Disabled Bodies in Able-Bodied Contexts

Laurie and Debbie say:

Sarah Wanenchak, guest-posting for Sociological Images, did a fascinating post on “Disabled Bodies and Ableist Acceptance”. Wanenchak uses runners Aimee Mullins


Aimee Mullins on her hands and prostheses


and Oscar Pistorius



Mullins and Pistorius present interesting examples. They are both known for being both accomplished athletes and for being physically attractive – Mullins has done modeling work. They present inspiring stories that have generated a fair amount of sports media coverage. And yet things have not been altogether smooth – there has been some controversy regarding the degree to which the carbon fiber prostheses they use for running confer any form of advantage on the runners who use them. Questions over the effect of the prostheses have threatened Pistorius’s bids to compete in the Olympics alongside able-bodied athletes.

I think the combination of positive and negative reactions is worth noting, in light of [Fiona Kumari] Campbell’s writing on culture and disability. Mullins and Pistorius are admired for “overcoming” a perceived disability, and this admiration feels especially safe for people embedded in able-bodied culture because they are conventionally attractive in every other respect. But this is a story with which we only feel comfortable provided that it doesn’t present any kind of threat to our conventional categories of abled and disabled bodies. It is unacceptable for a disabled body to be better at what it does than an abled body. It is even slightly uncomfortable when a disabled body manages to be “just as good”.

We also blogged about Pistorius back in 2007, when we said:

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. … 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”?

Underlying both Wanenchak’s post and our old one is the cultural conviction that the only way to react to disability is with pity. No one wants to be pitied, but many people are comfortable having others to pity. And it’s easy, if you haven’t thought it out, to pity someone in a wheelchair, or someone who walks tapping her way with a white cane. It’s much more complicated to think about that wheelchair, or that cane as something that opens up the person’s life … and would open it up much more if buildings and streets were more accommodating to a variety of needs. It’s not only complicated, but potentially deeply disturbing, to think about high-tech prostheses, maximized for the needs of a particular person with particular skills at a particular time in his or her life, to think that a “disabled” person perhaps has something that works better than what “normal people” are issued with.

As Wanenchak is deeply aware, many athletic enhancements don’t make people nervous. She talks about skater Johnny Ohno, who is

“as able-bodied as one can get. But … he manages this on the back of technology – on specially designed skates, in special aerodynamic suits, with the help of carefully balanced exercise and nutrition plans; almost no athlete is really “natural” anymore. But at least in part because of the closeness of his body to an able-bodied ideal, this presents no explicit threat to our categories. Ohno fits the accepted model of “human.”

You can say the same of any world-class athlete. The distinction seems to be between what we perceive as “compensations”–replacements for body parts that don’t work or aren’t there–and what we perceive as “enhancements,” physical aids or practices that we put on top of what is “supposed to be there.” Ohno skates on the legs he was born with, in his special skates, in his special suit. Mullins and Pistorius run on legs they weren’t born with, and manage to be successful, conventionally attractive, and enviable. Since we don’t have any cultural slots open for disabled, successful, conventionally attractive, and enviable, people get confused, disturbed, and sometimes threatened.

3 thoughts on “Disabled Bodies in Able-Bodied Contexts

  1. I’m fascinated by the way wheelchairs fit into this conversation. Rather, by the way these conversations tend to happen repeatedly, without mentioning wheelchairs. The fact that wheelchair racers finish marathons much faster than runners doesn’t connect with the way wheelchair use is stigmatized.

    1. Adrian, great point! I think that’s because wheelchair use automatically separates someone out from being comparable to an able-bodied person. We have a basic understanding that wheels are faster than legs and (culturally) we also believe that being in a wheelchair is so awful that we don’t have to feel bad that people in wheelchairs can go faster — after all, it’s not like anyone would ever let someone in a wheelchair compete against a “normal” person. Wheelchairs are extremely “othered,” in a way that other disability-related modifications are not.

  2. Debbie, your comment started me thinking about how thinking changes about a particular adaptive device. Because there ARE some disability aids that used to be badly stigmatized, and the stigma has gone way down. Eyeglasses have stopped being stigmatized to such an extent that many people don’t even recognize them as assistive devices anymore–both my grandmothers were ashamed to wear theirs, ashamed to let anybody see their eyes didn’t work properly.

    I don’t think the social change is because modern eyeglasses can give people better than “normal” vision. I think the social change is because there are so MANY people wearing eyeglasses. It’s easier to stigmatize and marginalize a small group than a big/loud/visible one. The other difference between my grandmothers’ glasses and mine, is that mine are designed to be attractive. The idea that a prosthetic leg can be *pretty* as well as useful ties into that somehow.

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