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The Other Body: Reflections on Difference, Disability, and Identity Politics"
by Ynestra King
From Ms. magazine, Spring 1993

Background on the context in which this essay was written.

Date Reading Was Discussed: May 3, 1993
Present: Colleen M., Catherine C., Bobby C., Kalisa, Stephanie R., Barbara F., and Cathleen M.

Women at this month's session appreciated Ynestra King's sensitive and exceptionally well written essay examining the needs and feelings of disabled people, particularly disabled women. One woman, herself disabled, asked why our reading circle is exploring this issue. What does disability have to do with ecofeminism?

A woman responded that contrary to the soundbite perception, ecofeminism is much more than just feminism and ecology. Ecofeminism, she exclaimed, is committed to the full spectrum of social justice politics aimed at eliminating oppression in all of its manifestations. King, a well-known ecofeminist, perceptively illustrates the concept of the "other," especially when she compares disability with race and gender.

Another woman felt King's description of disabledness as "an organic, literally embodied fact" mirrors an ecofeminist consciousness that humans are of the earth, imperfect, and flawed; we age, break down, and eventually die. By contrast, the patriarchal mindset is obsessed with transcending our natural animal condition—epitomized by a disdain for the female body which gives birth, bleeds, and lactates. Women's bodies and disabled bodies are both glaring reminders that "man" is not god.

Another woman pointed out that ecofeminism affirms the interrelated web of life. King writes that "on the continuum of autonomy and dependency, disabled people need help." Patriarchy, mired in the politics of separation, domination, and control, regards the need for help as a weakness, at odds with a chest-pounding, survival of the fittest ethos. All in all, we agreed that the subject of disability provides unique terrain for clarifying ecofeminist tenets.

Although firmly in support of equal rights for disabled people, one woman reluctantly questioned the cost of ramps, special education, or accessible bathroom facilities since such expenditures inordinately benefit so few people. Another woman quickly retorted that eliminating three military bombers would probably fund the entire disability budget.

No matter how large the pie, though, the woman responded that in light of homelessness, AIDS, pollution, and other major social problems, it seems that the needs of the disabled could conceivably consume a disproportionate percentage of society's resources. Other women insisted that if we continue to make economics our guideline, we fall into the trap of prioritizing some people over others. A woman noted that we have barely begun to tap the wisdom and contributions disabled people have to offer.

Just as nature is profoundly diverse, different experiences and perceptions enhance the spiritual and creative composition of the human community. Signing, for example, has slowly developed a large cross-over audience of non-deaf people captivated by this wondrously complex form of communication.

Women who had traveled to non-Western countries commented on the stark contrast in attitudes toward disability. Non-industrialized people seem much more accepting of impairment as a fact of life and part of nature. Social opprobrium appears minimal and (except perhaps for lepers) the disabled are not excluded from the quotidian harmony of life.

Some of us wondered why obesity isn't categorized as a disability since obese people, like the disabled, are blatantly discriminated against solely on the basis of their bodies. One woman, fraught with years of weight-related problems, said she intimately knew the pain of living with a body considered ugly by mainstream Vogue standards. Other women challenged her for having the gall to compare her able-bodied self with disabledness.

Several women, however, found it plausible that the psychic continuum of disability could include those harboring a low self-image of their bodies. Bombarded hourly with depictions of perfection, women often develop severe insecurities when in fact our bodies are quite "normal." One woman remarked how tragic it is that so many sisters have bought into believing they have to have their bodies mutilated (i.e., undergo plastic surgery).

The tremendous pressure to conform to narrow hyper-Western ideals of physical acceptability enabled several of us to vicariously relate to the prejudices disabled people endure.

One woman was concerned with the welfare of disabled women, pointing out that by and large they are more vulnerable than disabled men. Men have a higher probability of securing a caretaker, be it a wife, mother, or relative, or else the wherewithal to hire a nurse. Disabled women, she felt, more often have to fend for themselves.

Another woman found it interesting that women in general are perceived as dependent while men are presumed to be autonomous. In fact, she asserted, men are highly dependent—if not parasitic—on women's economic and emotional servitude. Another woman lamented that her apartment is not wheel chair accessible and sensed an overall separation from disabled people. She wondered how much is attributable to fate as opposed to the convenient lifestyle she's arranged for herself.

Ynestra King's illuminating essay on the politics of disability compelled us to examine our own collusion with able-bodied supremacism.

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