Wendell, SusanThe Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability1996London: Routledge

Susan Wendell finds herself between the worlds of people with and without disabilities. She writes|||”Perhaps the type of disability I have also influences my appreciation of diversity in disability politics. Because my disability is no longer readily apparent, and because it is an illness whose symptoms vary greatly from day to day, I live between the world of the disabled and the world of the non-disabled.” (p. 76)|||Wendell’s The Rejected Body is a wide ranging feminist philosophical discussion about disability. While the rights, potentials, and perspectives of people with disabilities are the main subjects of her work, Wendell also provides insightful criticisms of feminist and nonfeminist views concerning the body. She argues for more inclusive feminist ethics, engaging the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities. |||My reaction to The Rejected Body is, in no small measure, effected by my relationship with an older sibling who is both psychologically and physically disabled, and by my interests in feminism. Wendell’s argument and basic propositions are balanced, positive and illuminating. She writes for a lay audience, but travels into contested and complex aspects of feminist thought (e.g., embodiment theory, independence, difference, abortion). Thanks to her clarity, readers without any background in feminism or disability will have little difficulty understanding Wendell’s points, though they may miss some of the more subtle details and controversies. Feminists and post- structuralists will have familiar territory to review — difference, embodiment, transcendence, standpoint epistemology, stigmatization, dependence, exclusionary language, medical ethics, eugenics — from a refreshingly constructive critical perspective.|||A notable strength of this work is that it is an example of one of its own fundamental philosophical points: People with disabilities are best able to comprehend their own individual needs, realities and capacities. The Rejected Body clarifies the social, psychological and physical obstacles which stand in the way of equal treatment and opportunity. It provides what, intuitively, seems to be an accurately described socio-political context for the disabled from which non- disabled (or temporarily able bodied) people may draw some understanding. Thirty two years with a disabled family member, and a longstanding interest in feminism has not given me the depth of understanding I found in her work. |||Working from a few basic anthropological and feminist precepts, Wendell carries out the logical implications of her own and others’ experiences as persons with disabilities. Disability, like gender, class and race is a socially constructed category with contextually defined references to biophysical realities. As a category of alterity, ‘disability’ is employed, in part, to distinguish a class of people from what is defined as normal or unmarked; young, male, and healthy. Medical and insurance professionals and government policy makers are empowered to define disability, frequently in ways that serve their own economic interests. The act of defining disability therefore creates disability and establishes its social boundaries. The marking of the disabled by the nondisabled reinforces the public stigmatization of disability. This stigmatization is influenced by projective fears centering on deviation from the bodily norm. This, Wendell links to the impossible desire to control every aspect of nature and bodily existence – the myth of control (1). In a culture where the body is seen as controllable, any deviation from the norm is a personal flaw. The prospect of disability, loss of control, stigmatization and dependence inspires fear in the non-disabled. Bodily ideals have become confused with the norm through the myth of control. Since it is believed that we ultimately control our bodies and our health, we are held responsible for what happens to them and for their condition. By definition, the bodily ideal is unattainable by persons with disabilities, and so, the (unconscious) virtual certainty that today’s non-disabled person will someday become disabled is a source of fear. Fear, of course, may lead to contempt and derogation but does nothing to promote understanding. In short, society literally and figuratively creates disability, then stigmatizes the disabled.|||Wendell is carefully and constructively critical, not just of institutions, culture and beliefs that create these problems, but also of feminist perspectives which ignore them and of her own assumptions and beliefs. She looks far beyond the obvious problems of access to public facilities and information. Ignorance of disability is dangerous and irresponsible, since eventually everyone must deal with disability in some respect, as they or their loved ones age. Wendell argues persuasively that persons with disabilities have different and valuable contributions to make in feminist thought concerning the body, and our awareness of it, interdependence and medical ethics. Feminists have argued against the notions of bodily transcendence and the mind/body duality, while for many people with disabilities, these may be important coping strategies. By transcendence, Wendell means the ability to lift one’s consciousness above limitations and pains of physical existence. While this may sound like another version of the myth of control – mind over matter – it is not. Wendell recognizes, through her experience and the experiences of others, that the mind and body may have somewhat separate existence. This allows her to partially salvage the often criticized mind/body duality as a potentially useful concept, without subscribing to any myth of control. For example, she quotes a quadriplegic man who found positive meaning in his condition by learning to enjoy his own mind and its ability to continue despite his nearly total bodily limitation(p176):|||”. . . there is a certain security and comfort in returning to my little cocoon every night, enswathed in a warm electric blanket, settled into a microenvironment consisting of one’s essentials. It is a breach of communication with the toils of social ties and obligations, a retreat into a private cerebral world. And it is at these times that my mind wanders furthest afield. In such deep quietude, one indeed finds a perverse freedom.”(Murphy 1990: 193-194). |||People with disabilities have been largely confined to the private sphere by a world full of obstacles, both physical and social. While people with disabilities would like to be able to pay for the care-giving services they need, they harbor no false beliefs concerning the possibility of independence. Feminists have argued against the high social value of independence, saying that it reflects certain male experiences more than those of most women (p139). Since women disproportionately provide care, both paid and voluntary, for the disabled, it is in the best interests of feminists and people with disabilities to re-evaluate the myths of independence. |||Wendell’s critique of medical ethics and the myth of bodily control are especially poignant. She looks forward to the development of a feminist medical ethics including the voices of the disabled. Many readers without first hand experience may be surprised by the general lack of interest. Western medicine has exhibited in the treatment of persons with disability, including the elderly. Wendell presents case studies, including her own experiences with doctors. She suggests that the authority of Western medicine is often abused in health care policy and medical practice. Western medicine is promoted as a curing art, rather than a caring art. Since disabilities are rarely curable, care for the disabled is a low priority, one of limited prestige and profits. The obsession with curing, she continues, is a manifestation of the myth of control. The ethics and practices of contemporary medicine suffer under the weight of their own self-confidence, supporting the myth of controlling outcomes and stigmatizing the “incurable.” The disabled — uniquely — have the perspective and experience needed to confront these obstacles. That they lack both public voice and authority is everybody’s problem. |||With no reservations, I recommend Wendell’s book to anybody interested in medical ethics and human rights. It would also serve well as a supplementary topical introduction to contemporary feminist thought. Most importantly, however, this book should reach the eyes and minds of medical practitioners and educators, public health officials, and policy makers. |||NOTE|||1. While, as a scientist, I cannot completely agree with Wendell’s over-generalization of the ‘Western Scientific Project’ as an attempt to control nature, the widespread popularity of this view among academic non-scientists is noteworthy. This trope is as much an essentialism as any produced by Western science. |||REFERENCES|||Murphy, Robert F.|||1990The Body Silent. New York: W. W. Norton.|||ACKNOWLEDGMENT|||I thank Michael Duke, Sarah McKim Valentine, Marcia Anne Dobres, and Patricia S. Tomaso for their editorial advice and substantive comments.|||

Matthew S. TomasoDepartment of Continuing Education, and Coordinator for the Center for Archaeological Studies, Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA.


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