eugenicists turned to statistics and biology as means by which to substantiate their racialized ideas about the body. Peoples’ characters and behaviours were judged on the basis of the phenotypical traits (skin, hair, and eye colour) that they exhibited. As Nancy Osdover explains it, “eugenics gave racism and nationalism substance by bringing to bear the rationalizing technologies of the day” (6). By employing biology and statistics as rationalizing tools to explain the perceived moral depravity as well as intellectual and physical deficiencies of racialized outsiders, eugenicists in America were able to justify their call for the exclusion of non-white people from the functions of mainstream society. “Statistical data,” as Mitchell and Snyder observe, “provided critical momentum for the eugenics movement, because quantitative methods gave the best demonstration that something was going terribly awry with the country’s hereditary pool.” (76). Statistics gave the impression of facticity and it is this quality that provided eugenicists and government officials with a rationalizing tool with which to convince the public that the dominant racial group was going to be ‘contaminated’ by the influx of mentally and physical disabled people who were also racially different. Without paying heed to the socio-economic realities that defined the circumstances under which the non-white population have to endure, American eugenicists – all of whom were exclusively white – focused their attention on setting up a distinction between the normal white identity and the figure of the non-white ‘Other’.

This exclusionary impulse is not unique to America. In late-nineteenth-century England, phrenology was once such (pseudo)scientific method employed by eugenicists to explain the racial inferiority of dark-skinned people as compared to the white English people. During the apartheid era in South Africa, scientists working for the government correlated the biological traits of the black population to statistical data on crime in order to lend credence to the sustained racial segregation that lasted for many decades. In America, such biological determinism became the bedrock on which restrictive immigration policies were formulated and one of these laws was the Chinese Exclusion Law. Even though the Chinese had worked to build the transcontinental railway in the United States, they were not legally permitted to settle down as citizens of the country for which they toiled. As a racial group that appeared to be visually different from the dominant white population, the Chinese were – like other ‘inferior’ racial groups – characterized as ‘alien defectives’. They were perceived by white Americans as lacking in physical and mental attributes, a deficit that threatened the purity of the American identity. In reaction to this perceived threat, eugenicists sought to “re-create a nation that never was and to distill an American phenotype” (7). This led to the creation of a originary myth, a fictive account of ethnic evolution in what Benedict Anderson calls “an imagined community”. The logic of this national identity resides in the conflation of race and nationality. Being white was the same thing as being an American and vice versa. As such, the originary myth is selective in its view of history, with much (if not all) emphasis placed on the founding of the American nation by white settlers.

With the originary myth in place, eugenicists armed themselves with a combination of rationalizing tools in the form of biology and statistics, as they advanced their political agenda on a national basis by lobbying legislators to formulate racialized policies that discriminating the non-white population in terms of race and class. In order to mount an effective ‘cleansing’ operation that would supposedly restore the racial hygiene of the country, American eugenicists put forth the idea that natural selection had all but ceased in the ‘civilized’ world (Osdover 10). This allowed them to argue that the non-white races were still evolving and therefore, they should be seen as intellectually and physically deficient in relation to the fully developed white population. Carrying out this idea in practical terms, eugenicists promoted the administration IQ tests to immigrants, so as to determine their level of literacy. The use of IQ tests as a rationalizing tool invokes an obvious class bias, as a poor person who has been deprived of educational resources would probably not fare as well on these tests as a rich person who received a prestigious college education. However, from the perspective of eugenics, literacy is a measure of innate mental and intellectual deficiencies. It is this assumption of an innate disability in the immigrant that paved the way for the deployment of such misleading terms as “feeble-minded defectives” in the characterization of immigrants to the United States.

The semantic ambiguity surrounding the term “feeble-minded defectives” allows it to become a subject of abuse. The U.S. Public Health Service routinely misused the term to designate groups of immigrants as mentally ‘unfit’ and therefore, not admissible into the United States. Such an arbitrary method of determining admissibility had grave consequences for immigrants who travelled with their entire families, as one or more members could be deported on the basis of a perceived mental deficiency, thereby splitting up the family unit. Because the term “feeble-minded deficiency” seems somewhat abstract, immigrant officials were able to deploy it readily on anyone by making fallacious observations about a person’s mental health. The main argument used to justify the in-admissibility of an immigrant deemed mentally ‘unfit’ revolves around the presumption that he or she would become a public charge. As such, a pre-emptive measure was needed to prevent anyone who may potentially become a public charge from entering the country.

Such an exclusionary gesture towards people with mental as well as physical disabilities still persist in the immigration practices of both the United States and Canada. Immigrants who wish to enter these countries have to undergo a medical evaluation in their home country before applying for a visa. The moving of immigration processing centres from Ellis Island in the U.S. and Pier 21 in Canada to the countries from which immigrants originate allowed the governments of both countries the privilege of foresight, as they can now determine the suitability of immigrants for entrance into these two countries, even before the immigrants have made their visa applications. Moreover, the costs of these medical examinations are borne by the applicant, thus allowing the U.S. as well as the Canadian government to secure a guaranteed amount of revenue without the pressure of accountability. As immigrants, they are not protected under the human rights laws in the U.S. and Canada. This is the reason why visa applicants to these two countries are not permitted to appeal the decision made by the visa officer as well as the result of the medical examination conducted by a physician appointed by the U.S. and Canadian governments.

