Friday, November 16, 2007

Disability is the same of a difference as gender?

I attended a very interesting presentation today about pre-natal screening of disabilities. In short, this refers to the new medical technologies available to screen fetuses for the potential/ possible (quite a muddy area still...) disabilities. The speaker proposed that we think of disabilities in the same way we think of gender: as a social construct.

At first, I thought this will require quite a leap of faith. But I am gradually starting to see the point. My understanding is that we construct something as 'disability' by reference to a perceived normality - we have a notion of what an abled body is and what functions it is supposed to have. But this understanding is very much socially constrained. Just as gender is - we talked briefly about some practices to screen fetuses for biological sex in certain patriarchal cultures, and if there's a girl, an abortion follows just because of the sex. The speaker argued that this happens because in those cultures, being a female is just like a disease, which for the Western logic is hard to comprehend. Hard but not impossible. Western logic also had (still has I'd say) it's prejudices against women. In fact, in medieval rural families, to have a daughter was a big problem - first because it was believed she won't be that of a hard laborer, second because if she married, she would take away part of the family possessions as dowry.

There was talk about deafness and how for deaf communities, deafness is not seen as a handicap. Quite on the contrary, deaf parents would screen fetuses for a deaf child, which they would then choose to give birth (read this NY Times article and think about how they talk about deafness). At first, it sounds problematic for a non-deaf person: why would you do something like this to your child? But if I would have experienced the world in silence, would I have thought the same? Am I labeling deafness a disability because of my social world and because of my experience of being in this world? After all, we would have a totally different understanding of vision if we were flies. And probably my dog would think of me as handicapped since I cannot truly smell nor hear lots of the things out there that she perceives.

If you have the patience, skim through this page from the Hearing Foundation, deploring the birth of so 'many' children with high deafness risks and advocating for pre-natal screening for deafness. It's disturbing - and the speaker also talked about this - that there is no discussion about the implications of such screening. What is a parent supposed to do if she finds out her baby has a "high risk" of deafness? I am not being against abortion here (far from me!) but it's disturbing to see how reasons for abortion are proposed to us based on social norms about the right body. The next step is the right waist size, the right shape of the eyes, the right color of skin, the right gender... Right?

Photo credits: Dragonfly eyes

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