Thursday, 28 July 2016

Ableism: disability as inherently deviant

Two days ago, on the 26th of July 2016, a man in Japan – I refuse to acknowledge his name – killed 19 people and left 26 others injured in a deliberate knife attack (McCurry 2016). It rated little mention in the media, no great outrage on social media. There was no mention of the word “terrorist” or “hate crime”. There was, in fact, hardly any outrage. Because the people he so brutally attacked were not people at a concert or fireworks. They were not shoppers in a local mall. They were not people in a restaurant or movie theatre. They were residents of an institution for people with disability. And that, you see, makes all the difference.
This man in Japan had made it very clear he intended to do this. He wrote a letter to his government outlining his plan. He was interned into a mental health facility for 12 days and released. And then carried out his plan.
His plan, he wrote in his letter to the government was to create ‘a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanized, with an agreement from the guardians because ‘the disabled should all disappear”.
Why does society hate and despise disabled people so much?! How can it be that people with disability (PwD) are so easily discriminated against, forgotten, deliberately ignored, made fun of, stereotyped, dismissed?
In order to understand, I think we need to look at two concepts: deviance, and ableism.
Deviance is any rule or norm breaking behaviour subject to negative social sanctions; and thus deviants are non-conformists who transgress a community’s normative standards.
Deviance of course, only exists in opposition to “normal.” The difficulty with the term “normal” is illustrated by its very definition – it refers to both that what is the majority, the average or standard, and that what is as it ought to be. the first meaning is rational and scientific, what is “normal” and natural (such as the movement of the planets) is what conforms to the laws of nature. The second meaning of “normal” implies an evaluation and judgement (the normative).
So what is “normal”? Normal is a concept developed as part of industrialisation in the 19th Century. This economic and political revolution shifted authority - including legal authority - from local rulers to the authority of the nation state and the power of the capitalist class. Modernisation ordered social life around the idea of the “normal”, a concept visualised in the Bell Curve. The French statistician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1847) was vital in the construction of the notion of l’homme moyen (the average, or normal man). A hierarchy was established based on the median as an ideal, which soon became the measure of progress (Davis 199167). This was applied to both the body, creating the able body and the disabled body. The Intelligence Quotient (IQ) emerged as a handy measure to show intellectual superiority on the one hand and “backwardness” on the other (Davis 1997:17).

