For a long time, disability has been approached from a medical point of view, within which disability is seen as a direct result of biological impairment. In this view, disability is an individual problem located in the body, to be treated through medical intervention and rehabilitation. Disability activists and scholars have described this as ‘the medical model of disability’. In protest of this individualizing model, disability activists and scholars coined the ‘social model’ of disability, which proposes that disability should be understood as a socially constructed phenomenon, as opposed to a biological given. Within this model, disability is approached as a form of exclusion and social oppression that is imposed by society on people with physical or mental impairments.
As a network, we recognize that disability originates in hindrances in the environment, as well as the importance of the social model as a form of disability empowerment both in academia and activism, but we are also mindful of the ways in which the social model falls short. The social constructivist distinction between impairment and disability is helpful in that it highlights the shortcomings in the environment which hinder unfettered participation. However, that same distinction may risk the obfuscation of the (impaired, gendered, racialized, classed, etc.) body, it is also at risk of missing the nuanced ways in which impairment and disability are intertwined in one’s lived experience. Impairments may not cause disability in themselves, but they are always ever connected to the experienced disability. Moreover, what is deemed to be an impairment is in itself a social construction.
We thus also draw on Alison Kafer’s (2016) political/relational model of disability, that departs from a more nuanced view on impairment and its potentially disabling effects. This model recognizes that it is not the environment that disables us, but our own bodies and minds (e.g. chronic fatigue or pain). Holding on to a very rigid distinction between (biological) impairment and (social) disability does not do justice to our lived experience. Kafer’s political/relational model ‘sympathises with the social model, but builds on social and minority model frameworks, where disability reflects specific political contexts.’ Disability scholar Gracen Brilmyer explains that Kafer ‘shifts away from understanding disability as a purely medical “problem” of the body/mind, incorporates how social and architectural barriers can alienate non-normative bodies, and ultimately presents disability as a political site that is ever-changing and always in relation to other people, environments, and attitudes. Furthermore, the political/relational approach acknowledges that concepts of disability always already intersect with notions of race, class, gender and sexuality.’
Following this, our network aims for an intersectional approach to disability. Intersectionality is a term coined by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, in 1989, to discuss the ways that all aspects of social and political identities, such as gender, sexuality, race and disability, overlap and interconnect. Intersectional theory has, since its formulation, become a guiding principle in the development of feminist analysis, and has been applied to nearly all academic disciplines and non-academic fields, such as politics, education, healthcare, employment and economics. Our network takes seriously the ways that concepts of disability always intersect with other aspects of our positionalities. A person’s disability/impairment/chronic illness does not stand in isolation, it is one of the many axes of difference that make up a person’s identity (e.g. gender, color, religion, background, sexual orientation and so forth).
In addition, our network advocates a broad approach to disability, chronic illness, mental impairment and neurodivergency. We follow Alison Kafer’s ‘crip’ approach to upset the binaries between disabled/able-bodied/able-minded, and the sick/healthy. While our network recognizes that not everyone self-identifies with the term ‘crip’, and we are supportive of any and all forms of self-identification, we here follow Kafer’s theoretical standpoints behind the term, to illustrate how we approach ableism in academia from an activist standpoint. Following disability art scholar Carrie Sandahl, Kafer approaches crip as a ‘fluid and ever-changing [term], claimed by those whom it did not originally define… The term crip has expanded to include not only those with physical impairment but those with sensory or mental impairments as well.’ Kafer connects this to the idea that we need to start thinking about ‘compulsory able-mindedness’ in addition to ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’, in order to take seriously the criticism of disability studies ‘that we have focused on physical disabilities to the exclusion of all else’. For Kafer, ‘compulsory able-mindedness’ helps to think about disability differently, and allows the creation of coalitions. While nondisabled people claiming crip may remind of the dangers of the ableist appropriative declaration that ‘we are all disabled’ – a statement which conflates all specific experiences ‘without regard to structural inequality of patterns of exclusion and discrimination’, according to Kafer a ‘nondisabled claim to crip’ is different. A ‘nondisabled claim to crip’ attends to the flexibility of the category ‘crip’, and critically recognizes ‘the ethical, epistemic and political responsibilities behind such claims: deconstructing the binary between disabled and able-bodied/able-minded requires more attention to how different bodies/minds are treated differently, not less.’
Therefore, our network is informed by a feminist, queer, crip mentality. Kafer describes her book as a ‘fundamentally coalitional text’, as her work brings disability identities and experiences to bear on existing feminist and queer theoretical frameworks. This, however, is not only additive: ‘While I am indeed arguing that disability needs to be recognized as a category of analysis alongside gender, race, class and sexuality, my larger goal is to address how disability is figured in and through these other categories of difference.’ Our network aims to approach our work in such a way that is respectful of these theoretical frameworks.
Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2013).
Barbara Neukirchinger, ‘feminist queer crip’, Feminist Review 112 (12 February 2016) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/fr.2015.66
Berend Mul, ‘The social model of disability and framing disease I – The social model of disability‚’ Rethinking Disability. http://rethinkingdisability.net/the-social-model-of-disability-and-framing-disease-i-the-social-model-of-disability/
Gracen Brilmyer, ‘Archival assemblages: applying disability studies’ political/relational model to archival description’, Archives and Museum Informatics 18:2 (2018).