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Essentialism and Disability by Dr Suzanne Cowan

Profile photo of Suzanne CowanA large part of the content of my thesis could be considered as a theoretical exploration of disability. My main argument is that binary framings such as disabled and non-disabled are inherently unstable, questioning the idea of essentialism. Essentialism is the view that every entity has a set of attributes that are necessary to its identity and function and as such all things have an essence. Postmodernism calls into question this idea of essence and one of the best examples is notions of gender and what is thought to constitute femininity and masculinity. A non-essentialist position holds that gender roles are socially constructed rather than innate. When it comes to notions of disability adopting a non-essentialist position can be politically challenging because without a clear identity how do we organise to promote social change? My personal stance on this and throughout my research is that at times I consciously identify myself as disabled for political reasons and at other times I experiment with other narratives. When I identify myself as disabled I want to draw attention to my disability to examine its implications. For example I might want to draw attention to a lack of physical access in a public location by staging a dance performance. At the same time I recognise that there are limitations in promoting myself as a disabled performer or professional, namely that I am adopting a label that refers to an aspect of my being in a reductive way. The dis refers to what I cannot do rather than what I can do. It doesn't capture my possibility and my potentiality nor my multi-dimensionality in this very moment. So my question is how do we move between adopting the conventions of mainstream language just to be understood and at the same time deconstruct them and search for other ways of defining ourselves? At Be. Accessible we talk about accessibility and possibility in a bid to create a world where everyone has opportunities to contribute and prosper.

Dance academics, Gabriele Brandstetter and Ann Cooper-Albright (2015) suggest placing a / between the dis and the ability as a pathway to deconstruct its meaning. They describe it as a diacritical cut in that it makes a distinction and also points to a multiplicity of interpretation. The cut suggests that there are multiple cultural and political implications involved when we make this distinction. It both indicates the binary and suggests its potential deconstruction. Brandstetter and Cooper-Albright talk about how the dis not only serves as a mark of other but indicates a point of tension and departure. I love this idea of tension and a point of departure. There is great potential in reinventing how we imagine and reimagine ourselves without divesting ourselves of the day to day realities and challenges of living in the world with a dis/ability. My position is that dis/ability and its meanings could do with a serious reframe at multiple levels. In order to do it though I suggest we have to dig pretty deep to unearth basic assumptions about our sense of identity and how we are being in the world. Without a deeper understanding of what drives the distinctions it’s difficult to rearrange the outcomes (and I welcome any discussion of this!) This is one of the great debates between supporters of essentialism (often disguised as common sense and just how it's always been…) and postmodernist thinkers who question simplistic categories that define complex socio-cultural hierarchies.

So what are the tools we need to stretch the ways in which we think and define ourselves as people with so called impairments (again another reductive interpretation)? Theoretically it could be moving outside of binaristic understandings of subject/object that tie us into one dimensional narratives around difference and impairment. Practically, I think we need to experiment, improvise and take some risks at re-defining ourselves. Here's one example: instead of being a disabled dancer who uses a wheelchair in the dance studio:

I am a fast-moving machine that eats up the space. Outside the studio I/we transform into multiple arms and legs that collaboratively propel me up the steep grassy slope. I am touched by and receptive to the feeling of the air on my skin, my mid thoracic spine penetrating the soft back rest on my chair and creating a counterbalance to my fingers threading the smooth push rims of my wheels. My hips merge with the aluminium frame and the weight of my body anchors the machine-body as we roll forwards.

So here I am attempting to dissolve subject/object binaries that separate me out from my environment and the technology and people that surround me. I can define myself as a soma-technic entity where my body doesn't end at the skin (see Margrit Shildrick, 2015, if you want to read more about soma-technics). Ok, this might sound a bit fanciful and fantastical but if you read quantum physicists such as Karen Barad (2007) its actually more accurate to the way in which matter takes shape in the world. The boundaries between matter and space are far less defined than we would imagine. But before we completely disappear into the quantum physics rabbit hole let's consider the idea that if we become more conscious that we are less separate to the world around us than we ever imagined then our receptivity to the world and appreciation of it could flourish, and more importantly our attitude to difference could potentially transform.

So when it comes to considering accessibility what are the cuts we are making in describing ourselves and our relationship to the world and how do we keep the language alive and dynamic? What tools can we utilise to reinvent our status and move beyond essentialist distinctions?

About Suzanne

Suzanne Cowan is a dancer, choreographer and researcher who recently completed a Practice as Research PhD in Dance Studies at Auckland University. Her research explores notions of identity and the possibilities for reframing disability in the 21st century. Suzanne is Be. Leadership Alumni from the inaugural programme in 2011.