Category Archives: identity
Editor’s note: We are very pleased to host this post from sasha_feather, who has previously written for FWD: AWP: Crutch. FWD welcomes guest posts: please email guestposting [at] disabledfeminists.com for more information.
Sasha_feather is a science fiction/fantasy fan and anti-oppression activist. She is a contributor to Access Fandom
Book Review of The Rejected Body by Susan Wendell
The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability by Susan Wendell
If you are at all interested in Disability Studies (DS), I strongly recommend this book. I felt like I had a kind, clear teacher and friend leading me by the hand through basic and advanced concepts in DS, especially relating to feminism and ethics. It is the most accessible and worthwhile academic text I’ve ever read– I don’t have a good track record for reading non-fiction books or textbooks, and I was riveted to this book. Partly this is because The Rejected Body speaks so directly to my own life experience as a person with a chronic illness. Susan Wendell also has a chronic illness, ME/CFS, which is what led her into DS from Women’s Studies.
In the introduction, the author tells you what she’s going to tell you, talks a bit about her own illness experience and finding disability identity, and–making me fall in love with this book–clarifies her language use by, in part, defining scare quotes and why/how she uses them:
“Throughout the text, I use single quotation marks as scare quotes, that is, to draw the readers attention to concepts I question or to uses about which I have reservations. For example, I use scare quote around ‘The Other’ (a concept discussed in Chapter 3) to indicate that, while the concept is a recognized way of thinking about people who are different from oneself, ‘the Other’ is not a way of referring to people which I accept or take for granted” (Wendell 7).
Like many of us I had often heard both the terms “scare quotes” and “the Other” and never really thought about what either of them meant. This book is full of little moments like that– things that I had taken for granted or that had niggled at my brain, and which the book shines a bright light upon.
In the introduction, Wendell also notes the limitations of the book, mainly that it focuses primarily on physical disabilities, that the author does not attempt to speak for all people, and that she struggles with generalizations and use of language. And that’s just the introduction!
A few of my favorite parts that I would like to highlight:
*The pace of life. As someone with fatigue and pain, Wendell is interested in the pace of life as part of the social construction of disability. Those of us who need to think or move more slowly than others are thus disabled by society. She discusses the social construction of disability in chapter 2.
*The mind, the body, and suffering. I have been thinking about embodiment lately, brain-body duality vs. integration, and chapter 7 (“Feminism, Disability, and Transcendence of the Body”) really gave me some grist for this mill. I am going to re-read this chapter shortly, especially the section on pain. Basically, feminists have argued against mind-body duality for very good reasons: because this concept has been used against women’s bodies. We’ve been invested in “Our Bodies, Ourselves”. But for bodies that are suffering and in pain, there are reasons to want to transcend the body, and there is room within feminist frameworks to develop such an understanding: of being embodied, of having bodily autonomy, and yet still wanting to transcend the body and be less tied to the body’s functions, desires, and pains.
*The illusion of control. For PWD, we know that we often do not have control of our bodies, or at best have limited control, and it is sheer luck that determines what happens, a lot of the time. Will I be in less or more pain today? Will I get some new illness? I have basically no control over these things, and I know it. And yet the society I live in is incredibly invested in the illusion of control to the point where it is part of the mythology of my country and my people. As Wendell points out, this puts me at odds with the people around me, even in casual social situations where people talk about small health problems or things to do with their bodies. It’s a disconnect.
*Having no diagnosis Wendell specifically addresses issues of disability for people with no diagnosis. There are a lot of people in this category, and it sometimes can feel like there is no place for us, no identity, especially within the medical model. The disability community, in my experience, creates a place and identity for those of us without a diagnosis.
There were so many other things that I am probably forgetting. I wanted to underline everything. I read it slowly to give myself time to process everything I was reading, but overall it’s a fairly short and accessible book, just densely packed with great information and ideas. Note that because it’s published by an academic press, it is relatively expensive; I recommend searching World Cat to find copies in libraries near you.
Moderator’s note: Moderation on guest posts is often much slower than “usual” moderation times.
The concept of accommodations for employees with disabilities is one that exists all over the world. The basic principle of these laws is that an employee with a disability is entitled to changes to accommodate specific needs created by their disability in order to work. These can be changes in policies (changing a policy prohibiting eating at employee desks to allow an employee with diabetes to manage his blood sugar) or procedures (issuing company announcements both orally at staff meetings and by written memo to accommodate an employee with auditory processing difficulties), or even maintaining a scent-free or florescent light-free workplace, providing ergonomic modifications to workspaces, and beyond.
