- Beasts of Burden:Disability Studies and Animal Rights
Painting the Animals
For twenty-two years I have been concerned with the exploitation of animals. For twenty-eight (my whole life), I have been disabled.
For the past few years I have been painting images of animals in factory farms. The following essay was born from this visual artistic practice.1 My paintings not only led me to research; they forced me to see and focus on animal oppression for hours every day in a way I never had before. Through this focus I became increasingly aware of the interconnections between the oppression of animals and the oppression of disabled people. This connection did not lie, as many people suggested, in my being confined to my disabled body, like an animal in a cage. Far from this, the connection I found centered on an oppressive value system that declares some bodies normal, some bodies broken, and some bodies food.
The Freak and the Patient
In my life I have been compared to many animals. I have been told I walk like a monkey, eat like a dog, have hands like a lobster, and generally resemble a chicken or penguin. These comparisons have [End Page 191] been said out of both mean-spiritedness and a spirit of playfulness. As a child I remember knowing that when my fellow kindergarten classmates told me I walked like a monkey, that they meant it to hurt my feelings, which of course it did. However, I wasn't exactly sure why it should hurt my feelings—after all, monkeys were my favorite animal. I had dozens of monkey toys. My parents recall that my favorite thing as a toddler was to go to our local miniature golf course to see the giant King Kong. I was small enough that I could sit in the concrete gorilla's open palm. Still, I knew that when the other children compared me to a monkey, they were not doing it to flatter me. It was an insult. I understood that they were commenting on my inability to stand completely upright when out of my wheelchair—my inability to stand straight like a normal human being. I understood that saying I was like an animal separated me from other people. Whether I considered if the statement meant that I was less than human, I don't remember.
The thing is, they were right. I do resemble a monkey when I walk—or rather I resemble an ape, specifically a chimpanzee. My standing posture is closest to the second or third figure on a human evolution diagram—certainly not the last. This resemblance is simply true, as is the statement I eat "like a dog" when I don't use my hands and utensils to eat. These comparisons have an element of truth that isn't negative—or, I should say that doesn't have to be negative.
When I ask members of the disabled community whether they have ever been compared to animals because of their disabilities, I receive a torrent of replies. I am transported to a veritable bestiary: frog legs, penguin waddles, seal limbs, and monkey arms. It is clear, however, from the wincing and negative interjections that these comparisons are not pleasant to remember.
Animal comparisons abound in disability history—most explicitly in the stage names of the world's famous freaks. There was Otis the Frog Boy, Mignon the Penguin Girl, Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy, Darwin's Missing Link, and of course the Elephant Man. In sideshow culture, disability oppression crashed head-on into racism, sexism, classism, and I would say, speciesism. Looking through old medical textbooks and dictionaries, I see that the comparisons have existed within medical discourse as well—elephantitis, apehand [End Page 192] syndrome, lobster-claw syndrome, pigeon chest, goosebumps, chickenpox, and phocomelia (seal-like limbs), to name just a few. In medical history, gender and racial lines were also often clearly delineated as markers of normalcy and deviance, creating a standard of human physiology that normalized whiteness and often animalized people of color, while simultaneously pathologizing those who physiologically and culturally defied accepted gender dichotomies and roles...