In the 1870s, Darwin’s biological concepts of “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” were applied to the social world. Eugenics extended this idea further to selectively improve the quality of the human race based on the physical and social traits preferred by society at the time. Eugenics was conceptualized by English naturalist and mathematician Francis Galton (1822-1911) and described as “the science of improvement of the human race by better breeding” (quoted in Friedlander 1995:4).
Social Darwinism and eugenics not only reinforced existing stereotypes of the disabled but also provided a scientific and normative framework for these prejudices. Since the “normal” implies the “abnormal” disability became inherently connected, if not simply equated, with deviance. PwD were viewed at best with morbid fascination and disdain - hence their display at freak shows (see Bogdan 1988) – and at worst with deviant and criminal behaviour. Their digression from the median made it easy for all “undesirables” such as criminals, alcoholics, the poor and PwD to be grouped together in an underclass of “paupers”.
In 17th and 18th Century Europe and America ‘there was little attempt to distinguish between a “criminal” and a “lunatic” population’ (Garton 1982:89). Criminality was linked to moral deprivation and seen as a contagious disease to be regulated by the State. Deemed inefficient and unproductive in industrialised society, the poor and uneducated were lumped together with those with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, physical impairments and alcoholics as “feebleminded” (Winzer 1997; Garton 1982). The aim was to contain them in institutions and subject them to controls on their procreation, mainly via forced sterilization (Davis 1997; Garton 1982). Only in the 19th Century was a distinction made between criminals and PwD, and separate institutions were established in the form of penal institutions and “lunatic asylums”.
In the United States so called “Ugly Laws” were enacted that made it illegal for people with “unsightly” or “disfiguring” disabilities to appear in public (Schweik 2010). Chicago’s Municipal Code Section #36034 (1881), which was not repealed until 1974, stated:
“No person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly, disgusting or improper is to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than fifty dollars for each offense.”
The perception of the disabled as deviant was taken to its extreme by the Nazi regime in Germany and its systematic eradication of PwD though the Aktion T4 euthanasia program, where the Nazis honed their procedures later used in the concentration camp regime. PwD were deemed “degenerates” who were “lebensunwert” (considered unworthy of life). Their very existence was deemed a threat to a healthy, normal society, and PwD thus needed to be eliminated for the health and survival of the volk (Friedlander 1995; Evans 2004). This thinking is so internalized as a social norm that it permeates into popular culture – think about how many literary works portray villains as one legged, one-eyed or hunchbacks. A currently popular Hollywood movie features a man with a spinal injury who wants to commit assisted suicide because his life in a wheelchair is a life not worth living.
While impairments have always existed, a rational, scientific approach allowed deviance to be pathologised and emerging classification of “normal” and “not-normal”, “abnormal”, and, “deviants”, “idiots”, “degenerates” etc. Of course, all binary oppositions are inherently interdependent since each side of the dichotomy derives its meaning from the contrasting relationship with the other.
Thus, society needs PwD’s “abnormality” to be the mirror for their “normality” in a never-ending dance between pity and contempt as the distinguishing factor.
And this brings us to the concept of ableism.
Ableism is ‘an attitude that devalues or differentiates disability though the valuation of able-bodiedness equalled to normalcy’ (Campbell 2009:5). Ableism is a ‘network of beliefs, processes and practices that is projected as the perfect species –typical and therefore essentially and fully human. Disability then, is cast as a diminished state of being human (Campbell 2001:44). Thus, ableism contains the ‘belief that impairment or disability is inherently negative and, where possible, should be ameliorated, cured, or eliminated” (Campbell 2009:5).
Today, despite an increased acceptance of greater human diversity thanks to social movements centred around civil and human rights, PwD are still struggling with perceptions of abnormality and deviance. When a serious crime is committed, popular media immediately defines the perpetrator as “mental” or “psycho”. Tabloid media endlessly regurgitates the image of the disabled dole bludger scrounging off the Aussie battler’s hard word- thus not only “othering” but also denigrating PwD.
Eugenics has made somewhat of a comeback, again coated in a mantle of scientific validation around genetic discoveries. Many medical institutes are actively searching for foetal genetic tests to eradicate disability - and therefore people with disability. Pre-birth tests aim to screen for known disabilities so they can be “terminated” before birth. Disabled women and girls, especially those with intellectual disability, are still subjected to sterilisations without their consent. There is still debate around the growth attenuation (stunting growth) of children with disability, to keep them small and easier to care for, even though it raises serious ethical and human rights questions. While debate rages on, one thing is for certain – it wouldn’t even be contemplated for non-disabled children. As Findlay points out it “perpetuates the infantilisation and low expectation of people with disabilities” and “reinforces the idea that people with severe disabilities shouldn’t be afforded the growth and development opportunities, and the choice and dignity that non-disabled people are privileged to have.”

Bogdan Robert, 1988, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, Chicago University Press.
Campbell, Fiona Kumary, 2001, Inciting legal fictions: Disability’s date with onthology and the ableist body of the law, Griffith Law Review 10: 42-62.
Campbell, Fiona Kumary, 2009, Contours of Ableism – The Production of Disability and Ableism, Palgrave Macmillan.
Cunneen Chris, Fraser, David, and Tomsen, Stephen (eds.), 1997, Faces of Hate: Hate Crime in Australia, Hawkins Press.
Davis, Lennard, 1997, Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century in Davies, Lennard (ed.) The Disability Studies Reader, Routledge_ 9-28.
Evans, Susan, 2004, Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities, Ivan Dee.
Findlay, Carly, 2016, Comment: Growth attenutuation infantilises people with disability, <htpp://>.
Friedlander Henry 1995, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: from Euthanasia to the Final Solution, Chapel Hill.
Garton, Stephen, 1982, ‘Bad or Mad? Developments in incarceration in NSW 1880-1920’. pp. 89-110 in Sydney Labour History Group, What Rough Beast? The State and Social Order in Australian History. Sydney: The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History and George Allen & Unwin.
McCurry, Justin, 2016, ‘Japan knife attack: stabbing at care centre leaves 19 dead’ The Guardian, Tuesday 26July 2016, <>.
Schweik, Susan, 2010, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, NYU Press.

Winzer, Margaret, 1997, Disability and Society before the Eighteenth the Century – Dread and Despair, in Davies, Lennard, (ed.) The Disability Studies Reader, Routledge: 75-109.

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