Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Ism Through a Prism

For Vegankid's Blog Against Sexism Day.

Both sexism and disablism are based on the same faulty mechanism; the confusion between biological fact and social construct. Sex is a fact. Impairment is a fact. But gender and disability are both garments that society has sewn for us. Both constitute a vast set of assumptions and expectations based on a relatively superficial matter, whether it is your particular combination of X and Y chromosomes, or your capacity to walk, see, hear etc as judged against a fictional norm.

The victims of sexism and disablism have also suffered far less from any kind of violent oppression as from the assumption that other people know what is best for us. Other people know what is best for our bodies, even what is best for our souls, about to how and to what extent we should be educated. Other people know how best we might best spend our time on Earth. We are rarely hated or feared until we step out of line, but such lines, subtle and unspoken as they are (now more than ever), are our subjugation.

Impairment often poses a direct challenge to gender identity and thus sexism increases the burden of disablism for both men and women. I recall a discussion among a group of people with my particular condition where the question arose as to whether men or women suffered most severely, in social terms, from having this illness. The men argued that the stigma of financial dependence and unemployment was far greater for them. That fatigue and enforced inactivity was emasculating; they were expected to be strong and active, not weak and passive.

Chronic pain and loss were also very difficult to deal with as a man. Men were allowed to show their feelings, but the sanctioned releases were exhausting; you go to a football match, stand and shout for ninety minutes, you participate in sport to get it out of your system or you flood your system with alcohol or recreational drugs. None of which does a great deal of harm if you are in otherwise good health and you just need a single discharge of emotion.

When your life has undergone significant change and you are suffering on a daily basis, you need to talk about it. The men felt that not only did they have difficulty with this, but their male friends tended to drop off very quickly when confronted with the new situation. It wasn't that the disabled men felt that didn't have the words or that their friends didn't have the capacity to listen, but the culture had made both parties feel entirely compromised by the prospect of any discussion. That is was going soft; giving up a bit of their masculinity.

The women argued that whilst they suffered from lack of sympathy from others over their unemployment – as if it just didn’t matter – there was so much other work that they were expected to do no matter what. This was especially the case when they had children; friends, relatives and others would be vocal in their disapproval if it wasn’t Mummy picking the child up from school, if it wasn’t Mummy cooking the dinner or if poor useless Daddy had to flail about ironing his own shirts. As if motherly and marital love consisted of a set of practical tasks and to decline from these tasks meant a failure as a woman.

Women also felt that their emotional response to illness was far more likely to receive a medical label and indeed, that the very physical nature of their condition was likely to be questioned if they ever came across as even slightly hysterical. This certainly seemed to be the case; out of the men who had gone through lengthy diagnostic processes, there were far more physical tests and scans than with their female counterparts, who seemed to need to demonstrate perfect mental health before any physical investigation would take place.

I could go on and this was just one group of people who had a particular condition. However, there is a theme running through these experiences which I think must apply to most conditions and impairments; being disabled means that you are regarded as a little less of a man or a little less of a woman.

Egalitarianism would seek to reduce the impact of rigid gender constructs on people’s lives, so this might not seem such a bad thing. Unfortunately, the effects of being a little less of a man or a woman in a sexist society is not to free you from the constraints of gender, but to reduce your value as an individual. Gender remains so important in our lives that if you do not fulfil your assigned gender role, you are a little less of a person.

Of course, disabled people are thought of as being a little less in many and various ways, but our compromised gender identity is a major contributing factor.

It is therefore imperative that disabled people are active in the fight against sexism, not just because we are right-on liberals who believe in fair play, but because sexism is part of our problem.

As long as we have assumptions and expectations about our roles, desires, strengths and weaknesses placed on us because of a physical and biological status that we all have (i.e maleness or femaleness), an altered physical or biological status (i.e impairment) is going to impact on those assumptions and expectations. And thus people with impairments will continue to be treated differently because of them.

Does that make any sense to anyone?


dotandcarryone said...

Hello, Goldfish! I have been lurking, enjoying your posts. I hope you don't mind this comment.

I think you have missed out another important -ism from your list: ageism. This reacts with the other two to produce even more victims.

People over middle age often suffer physical and mental impairments - stroke, arthritis, degenerating vision and hearing - but these are not considered, either by themselves or by Society, to be "disabilities" which need to be addressed so that the individual can continue to live a full life. We are just expected to put up with things. Younger people even get insulted by being compared to us.

Older pople don't help themselves either; they tend to accept and endure. All the progress that has been made in disabled rights over the last generation has been made by the efforts of young activists who were not prepared to accept being marginalised.

In one of Joanna Trollope's books, a daughter asks a mother why she is leaving a dead marriage at age sixty-nine: the mother replies: "Why do you assume that life is less valuable to me at sixty-nine than it is to you at thirty-nine? It'e more valuable, because there's less of it left." (excuse slight paraphrase).

Please forgive long post: this is something I feel strongly about.

The Goldfish said...

Hi Dotandcarryone,

Thanks for your comment - everyone welcome! And yes, you are quite right that agism is interconnected with both disablism and sexism.

Whilst we have fought to maximise the financial and social independance for younger disabled people (and perhaps most especially for very young disabled people in their teens and twenties, we take a very paternalistic attitude towards older people, regardless of their capacity to make decisions for themselves.

It is part of this kind of post-Industrial attitude that if you're not in work, you're not much use. Which is tragic for every one of us.

I am optimistic that this is changing. I think that both disabled and non-disabled people entering or heading towards retirement now have quite a different attitude. And whilst my great-grandmother caused an absolute scandal when she remarried in her seventies, if either of my parents are widowed in their sixties (I hope they'll live forever, of course) then I would absolutely expect them to have other relationships.

I have even been stopped by one older lady admiring my wheelchair who declared that she was looking forward to getting one herself! A while ago an older person might have become "housebound" rather than use a wheelchair.

Hmm, yes, certainly another important piece of the puzzle; thanks for bringing this up. :-)

dotandcarryone said...

Hi Goldfish, sadly, I think that the changing attitudes towards the older disabled people is linked to your comment about post-industrial attitudes! As older people have to stay in work, and thus have more than peanuts for disposable income, it becomes essential for society to take them seriously. And look after their ailments and impairments, which become of economic, not just personal importance.

Not due to any change of hearts and minds, Im afraid!

Marcelle Proust said...

Makes perfect sense. And I linked to it. Thanks.