Breaking the binary: does disability exist?
By Angela Michielsen
Male/female. Caucasian/non-Caucasian. Straight/gay. Able/disabled. Civilized/savage. Rich/poor. Rational/emotional. Mind/body. Normal/abnormal.
All of these pairs appear to be polar opposites. But in every set, in Western thinking, one part is privileged over the other. One is seen as “having” while the other is seen as “lacking.” This is called a binary. This ideology perpetuates Western power structures, which privilege white, straight, “civilized” men.
Let’s examine the ability/disability binary. “Able” is privileged over “disabled,” but who decides what is ability and what is disability? If you break it down, it’s actually “invented” by us: people in a culture or society who behave according to the ideas of the binary and follow certain rules. Therefore, our society is economically and physically built to privilege the “able” bodied individual creating the limitations that hinder all people from accessing and independently enjoying all aspects of public life, including working, shopping, recreating, traveling and worshipping.
As an “able” bodied individual, I take many things for granted. I am able to move freely in the physical construction of society without struggle, not often stopping to consider what it would be like if – because of my physical state – I weren’t able to step up one step to get the medical prescription I need without calling someone to get it for me, or being limited to certain clothing stores because most in our area are not accessible. This realization has made me look deeper into how I’ve been privileged as an able-bodied person in our society, and how I perpetuate oppression, and this is the first step to being part of the solution.
So, is there such as thing as “disability?” Or is it something that we, as a society, have created because of binary thinking, placing the rights of able-bodied people over those with other physical situations?
How can we, as a community, break the binary?