Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

December 4, 2011

When Do You Still Count as Human?

by @ 10:16 AM. Filed under Autonomy, Disability Issues, General, Healthcare Politics, Theory

Here’s a really great snippet from “An Examined Life” (which see). Renowned philosopher Judith Butler takes a walk with Sunaura Taylor, talking about the reality of disability and the ways physical impairment is perceived, and disability realized, by society. (One thing that was revelatory for me: Taylor refers to the city of San Francisco as “the most accessible place in the world”. I grew up near San Francisco and, while it’s an incredibly wonderful place, I’ve always regarded it as challenging; the hills and traffic, and narrow sidewalks, would have made me guess it would be one of the most difficult places to use a wheelchair. But Taylor notes that it has extensive curb cuts, good wheelchair-accessible public transportation, and a community that recognizes disability and welcomes people with impairments. This is telling testimony to the overriding importance of social context, rather than actual physical environment, to the reality of disability.)

This video is great in so many ways: Taylor’s discussion of the ways society makes her life with an impairment harder or easier; her description of the psychological burden in going into a coffee shop and ordering coffee, and then having to deal with the difficulties of either trying to carry it herself or asking for help – “it’s a political protest for me to go in”; the simple and lovely depiction of two affectionate people being out together, while not pretending the issue of disability doesn’t affect them; the segment in which they go into a used-clothing store (which charges by the pound! – I love San Francisco!) and buy Taylor a warm sweater, which is both a perfectly simple and normal act, and complicated by the ways impairment affects her ability to try it on and the process of payment – ending with the store clerk’s matter-of-factly accommodating reaction. Taylor works in a useful bit of disability-theory: the distinction between “impairment” (physical limitations) and “disability” (difficulties in living caused by social context or discrimination), and the video underscores that point again and again as Taylor goes about her day and talks about how disability affects her. (I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that she has “what the medical world has labeled as arthrogryphosis”. I’m very much sympathetic to the notion of individualized definitions of disease and health, but I don’t think that means there’s no such thing as a diagnosible condition. I see no reason to say that she doesn’t really have arthrogryphosis if she meets the diagnostic criteria for it – as, by her own description, she seems to do. Pointedly repudiating her own use of that name, as she does in the video, doesn’t seem to me to gain anything; whether she wants to call it a “disease” is another matter.) There are also brilliant moments of reflection on the nature of embodiment and what it means to live an embodied life in a social context.

Just a beautiful, sweet film with surprisingly profound content, visually and verbally. I can’t wait to see the rest of this series.

Taylor:     When do you still count as a human?

Butler:     My sense is that what’s at stake here is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency.

. . .

Butler:     [When] you ask for the coffee, or indeed even ask for some assistance with the coffee, you’re basically posing the question “Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs?”


HT: sexgenderbody

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