The incentive for admitting immigrants has always been economical. Immigrants are expected to contribute to the nation’s economy by working in industries that suffer from an acute lack of human resource (i.e., in the health, engineering, and scientific sectors). In other words, the bodies of these immigrants are marked as digits, the sum of which constitutes the entire machinery of the American and Canadian economies. By classing certain bodies as mentally and physically deficient, these governments may be serving the interests of their own countries by saving money on the provision of medical care to an immigrant with a disability. However, the repercussions of such a medical classification might have an adverse impact on the lives of these immigrants in their country of origin, especially in terms of future employability. It appears that there is a paucity of research on this area at the moment, as much emphasis has been placed on the study of disability among local and immigrant population in a particular society. In order to better understand the attitude of the U.S. and Canadian governments towards disability (and also to move beyond the confines of current legislation regarding disability in both countries), I think it is important to examine the social and economic challenges faced by potential immigrants who have been classified as persons with disabilities and therefore denied a visa to emigrate to the U.S. and Canada. How do these individuals cope in their country of origin? What lessons can be drawn from their experiences, especially in terms of the relationship between immigration policy and the framing of disability as an exclusionary device?

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Compulsory Able-Bodiedness

In examining the idea of ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’, Robert McRuer draws upon queer studies’ critical interrogation of “heterosexuality’s supposed invisibility,” an assumption that consolidated the position of heterosexuality as the norm in twentieth century western society. Even in the early twenty-first century, heterosexual normalcy continues to be disembodied and invisible. It is taken as a given, a natural state of affairs, such that any sign of deviance from this norm might be deemed ‘queer’ and ‘dysfunctional’. Homosexuality, however, is embodied and it allows for the imposition of a disability frame onto the homosexual person. It was only thirty years ago that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. But the battle against sexual discrimination in the form of compulsory heterosexuality is far from over, as the connection between heterosexuality and able-bodied identity continues to permeate the consciousness of contemporary society.

According to McRuer, “able-bodiedness, even more than heterosexuality, still largely masquerades as a nonidentity, as the natural order of things” (1). When people think of normality, they are most likely thinking in the able-bodied sense of it. To be normal is to be able-bodied and “to be able-bodied is to be ‘free from physical disability,’ just as to be heterosexual is to be ‘the opposite of homosexual’ (McRuer 8). Such a definition of able-bodied existence is based on a dichotomy that allows it to be categorically defined against the opposite state of being ‘disabled’. However, what underlies this dichotomy between able-bodiedness and disability is the influence of industrial capitalism, which requires able-bodied people to service the demands of production. In other words, the definition of able-bodiedness as a norm is inextricably linked to capital, as “being able-bodied means being capable of the normal physical exertions required in a particular system of labour” (McRuer 8). As a result, able-bodied identity (however tenuously defined) is forever wedded to industrial capitalism, whereby the production value of the body is marked by its capacity for what is considered normal physical assertions.

Compulsory able-bodiedness is a system that disciplines bodies in a society by forcing them to conform to a standard that is at once invisible and disembodied. Because able-bodied identity is very much a transparent non-identity, any deviation from this norm could easily be deemed a ‘disability’, in the same way that homosexuality is considered a deviant and embodied state of being in relation to heterosexuality as the socially accepted norm. This dichotomous relationship between compulsory able-bodiedness and disability features prominently in the way in which military forces all over the world classify their recruits for active service. Military forces tend to possess an explicit aversion towards any form of disability, as only able-bodied soldiers are ever allowed to join the forces. But this has less to do with combat effectiveness than economic reasons. Having able-bodied soldiers would reduce the cost of medical support and insurance coverage. Armies are averse to risks and they will do whatever it takes to ensure that no one who is deemed ‘disabled’ will be allowed to join the forces. To this end, the military uses a categorization system that determines the physical employment status of potential recruits – Grade A for the fittest candidates and Grade C for the least. In addition to this physical assessment, candidates are made to undergo psychological tests in order to determine the state of their mental health. Finally, they are interviewed by psychological professionals to establish their sexual orientation.

In some countries where conscription is mandatory, potential recruits with physical and mental disabilities are officially classified as ‘unfit’, whereas those who identify themselves as homosexuals are often made to sign statutory declarations that would effectively prevent them from legally getting married. Even though the DSM no longer classifies homosexuality as disability, attempts at disciplining the ‘deviant body’ persist and this is most evident in the context of the military. Not only are potential recruits assessed based on their physical and mental health, their sexual orientation plays a major role in determining their ability to serve as soldiers. Indeed, the connection between heterosexuality and able-bodiedness is enmeshed in the identity politics surrounding disability, as not only are soldiers expected to be able-bodied and NOT deemed physically or mentally disabled, they are also expected to be heterosexual and NOT homosexual. However, in light of the secrecy that shrouds most military establishments around the world, it would be difficult to critically address the discriminatory practices of the armed forces towards people with disabilities or anyone whose body is considered “deviant”.

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