Author: Debby Sneed
I am not disabled.
I have never before had to “out” myself, for anything. But since I began researching disability in ancient Greece, I have become self-conscious about my able-bodiedness. Through my research I know and appreciate that modern identity is different from ancient identity, that there is no way to trace a continuity of identity from past to present, and that modern identity categories, with their attendant attitudes, expectations, and experiences, cannot be transported into the past. If my modern identity is technically irrelevant to the past identities that I’m studying, why do I feel like it matters?
It seems like every book or article by a disability studies scholar starts with an explicit statement of the author’s identity, establishing why they are enfranchised in the debate. It makes me doubt that I can say something meaningful if I am not disabled and am not close with anyone who is, or that I should even try. A lot of my colleagues who study identity or historically marginalized societies are sensitive to the kinds of issues I myself am having, but it’s difficult to articulate why.
My most recent discomfort can be traced to two problems. One is easier to articulate and is ethical in nature. I’ve been applying for a lot of fellowships and grants lately and I’m worried that people will assume that I’m disabled. Here is an actual paragraph from a recent application I submitted for a fellowship:
Research into ancient perspectives on disability can also help broaden the modern academic field of view. Two significant corollaries of identity studies are, first, that the identities of modern researchers affect the questions they ask and the interpretations they accept and, second, that researchers tend to study those aspects of the past that they themselves are familiar with in the present. By these tokens, the diversity of modern researchers is critical for progress. This is as true of archaeology as of any other discipline, but because archaeology is such a physically and emotionally demanding field of study, it is not considered accessible to or by students with mental and/or physical disabilities. This stereotype prevents people with disabilities from pursuing archaeology and the lack of the physical presence of disability in classrooms, on excavations, and in academia generally means that research agendas do not typically integrate questions about disability, its material correlates, and its lived experience in the past. My project not only incorporates disabled members of ancient Greek populations into broader considerations of ancient history, but also has the potential to highlight the intellectual space available for disabled students within Classics and archaeology.
Please ignore that it’s long-winded and consider how much it could sound like I am disabled and I want to increase the visibility of people like me in academia. With every application I twist myself into knots trying to find a way to make it clear that I’m not disabled. I struggle with the possibility that someone might read my application and give me additional consideration or even award me a fellowship because they think they’re giving it to someone who’s disabled. I want to be woke to the issues that disabled academics face without pulling a Rachel Dolezal and benefitting from a minority identity that I do not have. But how do you say “I am not disabled” in a non-weird way? (Seriously, how do you? I’m open to suggestions.)
The second problem is more difficult to explain. As someone who is not disabled, I cannot understand what it means to be disabled, most especially in terms of the barriers that disabled people face as they attempt to exist in an able-bodied world. I can imagine problems, such as how stairs would be prohibitive to people who use wheelchairs, but I cannot really understand what it means to live every day with a visible or invisible disability. And no matter how many books and articles I read by disabled people, I will never understand it, not really.
This is a problem for me as a researcher because it means that I am more limited in what kinds of questions I can ask and interpretations I can come up with. Let me give you an example. Right now I am working on a conference paper in which I argue that ancient Greek architects took account of mobility-impaired visitors to religious sanctuaries when they constructed a building’s entrance with either stairs or a ramp. Ramps in general have not received serious scholarly attention and, in fact, sometimes architectural plans of ancient temples leave off the ramps altogether, as if they are not an integral feature of the structure. I attribute this gap in scholarship to the able-bodiedness of the field: most of us have never actively thought about how we get in and out of buildings and, because we don’t think about it for ourselves, we don’t often think about it for the ancients. My research into disability studies makes me more aware of disability issues than the average scholar and it wasn’t a big step for me to consider access when I looked at ancient Greek architecture. But my ability to think about what would or would not have been relevant for disabled ancient Greeks is limited to what I can read about, which is further limited to what folks in disability studies write about.
