Invisible Disability and Feminism

I am currently undertaking my MSc Applied Gender Studies and Research Methods with a focus on feminism and disability. I have a particular interest in invisible disabilities such as chronic fatigue syndrome as this mostly affects women and challenges our assumptions about disability. Reading and writing about constructions of gender and constructions of disability has been liberating and I thought I would write about this topic in a blog post.

The Link Between Feminism and Disability

In the past, older women and disabled women were largely left out of feminist theory. Feminism even reinforced derogatory perceptions of disability by using disability as a metaphor to illustrate the “crippling” impact of patriarchy on women. More recently, disability has become increasingly acknowledged in feminist theories that highlight diversity. However, simply including disability in a list of differences is not enough. Disability requires a more integrated analysis.

Key thinkers in feminist disability studies such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Susan Wendell (linked below) show that social constructions of gender and disability intertwine. Just as feminism questions the assumption that femaleness constitutes a natural physical and mental inferiority, disability studies challenges social constructions that deem disability a natural deficiency. Like gender, disability pervades cultural practices, politics, social structures and social identities. Both disability studies and feminist theory address reproductive rights, bodily difference, medicalisation of the body and the politics of appearance to name a few. Therefore, integrating disability into feminist theory challenges our assumptions of the body and enriches our understandings of human diversity.

Disability is considered a social construct among many activists and academics. This means that disability is not considered natural but rather, dominant ideas in a given society construct our perceptions of what counts as a “normal” body in regards to functionality and intelligence. For instance, queer and disability theorist, Robert McRuer (2006) (linked below) discussed “compulsory able-bodiedness”. That is, able-bodiedness is perceived to be the norm and disability is “abnormal”. According to McRuer:

being able-bodied means being capable of the normal physical exertions required in a particular system of labour

(Disability Studies Reader, p.303)

Our culture presumes that able-bodied lives are more enjoyable, their perspectives preferable and that everyone must strive to always be “able-bodied”. However, it is impossible to consistently be able-bodied. Everyone succumbs to disability temporarily or permanently through illness, accident or old age, yet disability is considered “abnormal” and largely oppressed.

One thing we must remain aware of when discussing disability is: who counts as disabled? Often when we think about disability, we conjure up an image of visible impairment which can reinforce a narrow perception of disability. Therefore, I am particularly interested in highlighting the experiences of disabled people who can “pass” for able-bodied and the radical challenges invisible identities pose to dominant binaries.

Passing for Able-bodied

Many disabilities are invisible meaning that some disabled people “pass” as able-bodied by default unless they verbally “come out”. This is difficult as it creates an inner conflict about whether to reveal oneself as disabled or not. As impairment is assumed to be visible, many people with invisible disabilities who “come out” face scepticism. Therefore, those with invisible disabilities live with an underlying fear of being disbelieved should they reveal their disability. This can impact both men and women with invisible conditions but women are more likely to live with unexplainable, invisible disabilities such as chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic pain conditions. Women living with such conditions are often told their symptoms are in their head which reinforces negative stereotypes of women as “hysterical”. Particularly, these conditions pose a challenge to abled/disabled binaries.

Today’s society tends to enforce binary thinking: male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, abled/disabled. Firstly, this is problematic because the latter of the binary is usually considered inferior. Secondly, it is problematic for those who struggle to fit into the binary. For instance, those with invisible disabilities often feel they have to justify themselves more when applying for benefits because they do not meet conventional views of disability. Even workplace accommodations designed to help disabled people are often not enough to account for the fluctuating and unpredictable nature of many invisible disabilities and many face disbelief and judgement from co-workers who cannot “see” their disability. Therefore, by striving to categorise disability, measure it and “see” it, invisible disability is often not seen as disabled “enough” which impacts people’s access to necessary housing and workplace accommodations and even benefit support.

Invisible disability can be challenging. However, from reading work by incredible disability scholars (linked below), I can now see how “passing” can be a subversive act and even emancipatory in a system that relies so much on binary logic. The very act of “passing” reveals the instability of identity. Dominant categories are weakened by an individual’s inability to be categorised. This is not only illustrated by those who are both able-bodied and disabled but it is also exemplified in queer theory. For instance, the term “lesbian femme” refers to people who do not fit the lesbian stereotype as they appear feminine and can pass as heterosexual. Hirshmann (2013) highlights that lesbian femmes do not display the expected markings of sexuality while invisibly disabled people do not display the expected markings of disability. Therefore, invisibility provides lesbian femmes and disabled people with the power to dismantle norms and expectations of “heterosexuality” and “able-bodiedness”. Invisibility can, thus, be a political strategy and prevents the ability for dominant groups to police “their” community.

Conclusion

I would love to live in a world where people no longer fear judgement or oppression because their body functions in a certain way. Accepting the fragility of the body could open our world to so many different ways of living. Disabled people have vast experiences and ways of living that dominant groups may never have considered. Disabled people can provide knowledge on how to navigate life, how to deal with crisis and different ways of bringing happiness into our lives. Imagine how much knowledge we could gain if we embraced the richness and diversity of human experience.

Resources

Nancy Hirshmann – Queer/Fear: Disability, Sexuality and the Other . Avialable here: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s10912-013-9208-x.pdf

The following articles are all available in the Disability Studies Reader:

Rosmarie Garland-Thomson – “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”.

Robert McRuer – “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence”

Susan Wendell – “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability”.

The Disability Studies Reader is available here : https://uniteyouthdublin.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/lennard_davis_the_disability_studies_reader_secbookzz-org.pdf

The following recommendations are available in the Glasgow Women’s Library:

Alison Kafer: “Feminist, Crip, Queer”

Simi Linton: “My Body Politic: A Memoir”

Jenny Morris: “Encounters with Strangers: Feminism and Disability”

Jenny Morris: “Pride and Prejudice: A Personal Politics of Disability”

4 Comments

  • Posted 18th June, 2021 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
    Gina-Marie

    Thank you so much for this. I have relapsing-remitting MS and pass most of the time. You’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of choosing to ‘come out’ about my disability and it being a subversive act. I feel like a walking PSA most of the time since I have to educate people so often.

    @awomanwithoutacountry on IG!

    • Posted 18th June, 2021 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
      Jennifer Robinson

      Thank you! I’m glad you liked the post. It is definitely an important topic and I hope it brings more awareness!

  • Posted 13th July, 2021 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
    Angela McCarthy-Grunwald

    Hi Jennifer,
    I was so pleased to see your blog on the website. As a woman with complex conditions, including invisible illnesses, I feel that disability needs to play a bigger part in feminist narratives.
    I am not quite sure about the notion of ‘passing’ – I think I understand your point of it being a subversive public act of making categorisations and therefore divisions difficult for those in power. However, I also know that ‘passing’ for neurodivergent women (also known as ‘masking’) for example can be incredibly damaging. I would love to discuss this further.
    Thank you for writing about this!

    • Posted 15th July, 2021 at 1:11 pm | Permalink
      Jennifer Robinson

      Hi Angela, I’m so glad you liked the blog! Your point is really important, thanks for bringing it up! I definitely agree, although “passing” conveys the instability of dominant categories, “passing” (through choice or by default) can also be a distressing experience for a number of reasons. It is definitely an interesting and complex topic! I would love to discuss further too. If you’re on twitter I’m @JenRobinson95

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