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(en) Canada, LinchPin #16 - a publication of common cause* - Review: Disability Politics and Theory by KARINE WEHLM

Date Thu, 06 Sep 2012 09:58:34 +0300

Disability Politics & Theory by AJ Withers: Fernwood Publishing. "(D)isability falls somewhere in a constellation. Like the constellation in the sky, disability is in constant flux and appears different depending on the positioning of the
onlooker."(p.99) ---- Disability Politics and Theory is an excellent new book that critically examines the key models of disability that have shaped how disability and disabled people have been viewed in North America throughout the capitalist era and to this current day. ---- The book’s author, AJ Withers applies an intersectional and anti-capitalist analysis on these models and suggests an alternative model, the radical model of disability, as a analytical tool to move the disabled people’s movement forward. Withers’ arguments stem from an understanding that multiple oppressions are intertwined with one another and cannot be dealt with separately.

The author also argues that capitalism is
inherently problematic since, among other
things, it assigns individual self-worth and
value based on whether one can work for a
wage (and so produce profits for someone
else). Withers ends with a call for both non-
disabled people’s movements and the disabled
people’s movement to organize inclusively
for social justice and radical access.

The book begins by explaining the
Eugenic model, the Medical model and the
Charity model – all of which individualize
disability and emphasize the necessity to
cure, reduce or eliminate disability, rather
than focusing efforts on improving disabled
people’s conditions by reducing barriers and
giving them power back over their lives.
These models all stem from the belief that
the problems posed by disability are inherent
to disabled individuals themselves, rather
than products of the negative reaction of
society to human diversity. Withers goes on
to explain how these models are still widely
applied today: the Medical model still being
the dominant mainstream model for dealing
with disability and the Eugenic model still
operating, for example, in the field of
genetic research on reproduction.

The author goes on to explain
the importance of the Disability Rights
movement model and the Social model,
while maintaining a critical analysis of
both. The Disability Rights movement
views disabled people as a minority. This
movement fights to end discrimination
towards disabled people and to help them
become accepted in the current society; the
Social model, on the other hand, demands
a change in society itself. This model
heralded an important shift in thinking
about disability and was a response to
the individualization of disability posed
by the earlier models. The Social model
separates impairment, which is part of an
individual’s characteristics, from disability,
which is ‘’the oppression that people with
impairment face’’ (p. 86.). For example,
for a person using a wheelchair to move
around town, their impairment could be
the fact that their legs are paralysed while
their disability could be their inability to
access a building because of stairs. In the
Social model, a person is only disabled
if the environment and society is not
accessible or adapted to their needs. It is
the environment and society that needs
to change and not the person with the
impairment. Disability is therefore a social
construct and not inherent to the disabled

Withers finishes by explaining an
alternative model, the Radical model of
disability, which tries to address both the
oppression of disabled people and disabled
minds and bodies while intersecting with
other forms of oppression. By choosing
to speak in terms of minds and bodies, the
author means who and what we are: we
are physical, mental, intellectual, sensory
bodies and minds. We have different ages,
life experiences, cultures, languages,
skin colours, genders, sexuality and class
backgrounds. The radical model rejects
the binary of impairment and disability
in the Social model and sees impairment
as also a social construct, because of the
fact that impairment too has different
meanings depending on the society we live
in. To take the same example as before, a
person unable to use their legs would be in
an entirely different situation if we lived
in an environment where there were no
stairs. In this case, the meaning assigned
to this particular physical fact would be
something different. Withers chooses to
talk about minds and bodies as a much
more inclusive and non-oppressive way
of discussing our difficulties, because we
all have our challenges, disabled and non-
disabled people alike. Using the words
minds and bodies is an attempt to move
away from categorical labels and towards
a terminology that includes us all.

Withers also proposes an
alternative to universal accessibility.
Although universal accessibility is
already much more inclusive than just
adding a ramp to a building, because it
tries to address in a comprehensive way
all accessibility needs relating to the
physical environment, it only addresses
the physical aspect of the environment.
Radical access, instead, articulates
a broad accessibility analysis that is
inclusive of other oppressions, such as
the inability to afford a ride on the bus
– even though it can be accessed using a

One thing that caught my
attention in this book is how Withers
dismantles the myth of independence.
Being independent means that
someone can do a task by themselves,
without needing the help of anyone.
Withers instead argues that we are all
interdependent – after all, very few
of us make our own clothes or grow
our own food. It is simply that certain
dependencies have been normalized,
while others have been marginalized.
I would also add that we should aim at
being autonomous rather than this ideal
of being independent, which means being
able to make our own choices in our
lives. This includes choosing to have help
or not. Very few people can say they are
truly autonomous because of the way our
society grants control and power to a few.
Only real social change, including the
abolishment of capitalism, hierarchy and
the fight against all forms of oppression
will make this possible for everyone.

Disability Politics and Theory is
an easy-to-read book giving a thorough
analysis of the key concepts and models
of disability. It is an eye-opener on
disability and it should be read by
anybody seeking to move this society
towards social justice. This book is
urging us to fight to create the changes
we want, because they won’t be handed
to us. ‘’We must work in solidarity with
other marginalized groups, and we must
get past our differences and fight for
justice, dignity, equality and access.’’
* Anarchist organization
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