Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Where Neurodiversity Meets Feminist Theory (Part III)

The last issue I want to address from Bumiller's article is the relationship between neurodiversity in particular (and the disability-rights movement in general) and feminism. She thinks they complement each other well in terms of agitating for, on many fronts, a more open, pluralistic and free society:

The neurodiversity movement, despite its own understanding of itself as engaged in a civil rights struggle, represents a novel form of group-based advocacy. Under present conditions, antidiscrimination principles provide an inadequate basis for the large-scale provision of services and educational opportunities for people with autism (O'Brien 2005). Many typical citizens resist inclusion of people with autism to avoid exposure to uncomfortable interactions with people whom they perceive to be antisocial, gender-inappropriate, or simply odd. More serious obstacles to inclusion result from the failure to support the high costs of treatment programs and the perceived threat of autistic people as dangerous. The responsibility of assuring disabled people's place in society goes far beyond the commitment to preserving individual rights; it necessitates a broader agenda as formulated by feminist disability studies. A more expansive model of inclusion needs to counteract the pull toward normalization and stake a claim about the harmful effects of devaluing all kinds of diversities, including those relating to gender, sexuality and race (Baglieri and Knopf 2004). Moreover, it involves challenging a de facto scheme of social exclusion created by a diminishing welfare state and the provision of fewer resources for supporting people with disabilities (Baker 2004).
... Many aspects of [neurodiversity] effectively articulate a nascent feminist agenda and contribute to the antinormalizing efforts of feminists supporting diverse causes such as the rights of intersexed persons, support for alternative family forms, and genetic diversity.
On their own, in other words, the normalization strategies might make it easier for disabled people (or women) to meet the standards applied to able ones (or men), but they'll never entirely erase the gap, or do anything about the fact that people with such widely varying circumstances are asked to conform to a single standard in the first place.

Another area I see feminism and disability-rights perspectives reinforcing each other is on the question of caregiving. This might not seem like an obvious choice, since you often see feminists and disabled self-advocates at odds over this issue: when disabled people assert our right to adequate care in our own homes (or wherever we choose), feminists argue that we are also claiming entitlement to the underpaid or unpaid labor of women. (See the feminist blogswarm over Ashley X for ample evidence of this conflict).

But when you think about it, modern industrial capitalist society's way of dealing with children, disabled people, elderly adults and every other group that needs help with daily tasks is exactly what you'd expect from a society in which women are invisible second-class citizens. When women are not valued as highly as men, women's work is not regarded as real work, and obligations that fall under the umbrella of "women's work" (say, care for the old, the sick and the disabled) will be more likely to be dismissed as "family responsibilities" in which government meddling is unwarranted.

Making society more inclusive, therefore, means not only eliminating the barriers that keep marginalized people from participating fully in society, but also allowing for a far greater range of available lifestyles. As it stands, the options for attaining housing form a continuum between complete independence (i.e., renting or buying a home of your own, and living in it by yourself) and complete dependence and lack of agency (i.e., living in an institution or group home), with a range of options (in-home care, living with relatives, etc.) in between. I do not think any of these options should be abolished --- with the possible exception of institutionalization --- but I would like to see other kinds of choices added to the list. What about cohousing projects tailored to certain groups' needs? What about neighborhoods that are more like extended families or groups of friends than strangers who just happen to live near each other? I can't come up with many examples offhand, but the kinds of supported-housing options I'd want to see are more relational and egalitarian than institutional. As it is, the relationship between the nonfamily caregiver and her client is a very impersonal one; the caregiver is getting paid (not much) to do certain things, and she has very little incentive to go beyond those duties. It's also a hierarchical relationship, in which the caregiver has power over the client and can make (some) choices for the client, with any objection the client might voice likely to be taken as further evidence for his or her instability and need for further supervision and restraint. I think that if there were more flexibility in community planning and housing development (to take one example among many), more cooperative supported-living schemes would crop up, with groups of disabled people sharing the responsibilities of living together, with a reduced need for external care and support.

1 comment:

Gonzo said...

This communal living is exactly what's being developed in Germany right now (and probably many other countries)
People with disabilities are much less likely to be institutionalized these days, and encouraged to live in shared houses, that are loosely supervised, so people, who can't live on their own, can help each other.
The same principle is applied to charity and combatting poverty.
There are a lot of self-organized centres in my neighbourhood, where people trade goods and services to help each other, instead of solely depending on the mercy of others, or the government.