There are a lot of negative attitudes and assumptions surrounding workplace accommodations. It is often assumed that the employee with a disability (EWD for short) and their employer are in an adversarial position – the employee is asking for something they want but that the employer does not want to give. Providing the accommodation is seen almost universally as a loss for the employer, because providing it will cost them, either by purchasing new equipment or in administrative costs and hassle for changing existing policies and procedures. In the United States, it is often made very clear to employees that accommodations are provided solely because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to cooperate, not because the employer wants to assist with accommodations or believes it will improve the overall workplace in any meaningful way.
The cost of the accommodation, whether direct or indirect, is often seen as offsetting the worth or value of the EWD and limiting the benefit the employer can derive from an individual employee. More broadly, this is seen as discouraging employers from hiring EWDs in order to prevent the need for these accommodations. This means that accommodations are often seen as “special treatment,” for EWDs, requiring a whole set of special procedures by which EWDs can request accommodations and have them evaluated and special staff to learn the ADA and evaluate accommodations and …
Another feature of accommodations for EWDs is that although they are supposed to be individualized and tailored to the specific needs and responsibilities of an individual employee, employers often think of providing specific, pre-determined accommodations based on the type of disability the EWD has. For example, employers often consider themselves to have fulfilled their accommodation duties for people with physical disabilities if the workplace is wheelchair accessible and the parking lot has a handicapped parking space. Any additional requests from accommodation are likely met with bewilderment by the employer – “we already took care of all of the accommodation issues!”
It was with all of that in my mind that I read this recent article from ABCNews, with the headline “Employees Healthier When Boss Is Flexible.” The article discussed the benefits of flexible work schedules for employees without disabilities:
“Flexible working initiatives which equip the worker with more choice or control, such as self-scheduling of work hours or gradual or phased retirement, are likely to have positive effects on health and well being,” Clare Bambra of Durham University in the U.K., told MedPage Today. “Control at work is good for health,” Bambra said. Overall, the researchers found that situations that gave the employee more control over scheduling have positive effects on health and well being, particularly with regard to blood pressure, sleep, and mental health. A third study found significant decreases in systolic blood pressure and heart rate for workers with flexible scheduling, Bambra said. Conversely, Bambra and colleagues found that mandatory overtime and fixed-term contracts had absolutely no positive effects on health outcomes.
Although the article did not analogize these flexible work schedules under employee control to the principle of accommodations and disability was not explicitly mentioned in the article, I couldn’t help but connect the two. The idea of allowing an employee to control their own work schedule based on her own needs is exactly the principle behind accommodations – tailoring the work requirements and environment to the individual and specific needs of the employee, rather than requiring everyone to comply with universal policies set by the employer. It’s also implied that these flexible policies benefit the employer by creating healthier and happier employees who are, in turn, more productive at work.
This made me wonder if it would be helpful to adopt this framing for accommodations arguments, as in “see, assisting employees to accommodate their individualized needs results in better outcomes for both employees and employers!” Framing the argument that way addresses a lot of the negative issues around accommodations discussed above: the employee and the employer are working together rather than against each other; providing this flexibility is seen as a benefit to, not a loss for, the employer; this maximizes the work, worth and value of the employee rather than offsetting it; accommodations are good business practice rather than special treatment imposed by law; the individualized nature of accommodations is emphasized and changes must be dictated by the employee’s view of their own needs.
There is a potential drawback to this framing, however – it does not explicitly mention or focus on PWDs. I see this as potentially harmful given that the need for accommodations for PWDs is created by the historic and continuing othering of and discrimination against PWDs. (See amanda and wiki on the social model of disability for more about this.) Advancing the principle of accommodations for employees without explicitly focusing on PWDs removes a lot of the disability-based stigma from the discussion, but also removes the historical context that has created a need for accommodations. Similarly, framing the issue as a smart business practice than a civil rights issue removes the discussion of “special” rights or treatment, but removes focus from the fact that PWDs deserve these rights to counteract oppression based on their disability status.
This framing technique also dilutes the concept of what an accommodation is and extends it to all employees, whether or not they have disabilities. This could be dangerous, as it would allow employers to think about accommodations in terms of overall economic benefit – this might encourage them to deny specific accommodation requests that would be considered too costly for the company, or insufficiently beneficial to the overall bottom line. While that may be unwise for employers, given studies like this, it would not be illegal and would not be a civil rights issue for employees without disabilities. For EWDs, however, denying accommodations is a civil rights issue, because accommodations are required to allow EWDs equal access to employment benefits in light of the barriers that exist because of historic and continuing oppression and discrimination against PWDs on the basis of their disabilities. Expanding the focus of accommodations to all employees de-emphasizes the rights-based aspect of accommodations for PWDs to the point of invisibility.
I’m not sure whether the benefits or costs of this framing of the accommodations argument are stronger. What do you think? Have I ommitted any advantages of using this framing? Any disadvantages? Which framing – current rights-based arguments or these non-PWD centered business arguments – do you think is best?