Hope in the Grey Parts

This past weekend, I was presenting at a conference about disclosure, a small disability studies conference in Delaware. One of the people on my panel started her talk with a few clips of the famous 1978 “Hope” speech by the gay politician-martyr Harvey Milk.

…you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great. Hope that all will be all right. Without hope, not only gays, but the blacks, the seniors, the handicapped, the us’es, the us’es will give up.

This was a weird moment for me because the last time I heard this speech I was in college, whetting my political sensibilities. I was a sucker for a tearjerking plea to reason, volunteering at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, both in New York’s Chelsea gayborhood that could not have better captivated my hunger for gay and lesbian histories.

This was a time when I had not learned the word “heteronormative.” Or “queer,” for that matter.

In the intervening years, I stopped working with these high-profile, successful organizations as I realized the extent to which their march toward marriage equality occludes advancement on the issues we should have been caring more about much sooner: trans rights, queer of color marginalization, LGBTQ asylum and immigration issues, among others. When I heard that Harvey Milk’s camera shop in San Francisco’s Castro district had been purchased by the Human Rights Campaign and turned into a merchandise store, I literally cried.

It was weird, then, to hear Milk’s speech after some time. The “hope” he implores us to provide to the “us’es” out there emerges from brazenly coming out to friends and family (a tactic far more radical than the assimilationist Gay Inc. would care to admit, but this is besides the point). The presenter using Milk’s speech implored us to think of “coming out” as a way to give hope to students with disabilities. She sketched a political project in which unveiling concealable disabilities at the front of the classroom would make disability a stronger, more politically effective category.

At first blush this might not trouble you much. But for many of us in the room, it was a record scratch moment. This presentation, and the discussion that followed, was deeply injurious. I suspect I will be reckoning with its implications for quite some time.

During the discussion, several of us pushed this presenter to think of disability as a more complicated analytic that does neatly boil down between visible disability, invisible disability, and everyone else. She responded by taking issue with something from my paper, that if disability is only ever this fuzzy, borderless thing, then we can’t expect our students to do anything meaningful with it. When a deaf woman in the room asked her to consider the way she is often read and misread and mistook in many situations, the presenter insisted: your disability is not concealable, I wasn’t talking to you. She pointed at another woman who was born without her left hand: “You can’t hide that from your students,” at which point the woman stood up and put both her hands in her pockets, concealing all of her arms in clothing. The presenter encouraged us that she was not privileging any kind of disability, but simply arguing for those who can conceal their disabilities to come out of the closet. And this was no less troubling.

It has taken me a long time to explain to people why I’m invested in the field of disability studies, why I – a dude who likes long-distance running and doesn’t identify as disabled – finds such a home in disability theory. And I think this conference experience is helping me finally find the proper framing.

Claiming “hope” in coming out for the disability community co-opts liberation for assimilationist ends in the same way contemporary gay and lesbian organizations have quashed the emancipatory potential of their forebears by constructing marriage – that quintessentially normative institution – into the apex of activist work. Insisting on making invisible disability visible holds out an ideally disabled subject, someone who “qualifies.” It makes the category so stable and so legible that it casts aside the issues we should care most about. Not accidentally, these issues appear at the interstices, in the greyest parts.

This realization about the parallels between queer and disability politics is second to a larger point: disability implicates us all.

Consider the Eames recliner chair (left), a staple of modern home design. It was created by the husband-and-wife team, Charles and Ray Eames. But this design did not start out as a chair. It started as a splint for disabled veterans after WWII. The Eamses were working on moldable plywood when the US Navy asked them to create a splint that would better secure a soldier’s broken leg, they curved a piece of wood to the shape of a leg and created slots for tying restraints. And they used the same technique to think up a chair make of wood that would fold up around you.

Consider the Octophone, designed in London in 1913. It was the first device to scan a printed book and produce tones that corresponded to the text. This was a technology for the print-disabled, but it was the predecessor to our e- and audio-books.

Consider the bicycle, how it took a hint from arm-cranked wheelchair designs from the late 17th century to be transformed from a walking aid into a system of pedals and chains in the 19th century.

The exchange between disability and able-bodiedness in terms of technology is one entrĂ©e into the larger ecosystem. We break our legs and need crutches. We lose our voices when we’re sick. We age. We hope, in other words, to become disabled. And so the project that disability studies has sketched makes disability not something subordinate or tragic, but something vital. Disability is everywhere once you know how to look for it.

But this configuration assumes something important: that disability is rarely clearly marked, pre-ordained, or given. It is a way to move, a shifting landscape, uncharted territory. It is hope — not in trim categories but in exactly the opposite. Disability is hope in the grey parts.

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The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.
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