Bitchin’ Table: Abelism

I’m willing to bet that (almost?) all of you have seen this sign in some public place (insert handicapped pic).  This week’s Bitchin’ Table features parklena and eszenyme as they discuss issues concerning disability and sexuality.
parklena: hey there eszenyme! I just came back from a really interesting class and I think you’d be really intrigued by the subject.

eszenyme: Oh, cool.  What were you talking about?

parklena: Well, we were discussing the whole concept of women as very sexual beings but then the subject of disability came up. Apparently, disabled women aren’t really women, just disabled. Isn’t that just silly?

eszenyme: Yeah.  I think that topic is really interesting.  When some of the bloggers were presenting at an SCOM conference at George Mason, we got to see a fascinating closing speech by Merri Lisa Johnson.  Her speech was excerpts from the book Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, which is a memoir/stream of consciousness piece she wrote about her experiences with borderline personality disorder.  I think the most interesting part of her discussion was hearing her talk about the various labels she has imposed on her (woman, crazy, BPD, professor, lesbian, etc.).
parklena:Labels are such a hassle. People just can’t see past them. It’s like everyone needs to be put into some kind of category and they can’t intersect. We read about a woman who was in a wheelchair and people never saw her as sexual. The idea of her having sex seemed to perturb a lot of people. This just seems ridiculous because being disabled doesn’t mean she’s not human.eszenyme:  To a degree, I can understand being curious about how “disabled” people perform certain activities.  I’ll admit that I find it interesting.  But, for me at least, I don’t know if that is an outcome of my privilege or mere curiosity.  I feel like my interest in the subject parallels my interest in how anyone does something differently than me.  But I do see the tension there and I do find it problematic that people would be disturbed by her engaging in “normative” behaviors.

parklena: I can’t speak for disabled women, since I’m personally not disabled, but I think I’d rather people ask me about it instead of assuming that my sexuality is nonexistent. Curiosity is one thing but then there’s the complete disregard for these women. I’ve seen people who are appalled at disabled women flaunting their sexuality when it is expected from “normal” people. Ynestra King, a feminist philosopher and ecofeminist, writes about her experiences and it’s a great read that really taught me a lot.

eszenyme: I definitely think there are a lot of questions that need to be further explored, not only for disabled women and sexuality, but the idea of “disabled women.”  This discussion reminds me of those signs on bathrooms that look like this:

I know lots of people who already have issues with male/female labels for restrooms.  But what about “handicapped”/male/female restrooms.  Are disabled people somehow not allowed to identify with a gender if they want to?

parklena: Yes, I’ve run into those signs before. It’s like I mentioned before – people with disabilities are defined only by that one thing. Gender, sexuality, etc. does not matter. Everyone should be viewed in equal terms but we let labels/stereotypes/gender roles define the way we see life and people. We need to learn to see past them.

eszenyme: I agree.  The difficult part is understanding this issue as a society and actually producing change.  I think that starts with our language.  The sooner we eliminate phrases like, “that’s retarded” or “that’s lame,” the sooner we can deconstruct abelism.

parklena: A good plan, for sure. I know I’ll be reevaluating the way I think. So everyone else should get started and really reevaluate the way we see others. A homework assignment for the weekend then?

eszenyme:  Haha.  I don’t know about homework.  That makes it sound like we are being forced to change.  But, it’s definitely a good idea to start thinking about it now.

parklena: Maybe you’re right. Haha.

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