Disability and the politics of cure

In a comfortable study room overlooking Lake Mendota, a diverse group of scholars got together to discuss a new work by Eli Clare. Clare himself sat in with the group discussing an essay that touched on “the politics of cure” for a series on Accessing the Intersections: Disability, Race, + Gender at UW-Madison on October 12. That’s where I got my first taste of the “politics of cure,” a concept I would like to share here.

Eli Clare

Clare’s writings explore the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and ability, and he writes from personal experience. I read his work, “Gawking, Gaping, Staring,” this summer, and it opened my eyes (excuse the expression) to the “othering” experienced by people with disabilities.

I wish I could say that I have been aware and sensitive to the social justice struggles of peoples with disabilities as long as I’ve been interested in gender and race issues. But I’m learning. And so is the rest of the world, as the UN only adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006 (note: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women was adopted in 1979).

As the discussion on ability and ableism gains voices and volume, the experiences of disabled people also marginalized due to race or gender or sexuality shed important light on the similarities and differences of these groups. Clare’s writings eloquently explore his experiences and those of his friends and colleagues experiencing  the intersections of queerness and disability. I recommend them.

I’d like to return to the discussion group overlooking Lake Mendota where Clare, and other scholars, illuminated the politics of cure for me. Think about how we discuss cancer in the United States. The Susan G. Komen foundation sponsors races for the cure and another campaign encourages people to “Stand up to Cancer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with striving for cures for ailments, but not all ailments have cures, and not all disabled bodies can be “cured.” So a woman with breast cancer may not focus on occupying and loving her body regardless of its cancer, because she is so focused on the life she will have after remission or after a cure.

I choose cancer as an example, because it’s widespread, relatable, and often “cured.” But consider the way that people with incurable diseases experience the politics of cure, the obsession with cure. Someone mentioned in the discussion meeting that muscular dystrophy funds have claimed a cure on the horizon for decades. And Clare mentioned Christopher Reeves’ constant striving to regain some functioning after paralysis. But Reeves did not recover from his quadriplegia and those with muscular dystrophy still live with it day in and day out.

Many people (i.e. nearly one in five) live their lives with physical disabilities and/or illness (both mental and physical). A constant quest for cures makes it difficult to accept and experience the present state of our bodies, regardless of their ability.

Sitting with Clare and the other interdisciplinary scholars, I realized I had much to learn about the sociopolitical challenges surrounding disability. I also have more to learn about the implications of cure. But hope for “cure” can translate to a non-acceptance of a disabled body. That doesn’t mean I’m racing away from the cure, but now I think about accepting bodies as they are, hoping for cures as an alleviation for pain not the restoration of a “cured” body.

“Cure” is not so simple as a pill or treatment

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