Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Medical Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges
Primary Theme: Inclusivity
Secondary Theme: Identity and Equity
Disability Studies discourse vocabulary is creeping into anthropology. Over the last 30 years we have sometimes assumed that disability is just another synonym for illness, impairment, and functional loss. The word “disability” didn't make the American Anthropological Association list of meeting keywords until this last decade. Many scholars note that disability is a category anyone can enter at any time and, most broadly defined, is our largest “minority.” While true, and perhaps one of many existential angsts in our “modern” lives, no one expects it, often even past its obvious onset. With an emphasis on an expectation of healthy aging, disability experience at any age is rude or it does not, by definition, qualify as “Disability.”
Disabled people have no problem with impairment prevention and can imagine a world where impairment, however culturally defined, is if not absent, then is not culturally defined culturally defined as disabling. We are hard wired to imagine our future as healthy and productive and free of pain or we wouldn't persevere. While a 90 year old may think disability has found them when they give up their driver’s license because of worsening vision, social expectations are that this will happen. Our 90 year old is treated very differently from the high school student with the same amount of vision (or hearing, or mobility) loss. All perceptions of health are relative. The writers of the ADA knew this when they added “or perceive to be” to the legal definition of disability that must be accommodated. The phrase flew brilliantly under the radar despite that it tries to chip away at medical power. You are disabled if people think you are and discriminate against you.
This devaluation of status because of body or mind, while uncomfortable for some and just the beginning of a tumble down a cliff of social value and poverty for others has forested a disability rights movement that reclaims disability. From a critical disability studies and disability justice perspective, we can hypothesize that a significant number of people aging with disability are better off than their otherwise demographically matched peers who report aging into the same impairment. Time heals wounded identities. Perhaps they are also “better off” even if they age into a new unrelated and unexpected experience of disability?
How do we build this into medical ethics to everyone’s benefit? How do we share disability experience and profit by disability exposure, expertise, and the lessons of a cross-impairment synergy of purpose and productivity? The course of many experiences of disability are also not the linear decline people expect when they interrupted with “What happened to you? Who is taking care of you? Programs with peer mentoring hope to create improvement but usually have too little and much too late input from actual disabled people and not only their formal or informal “caretakers.” Life can be farcical. Remember the Mad Magazine cartoon of the Boy Scout dragging the little old lady with a cane across a street she didn't want to cross?