Laurie Toby Edison

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What Are We Calling Natural?

Laurie and Debbie say:

The New York Times ran two major articles on disability last week: one in the style section and one in the sports section. This is interesting in and of itself, as most disability articles have historically been either science articles or “style” articles with a tear-jerker undertone. This week’s style article takes a very different tack. Following the headline, “Clearly, Frankly, Unabashedly Disabled,” we read snippets like:

“It used to be that if you were disabled and on television, they’d play soft piano music behind you,” said Robert David Hall, a double amputee who plays a coroner on CSI. “The thing I love about ‘CSI’ is that I’m just Dr. Robbins.”

or

Ms. Haddad, whose right leg was amputated below the knee in 2003 after a car accident, said she has no problem wearing shorts when she goes shopping. Neither does she shy from removing the prosthesis in order to swim at the neighborhood pool.

She said people gawk and some have even tapped her on the shoulder to ask her to put her leg back on. She said she’s been told, “It is upsetting my child.” But she refuses to hide.

“You either accept me as I am,” she said, “or you don’t have to look at it.”

The social belief that Ms. Haddad is doing such a terrific (and brave) job of bucking is that everyone is entitled to a “perfect body.” Perfect bodies are first and foremost, “natural.” They consist of what you were born with: all flesh and blood, all vibrantly healthy, with no metal, wood, springs, or other mechanical devices. The “unnatural” materials mark you as not only imperfectly human but also somehow alien: a cyborg, part-machine.

Interestingly enough, this stigma does not generally apply to chemical, biological, and internal assistance. Whether the issue is Xanax for anxiety, Botox for wrinkles, or a pacemaker for heartbeat management, doctors happily prescribe and help plan, patients accept the prescriptions, and life goes on its merry way. And while we give lip service to keeping performance-enhancing drugs out of sports, California’s governor is known to have used them, and tens of thousands of local-gym body builders are following his lead, with only minor repercussions (because in our deepest cultural heart we believe in the desire to have as perfect a body as possible).

When these choices are discussed publicly (which they don’t have to be, because they are invisible), we hear phrases like, “This drug fixes faulty brain chemistry,” or “the heart’s native pacemaker isn’t working right.” Really, this is identical to “wheelchairs let people go places their legs won’t carry them,” or “this prosthetic arm enables eating at a dinner table,” but the response is vastly different.

Go to the sports section, and you find that visible aids to mobility can threaten a runner’s career.

As Oscar Pistorius of South Africa crouched in the starting blocks for the 200 meters on Sunday, the small crowd turned its attention to the sprinter who calls himself the fastest man on no legs.

Pistorius wants to be the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics. But despite his ascendance, he is facing resistance from track and field’s world governing body, which is seeking to bar him on the grounds that the technology of his prosthetics may give him an unfair advantage over sprinters using their natural legs.

(By the way, there’s apparently no evidence that he can win over sprinters with “natural legs.” He is surpassing disabled runner records, and three-year-old women’s records. The worries are way ahead of the numbers, which is no surprise.)

Writer and critic Donna Haraway understands exactly how this phenomenon works:

“Think about the technology of sports footwear,” she says. “Before the Civil War, right and left feet weren’t even differentiated in shoe manufacture. Now we have a shoe for every activity.” Winning the Olympics in the cyborg era isn’t just about running fast. It’s about “the interaction of medicine, diet, training practices, clothing and equipment manufacture, visualization and timekeeping.”

When the furor about the cyborgization of athletes through performance-enhancing drugs reached fever pitch last summer, Haraway could hardly see what the fuss was about.

Oscar Pistorius is on a natural line from the actors and comedians in the style article. He’s taking what he has and running with it (pun intentional). We’re guessing that he won’t be allowed to run all the way to the Olympics, because athletes with “perfect bodies” are terrified being shown up by someone whose natural body is imperfect, and whose prosthetics make him cybernetic.

If the trend to keep visible disabilities as normalcy continues, converting them into assets is an inevitable result. Comedian Josh Blue leads off the style article with jokes about his cerebral palsy, “My right arm does a lot of crazy stuff. Like the other day, I thought someone had stolen my wallet.” Are we going to keep him out of comedy contests because able-bodied comedians can’t use his jokes?

And if someone competing against Oscar Pistorius needs medication to have the courage to leave the house, and then runs like the wind, would anyone say that he was relying on “something that provides advantages”?

Lisa Hirsch sent us both links, but Guy beat her to one of them.

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5 Responses to “What Are We Calling Natural?”

  1. susan senator Says:

    Actually, the Times had a third piece on imperfection in bodies, also in the Style section; the Modern Love column was about adopting a disabled baby girl from China, and deciding not to exchange her (as these people were offered to do once the problems were discovered in the baby) for a more “perfect” baby. I have written about this as well (shameless plug). I think this issue is going to come up more and more as the IDEA forces school systems to include and educate disabled children and they are by law more and more a part of society. Then there will be all of these educated special needs children who, upon adulthood, lose their legal entitlements to supports and services (the law only goes to 22) and they will face trying to get jobs without the help they need. I am completely in favor of amending the law to go beyond 22 in terms of entitlements, otherwise why are we educating people like my severely autistic son?

    I know, I went off on a tangent. My main point is that disability/imperfection giving someone an edge is a fascinating topic; thanks for blogging it. How about an autistic savant who has splinter skills in spelling? Should he/she be disqualified from a Spelling Bee? Or the Asperger’s kid who is gifted in mathematics? His/her “disability” gives him/her an edge that you could see as unfair and “abnormal,” just like the artificial legs.

  2. Debbie Says:

    Susan, thanks for the pointer to the article, and great questions. You didn’t include a link to your writing about this, so let me, for our readers’ convenience.

    Personally, I’m (more than) enough of a socialist to believe that the job of the country is to provide support and service to its citizens, and of course “special needs” are just that: needs. And honestly, they aren’t that special. I’d love to see the age limit go away entirely.

  3. susan senator Says:

    Here is a piece that I wrote which takes this same question of how we deal with imperfection/disability in another direction: http://susansenator.com/wantedchild.html

  4. betsyl Says:

    the thing that i love about csi is that up until i read this, i had no idea he was a double amputee. disabled, yes. exactly how, no, because there hasn’t been a heartwarming episode showing how he was disabled and how he got over this enormous tragedy. woo!

  5. Jackie Says:

    That comment, that someone said her swimming without her prosthesis upset someone’s child. I’m so tired of this whole, everyone in the entire world is responsible for my child, except me the parent thing.

    I’d have told whoever said that, “If your child is upset, maybe you should take them someplace they would like. Like a Chuck E Cheese. I’m not responsible for your child, you are”

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