“This is how a myth becomes reality: how contingent social choices and practices can create the disabled subject.”1
What counts as healthy and what counts as disability are not necessarily biologically determined, but rather can be socially constructed. Kimani Paul-Emile’s forthcoming paper, Blackness as Disability, calls our attention to this truth, and does so in a way that shows how our chosen constructions could not have higher stakes for any given individual, or for the fate of our collective life.
Any definition of health, even the most biomedical, depends on a conception of “normal” functioning, as I have written of before. Wendy Parmet puts it thus: “[T]he questions of whether the capacity to stay focused in a classroom or to see well at night are [part of normal functioning depend] . . . on what is expected in a given society of people and their interactions with their environment.”
The ADA’s definition of disability is similarly littered with socially contingent parameters, such as whether the individual has a “physical or mental impairment,” which is defined to include any “physiological condition,” that “substantially limits” one’s ability to perform any “major life activity.” Of course, what our way of life prioritizes as a “major life activity” or “normal” functioning is variable, not necessary or given. Indeed our current economic structure may well shape the designation of sleeping patterns as functional or disordered.
As the social model of disability teaches us, the physiological conditions themselves do not produce disability, until they meet social structures, institutions, and norms that “substantially limit” a person in what we have rendered “a major life activity.” One could view some mobility impediments as stemming not from individual physical characteristics, but from the architectural choice of steps over ramps. If the so-called “actual” disability prong of the ADA definition already harbors these many layers of social construction, then surely the “regarded as” prong of the definition even more explicitly extends ADA protection to those whom society has stigmatized as less able, due to certain physiological and other markers, despite those markers’ irrelevance to functional abilities.
So how have we as a society made “blackness” disabling to those with the physical, cultural, and linguistic characteristics that Americans have constructed into that racial label? What, as Paul-Emile phrases it, are the “social structures, institutions and norms” that “substantially limit” a black person in such dimensions as 1) in basic mobility through public space, 2) overall health prospects, 3) choice of housing, 4) ability to work and 5) ability to pursue schooling? We know the litany, but not in this particular frame. Police stops and other racially disparate law enforcement practices limit the basic ability to navigate territory, much as door jambs and stairs might limit someone in a wheelchair. Disparate housing opportunities, resulting from government-sponsored discrimination in part, disproportionately expose Black Americans to substandard living conditions and environmental hazards, contributing to increased health risk factors and disadvantages in accessing care. These circumstances lead to physical health outcomes that may themselves be disabling conditions. Unequal access to jobs and education limit a person’s ability to work, no less then the failure to accommodate an employee in taking their epilepsy medication, or refusal to adjust for hearing loss, would pose barriers.
Paul-Emile’s article is plainly a pragmatist, not an essentialist, project. She is hardly saying that the nature of race is like the nature of disability, because she does not believe we get very far viewing either of these things as having “natures” at all. We are the ones who have chosen to dub them one or another through the manner by which our social institutions and norms respond to certain clusters of circumstance. I believe this point could be foregrounded even more. The piece could have been entitled “How We Render Blackness Disabling,” because the polemical title, “Blackness as Disability” does not cue the reader to what we can never be reminded of enough: that “blackness” and to a great extent, “disability,” are as real or as unreal–as salient or not to a person’s life opportunities–as we decide in any historical moment.
Given the malleability of each of these constructed categories, why have we chosen to treat them distinctly, and might it be fruitful to trouble the boundary between the two?
Paul-Emile usefully recounts the differing conceptions of equality reflected by our race-related and disability-focused civil rights regimes. The disability regime envisions affirmative obligations such as reasonable modification/accommodation, it focuses on disparate impact rather than intent in recognition of structural causes of discrimination, and it prohibits reverse discrimination claims. The cramped principles and doctrines that have arisen around race law lack these equality-enhancing features. Why? The juxtaposition Paul-Emile proposes helps to, as she says, “center our attention on the aspects of Blackness that really matter, revealing its purpose as being to disable ….” Paul-Emile uses her article to pose the question of whether the civil rights paradigm could be harnessed to address the disadvantage imposed upon Black Americans.
Another fruitful result of her re-mapping is to expose the radical potential at the core of disability law, in particular its conception of remedy. If particular physiological conditions themselves do not necessarily bear any inherent valence, and our social institutions, practices, and norms are what often render any characteristic “disabling,” disability law’s virtue is that it forthrightly calls for a change of that social structure, in other words, a “reasonable modification.” Disability law envisions not mere deterrence of individual wrongdoing, or compensation for rogue behavior. It assumes that social institutions and norms can and should be changed. Paul-Emile reminds us that Samuel Bagenstos has characterized disability law thus: the “greater part of disadvantage is best addressed through attempts to change the environment.”
The paper asks big questions and therefore prompted me to mull over all sorts inquiries related and tangential (such as thinking over what if any significance attaches to Wesley Hohfeld’s designation of “power” and “disability’ as jural opposites). However, what captivates me most about this paper, about the disability law regime, and indeed about the possibilities of collective action afforded by law in any context, is this point: here is the world we have made, un-made, and can re-make again. Will we?