The term disability refers to a wide range of bodymind differences that have accrued a variety of social meanings over time, often with negative associations. I use the term bodymind here after Margaret Price, who defines it as a materialist feminist disability studies concept referring to “the imbrication (not just the combination) of the entities usually called ‘body’ and ‘mind’” (2015, 270). The term bodymind highlights how “mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each other” (269), collectively impacting our experiences of ourselves and the world. Discussions of disability include conditions that are physical (like paralysis or amputation), sensory (like blindness or deafness), psychiatric (like depression or schizophrenia), cognitive/intellectual (like Down’s syndrome or autism), and chronic (illnesses and diseases like fibromyalgia or diabetes). Since the early 1990s, however, scholars in disability studies have researched disability as a socially constructed category that cannot be wholly understood through moral or medical models that frame it as a problem to be solved. While disability conceptually overlaps with studies of medicine and health, disability is not the same as health. In disability studies, disability is a social and political category describing bodyminds that depart from the bodily, mental, and/or behavioral norms of a society. Scholars in the field are invested in discovering the history and culture of disabled people as well as how the category of disability has developed and changed over time. Discrimination based on disability is referred to as ableism, while benefits within the (dis)ability system are referred to as ability privilege or able-body/able-mind privilege. Some scholars use terms like (dis)ability, ability/disability, and dis/ability to additionally refer to the overarching social system that determines how bodymind differences are valued or devalued to distinguish this concept from the word disability alone; (dis)ability, ability/disability, and dis/ability, therefore, operate similarly to concepts like gender, race, or sexuality, which also refer to larger systems of privilege and marginalization (Schalk 2018; Garland-Thomson 2002; Goodley 2014). This entry will use (dis)ability to describe the larger social system and disability and ability to describe, respectively, the marginalized and privileged positions within the (dis)ability system.
Disability studies as a field was largely inspired by work in women’s studies, ethnic studies, and LBGTQ studies in much the same way that the disability rights movement took inspiration from the feminist, civil rights, and gay rights movements. It makes sense, therefore, that the field remains in close contact and conversation with gender and sexuality studies today. When scholars combine theories and methods from these two fields, the work is typically referred to as feminist disability studies, a term coined by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and/or crip theory, a term coined by Robert McRuer (Garland-Thomson 2005; McRuer 2006; see also Wendell 1996; Smith and Hutchinson 2004; K. Hall 2011; Kafer 2013). Feminist disability studies generally explores the relationship between gender and disability, particularly through lived experiences and cultural representation, as well as how feminist movements and scholarship have either perpetuated or resisted ableism within their work. Crip theory, on the other hand, takes its inspiration from queer theory and moves away from disability identity politics (as queer theory moves from gay and lesbian identity politics) to critique and understand the creation of the stigmatized category itself. Crip theory, therefore, pushes the edges of disability studies to include more engagement with chronic illnesses and diseases, including psychiatric ones, which were often marginalized or ignored in early disability studies that focused more on physical and sensory disabilities (Kafer 2013, 36, 18).
First and foremost, feminist disability studies and crip theory teach us that (dis)ability matters to the field of gender and sexuality studies because it is a social system that intersects with gender and sexuality. Any intersectional approach to research in gender and sexuality studies, therefore, ought to consider how disability impacts and shapes experiences of gender and sexuality. For instance, while women, especially women of color, have frequently combatted hypersexualization, disabled women are more likely to be desexualized, infantilized, and denied sexual autonomy. Any discussion of the hypersexualization of women, therefore, would benefit from an exploration of how disability impacts that experience for individual women or for women characters in media. To take another example, queer people have historically found community and sexual partners in public spaces like bars, bathhouses, and parks, but when such public spaces are inaccessible for people with disabilities due to stairs, lack of seating, or dim lighting, how do disabled queer people find community and sexual partners? Considering how disability impacts our experiences of gender and sexuality, such as how some marginalized community spaces remain inaccessible to disabled people in that community, is a direct, important way that disability can be incorporated into scholarship in the field.
Researching disability, however, is not exclusively about studying disabled people—though this is still central and important to disability studies. In an essay on the field, Julie Avril Minich writes that “the methodology of disability studies… involves scrutinizing not bodily or mental impairments but the social norms that define particular attributes as impairments, as well as the social conditions that concentrate stigmatized attributes in particular populations” (2016, para. 6). In other words, in addition to research on the lives, art, and media representations of disabled people, disability studies also explores how the concept of disability comes to exist and have meaning in a particular time period and culture as well as the material effects of the system on people’s lived experiences.
Feminist disability studies and crip theory, along with critical race disability studies and feminist of color disability studies, understand (dis)ability as mutually constitutive with gender, sexuality, race, and class; that is, each of these social systems depends on (dis)ability to function and define its own categories. This concept is reflected in Talila A. Lewis’s (2018) working definition of ableism: “A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed notions of normalcy, intelligence and excellence. These societally constructed notions of normalcy, intelligence and excellence are deeply rooted in eugenics, anti-Blackness and capitalism.” Lewis’s definition is based in the work of the contemporary disability justice movement and draws attention to the relationship between ableism and other oppressions—a key aspect for any work on disability in gender and sexuality studies.
