Why should feminist theory and feminist pedagogy care about disability? How does language and the media add to this mix? At its core, modern feminist thought concerns itself with the intersection of a variety of social ills related to race, class, gender, and other socially constructed categories. These categories are reinforced by our use of language and the media, and influence how we identify ourselves and others. Because of these intersections, disability discourse is directly relevant to feminist theory and pedagogy. Via this blog post, I will use public service announcements to highlight the intersections of language, media representation, and disability.
Let’s start with language. How does language impact social realities? Take for instance this public service announcement was created by a Canadian organization My Voice, My Turn.
The interesting thing about this PSA is how it elucidates how the body itself is a discursive text by literally placing sticky notes on the man’s body. I viewed this as an interesting way to make a post-structuralist stance more accessible to the non-academic, a way to highlight that the body itself is a text that can be analyzed (for more information on post-structuralism, see Villaverde, 2008). While society may not literally place words on a person as in the video, the interpersonal behaviors can impact how people view themselves and how they interact with their environment. Sánchez-Casal & Macdonald write that “identity and experience are mutually constitutive, that one’s social location will to a large extent determine the experiences one has, and that in turn, one’s cultural identity will affect how one makes sense of those experiences” (2002, p. 2). Furthermore, these experiences lead to how we perform our identities, whether they be ability-related or gender related. Because of the physical embodiment of disability that complicates the discourse regarding the biological, psychological, and sociological intersections of identity, “the existence and facticity of the material or natural dimensions of the body are not denied, but reconceived as distinct from the process by which the body comes to bear cultural meanings” (Butler, 2006, p. 62).
Since the intersection of language and social realities is a powerful force, people first language has become one way that feminists have used to deconstruct essentialist viewpoints that reinforce otherness. The use of this mode of communication, particularly in classroom contexts, emphases a pedagogy of “students first” language that highlights individual subjectivities and helps to create a praxis of fighting abjection (Davies, 2002). For an example of how language impacts students with disabilities, view the student-created PSA below.
This particular PSA was directed by a student for a class project, but highlights the experience of another student, one who identifies as a student with a disability. What does this video say about ability? Perceived ability? Language of ability? Society’s expectations based on ability? The public school system’s expectations? Did she have to fight her school system to allow her to access to educational, co-curricular, and extracurricular activities? Or was she in a school system that practiced feminist pedagogical techniques like universal design (Knoll, 2009)?
Universal design is a concept that analyzes how our environment, architecture, learning spaces, and social environments can be made to be accessible to the greatest number of people (2009). To illustrate, ramps and curb cuts can be examples of physical or architectural examples of universal design because not only do they make it easier for people with mobility impairments to access buildings and sidewalks, but also benefit people with rolling luggage, strollers, carts, or heavy loads. In a classroom situation, universal design can involve having classroom materials available in a variety of methods (e.g., online, paper copies, audio cd) so that students of a variety of abilities can access the information in the method that is most accessible to them, regardless of ability. This means that students that have a learning style that differs from the instructor’s teaching style can access the information in a way that is the most useful for them. This allows for a diversity of ability in a classroom, honoring and accepting the differences that students have, regardless of personal identity, medical diagnosis, or sociocultural perception of ability. Therefore, universal design can be understood as a fundamentally feminist pedagogical tool.
With that in mind, I leave you all with this PSA featuring celebrities talking about disability. What does this say about ability as a spectrum? How does this highlight personally relevant examples of ability?
Resources for further exploration into feminist disability studies:
Butler, J. (2006). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. In M. Arnot & M. Mac an Ghaill (Eds.), The RoutledgeFalmer reader in gender and education (pp. 61-71). New York: Routledge.
Davies, B. (2006). Identity, abjection, and otherness. In M. Arnot & M. Mac an Ghaill (Eds.), The RoutledgeFalmer reader in gender and education (pp. 61-71). New York: Routledge.
Knoll, K.R. (2009). Feminist disability studies pedagogy. Feminist Teacher, 19(2), p. 122-133.
Sánchez-Casal, S. & Macdonald, A.A. (2002). Feminist reflections on the pedagogical relevance of identity. In A. Macdonald & S. Sánchez-Casal (Eds.), Twenty-first-century feminist classrooms (pp. 1-28). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Villaverde, L.E. (2008). Feminist theories and education. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.