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Gibson on Why Anthropology Matters to Disabled Academics

By Rebecca Gibson, author of Desire in the Age of Robots and AI

Disability is an identity with which many people struggle. From an external perspective, it can be hard to imagine the mechanics of living in a body that does not function in ways that society has deemed “normal.” From an internal perspective, there is often the lurking feeling that one is not disabled “enough.” Having had both perspectives, as my body slowly changed from something I could rely on, to something that now has good days and bad days in terms of mobility, I am more and more embracing disability activism and the idea that a focus on maximum accessibility raises all people to their highest potentials.

My primary discipline of anthropology is a wonderful way of approaching the problem of ableism, the idea that we carry around an unconscious belief that to be different, to be unable to physically do “normal” things, is to be less-than. I’m putting normal in quotation marks here because there is no normal; there’s only what works or what doesn’t work in any given circumstance. This is what anthropology shows us, by the careful study of what it means to be human.

However, in many cases—by employers, by insurers, by other human beings—the category of the disabled academic gets seen as a problem to be dealt with, rather than a different perspective of human experience to be embraced. Furthermore, the accommodations offered can be perfunctory or of minimal quality and quantity, as we again grapple with the idea of “enough.” If a very basic prosthetic returns one to some sense of “normalcy” is it enough? Or should the person be able to request their insurer provide a custom model?  If the building has a ramp to the basement, and an elevator to some of the floors, is that enough? Can we not do more than that? The benefits of going beyond enough resonate in the disabled person’s self-image and sense of legitimacy, and in the seamless integration of faculty and researchers with disabilities into the institutions in which we work. The biggest benefit is to be seen as, merely, human. To be treated like everyone else; to have academic as our primary identity.  

In this area, our technology is outpacing our head space and, regrettably, our ability as individuals to purchase the highest levels of new tech, if we even know about it or are offered it in the first place. When I went to purchase ring splints to brace the joints on my fingers, my physical therapist did not know what I was talking about, although many others in the Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome community did. And now, I continue to self-fund constant upgrades in my wearable tech, because the medical community has not caught up with the idea that damage mitigation is a reasonable thing to cover. A small price to pay for hands that can type, and write, and read, the three things I most often need to do in my work, but a price that reminds me that there is no normal.

So, how can we rid ourselves of the specter of ableism, ensuring that all our fellow humans are seen as just that—human? First, we must listen, truly listen, to people with disabilities. Help only when asked. Seek out information so that they are not tasked with educating random querants. Listen to those around us, when they say that the minimum of accessibility isn’t enough. Next, we must read. Read disabled authors.  Read disability theory. Read anthropological literature on what it means to be human, and how disability tech—such as biofeedback prosthetics, wearable tech, advancements in wheelchairs, and various biomechanical implants—can positively impact quality of life. Finally, we must make a commitment to holding our institutions accountable for doing more than the bare minimum in terms of campus or museum accessibility. Features such as ramps, elevators, braille, bone-conduction hearing assistance terminals, and other accessibility devices should not be tucked away so that those who need them must ask or go looking for them. They should be obvious in their placement, and unquestioned in their use.  

Because there is no normal, we need to make the effort to “make the familiar strange and the strange familiar,” as is often said in anthropology. Chances are you know someone struggling with their identity as a person with a disability. Their own body is mired in these feelings of the familiar and the strange. Your choice to listen, to treat them as human, as we all are, will help dismantle our culture of ableism.

Rebecca Gibson, PhD, is Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, USA. She specializes in bioanthropology, and serves as a juror for the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Working Class Writers grant. Her work has been published in NEXUS, and in Sexuality & Culture.