There are numerous examples of the mutual constitution of these concepts historically. For instance, from Aristotle’s belief that female bodyminds are simply mutilated versions of males’ to Freud’s concept of penis envy, women have frequently been understood in western theorizing as abnormal, lesser versions of men who are supposedly limited by biological processes like pregnancy and menstruation (Schalk 2017). Such notions of gender difference as bodymind inferiority are based in the (dis)ability system because they rely on the ableist belief that bodymind differences ought to be valued, ranked, and if possible, fixed or eliminated. To take another example, homosexuality was once labeled a psychiatric disability to be treated with electroshock and other therapies because same-sex desire was considered so far outside of the norms of sexuality that to express such desire meant one was not psychiatrically well and in need of treatment. In terms of race, claims of lesser intellectual abilities were once used to justify the enslavement and segregation of Black people. Across each of these examples, we can see how norms of gender, sexuality, and race depend on ableist rhetoric about inferiority and brokenness to further marginalize and oppress women, queer people, and Black people. As a result of this mutual constitution, historically marginalized groups have attempted to distance themselves from association with disability by claiming able-bodiedness and able-mindedness in their fights for justice; however, doing so has often left unchallenged the notion that disability is inherently negative and that disabled people do not deserve the very rights and liberties being fought for by these groups (Baynton 2001). Further, such distancing from disability among marginalized groups also leads to the further marginalization and erasure of those who occupy multiple oppressed identities such as disabled women, disabled queer people, disabled Black people, and so on.
It is important when discussing disability in gender and sexuality studies, however, not to collapse lived experiences with disability and impairment with the rhetorical or discursive uses of disability to further sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. These are related and overlapping but not the same. For example, discussing how transgender identities have been categorized as psychiatric disabilities in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual under different labels and whether trans identity should be categorized in this way is different from discussing the experiences of disabled trans people, like the work of Eli Clare, and different still from people who understand the experience of transitioning as disabling (Clare 2009; Baril 2015). Each of these issues is about gender and disability specific to trans people but in very different ways. Feminist disability studies and crip theory consider the role of gender and sexuality in conjunction with (dis)ability within lived experiences, representation, and larger theoretical and political questions.
Ultimately, disability studies ought to be understood as a lens for exploring the (dis)ability system as it shapes our material and social worlds, from medicine and psychiatry to the environment and technology, from educational systems and the prison industrial complex to mainstream media and architecture. Disability studies asks, Whose bodyminds are valued, and why? Whose bodyminds are more subject to violence and harm and thus more likely to become sick, ill, or disabled? Who has better access to medicine, care, and support for their bodymind needs? Here again the relationship between (dis)ability and other systems of oppression becomes further apparent: when one is marginalized by one system, including ableism, they are more likely to also be subjected to violence and harm, which can be further disabling to their bodyminds. Jasbir Puar (2017) refers to this slow disabling violence toward poor and racialized people as debility, a state of impairment that isn’t fully recognized by the government as disability warranting accommodation and support, a state actually necessary to define the limits of legally, governmentally supported disability status. Debility is a particularly useful concept for thinking about disability transnationally in relation to war and global politics that shape who has access to certain kinds of medical and life-sustaining products and who is most subjected to violence and neglect around the world.
As these broad questions suggest, students and scholars of gender and sexuality ought to attend to and understand the (dis)ability system because it shapes and is shaped by systems of gender, sexuality, race, class, and nation. We cannot understand how gender and sexuality operate, let alone how to dismantle systemic sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, without understanding the rhetorical and material role of (dis)ability as a mutually constitutive system of oppression. The terms disability and (dis)ability intersect not only with other social categories like gender, sexuality, race, and class but also with other critical terms in the field of gender and sexuality studies such as biopolitics, care, institutionalization, incarceration, colonialism, deviance, health, education, fat, reproduction, and violence.
For example, scholars in disability studies explore the relationship between institutions such as asylums, psychiatric wards, and hospitals and institutions like jails and prisons to understand the relationship between these spaces as methods of forcible containment of marginalized populations via the removal of rights and freedoms (Ben-Moshe and Carey 2014). To take another example, fatness and disability, similar to the discussion of trans identity and disability above, contain multiple resonances conceptually; however, some are hesitant to talk about fatness as disability. Nonetheless, the connections are plentiful, and several scholars bring together fat studies and disability studies to understand how fat stigma and ableism overlap and intersect as well as how fat liberation and disability justice can and must work together (Schalk 2013; Mollow 2015, 2017). In both of these examples, we can see again how (dis)ability as a social system operates in ways that help us understand how multiple structural oppressions operate—by relying on subtle ableism.
Disability can and should operate as a critical lens for all work in gender and sexuality studies, as the gender and sexuality systems cannot be understood historically or contemporarily apart from the (dis)ability system and ableism. By better understanding the relationship of these terms through further critical analysis and scholarship, we move toward models of justice and social understanding that refuse to leave anyone behind, ones attentive to the realities of our bodyminds living under multiple systems of oppression.