- An Introduction to Race, Gender, and Disability: Intersectionality, Disability Studies, and Families of Color
The idea for this special issue of Women, Gender, and Families of Color on race, gender, and disability came from a deep commitment to foregrounding intersectional analysis and doing so from cross- and multidisciplinary perspectives. We, the guest editors, represent both this commitment and the potential of going across disciplinary boundaries. We come with understandings in the fields of disability studies, critical race theory, feminist of color critique, Latino/a/Chicana studies, critical prison studies, racial and ethnic health disparities, and policy implications for families of or with disabled individuals. We say this at the beginning of this introduction not only as a form of identification (or disidentification) but to disavow from the outset the idea that “disability,” “race,” “gender,” or “family” are monolithic constructs that can be interrogated on their own.
It would be useful from the outset to define what we mean by the term “disability.” As stated elsewhere (Ben-Moshe et al. 2013), under the critical framework of disability studies,
Disability is fluid and contextual rather than biological. This does not mean that biology does not play out in our minds and bodies, but that the definition of disability is imposed upon certain kinds of minds and bodies. . . . But more than that, disability, if understood as constructed through historical and cultural processes, should be seen not as a binary but as a continuum. One is always dis/abled in relation to the context in which one is put. A person has a learning disability if put in a scholarly setting; using a wheelchair becomes a disability and a disadvantage when the environment is inaccessible; someone who wears glasses may be disabled without them when attempting to read written language or see far away, but this can change depending on the context that they are seeing and being seen within.(210–11) [End Page 105]
Certain conditions get defined as medical “problems” (that is, disabilities) as a result of specific understanding of what is “normal” by those with the power to exert these definitions on others.
We, therefore, leave the definition open as to what “counts” as disability and let the authors in this special issue define it for themselves. For example, in this issue, both Susan Burch and Eliot Hamer and colleagues convey the shifting definitions and outcomes of being labeled “feebleminded” and incompetent and highlight the historical conflation of disability and race. In the article on disabled Cape Verdeans’ in the United States, Dawna Thomas analyzes how this group defines disability differently from mainstream U.S. definitions. Jenifer Barclay writes about how disability among slaves in the antebellum South was determined by the economic value of the bonded individuals as defined by slaveholders.
It might be easier to define “disability studies” than to define “disability” as a critical study that takes the constructed nature of disability as its point of entry. This should not be confused with “the study of disability” more generally. According to Linton, “Disability studies takes for its subject matter not simply the variations that exist in human behavior, appearance, functioning, sensory acuity, and cognitive processing but, more crucially, the meaning we make of those variations” (1998, 2). These meanings are socially constructed by people’s thoughts, words, and physical manifestations (such as the built environment) and become ways of defining human experiences that take on cultural and historical meaning, often of a negative tint. Disability studies and disability culture also, therefore, aim at breaking down the perception of disability as personal tragedy, pathology, or deficiency. Some in disability culture and activism view disability as a source of pride, some as a form of biodiversity.
But even this desire to depathologize dis/ability from notions of deficiency, which is at the core of a critical disability studies stance, gets complicated when an intersectional analysis taking into account race, gender, sexuality, class, and other constructs is being introduced. It is important to highlight this tension between the desire to untangle disability from medicalization and diagnostic categories (and reclaiming it as an identity and culture) and the ability...