excerpt from “Stolen Bodies, Reclaimed Bodies”

(from a lecture given at Michigan State University for the symposium “Border Crossings,” 2004)

small square of portrait of Eli by Riva Lehrer, a hand grasping a shirt

….Sometimes we who are activists and thinkers forget about our bodies, ignore our bodies, or reframe our bodies to fit our theories and political strategies. For several decades now, activists in a variety of social change movements, ranging from black civil rights to women’s liberation, from disability rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans liberation, have said repeatedly that the problems faced by any marginalized group of people lie, not in their bodies, but in the oppression they face. But in defining the external, collective, material nature of social injustice as separate from the body, we have sometimes ended up sidelining the profound relationships that connect our bodies with who we are and how we experience oppression.

Disentangling the body from the problems of social injustice has served the disability rights movement well. The dominant paradigms of disability—the medical, charity, supercrip, and moral models—all turn disability into problems faced by individual people, locate those problems in our bodies, and define those bodies as wrong. The medical model insists on disability as a disease or condition that is curable and/or treatable. The charity model declares disability to be a tragedy, a misfortune, that must be tempered or erased by generous giving. The supercrip model frames disability as a challenge to overcome and disabled people as superheroes just for living our daily lives. The moral model transforms disability into a sign of moral weakness.

Of course, these differing models intersect and overlap. Take, for instance, Jerry Lewis and his Labor Day telethon. He raises money by playing to pity and promising to find a cure. This money funds, not wheelchairs, ramps, and lift bars, not lawyers to file disability discrimination lawsuits, but research for a cure, for a repair of bodies seen as broken, for an end to disability. Lewis is strategically playing the cards of the medical model and the charity model. Or think about Christopher Reeve as he speaks out about the need to find a cure for spinal cord injuries and insists on his ability to overcome quadriplegia, going so far as to air a Super Bowl ad, where, through computer-generated imagery, he is shown actually getting up out of his wheelchair and walking across a stage. Reeve creates himself as a supercrip, the superhero now playing himself offscreen, and is at the same time enmeshed in the medical model. Or consider mothers with hereditary disabilities, who face significant disapproval for their decisions to have children and immense pressure to undergo various medical tests and to consider abortion if their fetuses appear to be disabled. They are caught in a vise-grip between the moral model and medical model. Whatever the permutations, these models unambiguously define disability and disabled bodies as wrong and bad.

In resistance to this, the disability rights movement has created a new model of disability, one that places emphasis on how the world treats disabled people: Disability, not defined by our bodies, but rather by the material and social conditions of ableism; not by the need to use a wheelchair, but rather by the stairs that have no accompanying ramp or elevator. Disability activists fiercely declare that it’s not our bodies that need curing. Rather, it is ableism—disability oppression, as reflected in high unemployment rates, lack of access, gawking, substandard education, being forced to live in nursing homes and back rooms, being seen as childlike and asexual—that needs changing.

Likewise, LGBT liberation struggles have disentangled queer bodies from the problems of homophobia, heterosexism, and transphobia. We have been able to say that being lesbian, gay, or bisexual isn’t a matter to be cured or diagnosed, that the problem doesn’t lie with our sexual and romantic desires but in the systems that define those desires as perverse and immoral, criminal and in need of eradication. Trans activists frame the oppression of transsexual, transgendered, and genderqueer peoples as the problem, not how each of us carries our gender—whether it matches the assumptions of the gender binary or not, whether it conforms to the sex assigned to us at birth or not, whether we choose to use medical technology to change our bodies or not.

Locating the problems of social injustice in the world, rather than in our bodies, has been key to naming oppression. It has been powerful for marginalized peoples to say, “Leave our bodies alone. Stop justifying and explaining your oppressive crap by measuring, comparing, judging, blaming, creating theories about our bodies.” But at the same time, we must not forget that our bodies are still part of the equation, that paired with the external forces of oppression are the incredibly internal, body-centered experiences of who we are and how we live with oppression. To write about the body means paying attention to these experiences….

copyright 2000, Eli Clare