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"Sapping the Strength of the State" or notes on reading Berube

While I was away attending the TYCA Southeast Conference in Chattanooga, the faculty/staff discussion group for the 2010 Writing and Social Justice Conference met to discuss Michael Berube's Life As We Know It: A Father, a Family, and an Exceptional Child. I've been told that the discussion went quite well, and I had a few moments this morning to discuss Berube's ideas with one of the Student Writing Center tutors, Lori. As she is a person with a disability herself, I found her insights into the book profound, and useful in helping me to understand the broader cultural ramifications that Berube discusses in the book in the context of individual experience.

1) It would seem that many of the things that become so problematic about the treatment of the mentally disabled since the late 19th century is that such treatment were often "for the best" or had "good intentions" and were based on progressive thinking. In other words, the manner in which all disabled were treated previously (seen as somehow tainted by evil or corruption a la Richard III or the more sympathetic, and even more tragic Quasimodo) was, at least, set aside during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and many of the disabled were institutionalized "for their own good." They were sent to "hospitals" where the implication was that they would be "cured" of their "disease." While such institutionalization was no doubt better than being treated as a social pariah or a demon-besotted creature, mal-treatment was still the norm for the disabled. As Berube notes, drawing from Foucault, the institution of treated the disabled inhumanely never died, but transformed into a more "modern" system where the disabled (and most particularly the mentally disabled) were institutionalized "for their own good" and for the "benefit of society." In essence the "system" justified the inhumane treatment because it was supposedly benefiting the disabled, just as, perhaps, an exorcism would benefit a medieval disabled person because it would drive the demons that were causing the disability out. In either case, you end up with the same result: someone being treated inhumanely and that treatment being justified because the ends were supposedly beneficial to the individual and to society.

2) On a further note, I am also interested in the generally accepted metaphor of disability as disease, rather than just another way of being. Berube doesn't seem to be getting into that too much (I'm only half-way through), but Lori in the Student Writing Center certainly was interested in talking about it, and I am curious about the adoption of metaphors as means of defining ourselves. That doesn't mean, of course, that a disability doesn't magically disappear just because one and others accept it as one's normal state of being. If any thing, disability highlights the impossibility for us to escape our physical bodies, and how those bodies shape our identity.

3) Berube is quite adept at spotting American foibles. We, it would seem, are a patently anti-social who mistrust big groups that we aren't members of (and perhaps leaders of) and particularly of government. This distrust of society runs the gamut of American political beliefs from far left (fight the man) to the far right (damn gubmint!). Berube notes that these extremist notions of independence and individualism have a profound effect on the disabled, given that the disabled are often obviously dependent on others in order to sometimes lead their lives lives, but also for some, in order to sustain life at all. Lori was particularly interested in inter-dependence. I noted, as well, that the able-bodied ideas about independence are often just lies we tell ourselves to get along in the world. As Donne said, of course, "no man is an isle entire unto himself." Amercians, however, seem to feel that at least we are all peninsulas with really narrow causeways. I think the disabled throw our American notions of independence and autonomy right in our faces. Many people with disabilities cannot be fully independent (nor should they be.) They cannot be expected to fulfill the ultimate demand that some people put on American citizens to buckle down and "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." Sounds familiar, eh? Victor Villanueva discussed the same idea in his book Bootstraps.

I believe, as well, that the disabled prove the lie that charity is ennobling. Charity is only ennobling of the giver. It forces the recipient into the eternal groveling position as the dependent on some able-bodied benefactor, and are, therefore, a lesser being. All this individualism, for all its vaunted greatness, sure seems to have a great more to deal with social position than it really does with "freedom" now doesn't it?


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