These problems are not surmountable, and there are surely more than two anyway, but these are two I have encountered recently.
I don’t have answers, but I am confident about a few things:
- I can say something about disability in ancient Greece that is not just valid, but also meaningful, as long as I am sensitive and diligent about incorporating appropriate theories and methodologies.
- I don’t have to identify as disabled in order to do justice to disability in the past. With disability comes a concept of normalcy, and everyone has a stake in that, just like everyone has a stake in gender.
- I am not responsible for the assumption that the only people who study disability in the past are themselves disabled. Still, I am aware that it exists and that I must be careful not to imply that I am something that I am not.
A disabled scholar would write a different dissertation, but it’s not just because of their disability, it’s because of their myriad life experiences that I didn’t have. Given the politics of identity, though, I think it’s important to be upfront and also self-reflexive, to think about the problems of your own identity and how it affects your research program.
7 thoughts on “I am not disabled.”
This is a great piece. I have just started thinking about disability and ableism in reference to the Odyssey–there is a lot of work to do here! Thanks for this.
I enjoyed reading this essay. It’s interesting to think about how life experiences shape identity and produce different work outcomes. Though you do not yourself have a disability, you are not limited in researching and understanding how disability is or was treated in different societies and shows that you are interested in experiences other than your own.
Thanks, AHaus! I appreciate your support!
I think it’s ok to say “I am not a disabled person” or “I am not disabled” or “non-disabled” and where appropriate recognise the difference of your life experience and ongoing openness to educating yourself more by listening to disabled voices. It is interesting to hear what gaps you see and why you noticed, and be open to hearing what others see too (and crediting them). I think the main thing about allyship is to ensure that work by oppressed groups is credited and benefits them rather than just you. That might mean where possible paying some of your benefits back to those groups specifically in recognition if you get paid for something. Or paying participants in research if possible etc etc.
One thing about disability is that not all impairments and disability experiences are the same. There are some general commonalities of experience, especially in response to challenging accessfail for example, but there are also considerable differences between people in different impairment groups. Some of the early disability studies stuff is rightly criticised for being dominated by white physically impaired men thus not recognising the vast difference of experience by other ‘disabled’ people who face very different barriers such as people with intellectual or mental health impairments or people of colour, women, LGBT+ people and so on. I think it’s always going to be a case of “be as aware of different types of barriers and be as intersectional as you can” and keep learning. It is also OK to not speak for all impairment groups, I can see the research you do as focusing on physical or sensory impairments and I don’t even know if it’s possible to know what other inclusivities were done like “information provision” which I often say is 50% of accessibility before you even start.
These are all really great suggestions for how to approach this! In my research I try to account for intersections–specifically, age–but it’s so hard to account for everything that could potentially influence one’s experience of identity. I guess in the case of scholarship, it’s about the accumulation of perspectives on a topic that allows us to appreciate the richness of a topic–the different kinds of people and their unique perspectives on an issue demonstrate just how complicated are the issues in the past, since so many different kinds of people can “read” something in so many different ways. And thanks for the comment about not profiting from the research as an ally. Since academics don’t really profit so much, I guess people like me could think more about outreach–finding ways to disseminate our work to more and different kinds of people, not just other (often able-bodied) academics (though, honestly, we should all be thinking about how better to share our work with people outside of our narrow fields).
When I read that you didn’t want to receive extra consideration or a fellowship as a result of being mistaken for a disabled scholar, I realized that, up until that point, I had been thinking mainly about the *risks* of appearing disabled.
For the invisibly disabled who haven’t disclosed their disability status, the assumption that only the disabled study the disabled can make writing on these topics feel like a dangerous game indeed. While I regret these situations, I can’t help but think that, if abled scholars writing about disability start identifying themselves as abled, these anxieties will only be reaffirmed?
That’s a great point! It’s a tricky situation all around, I think, because you could have a committee (for a job, grant, publication, etc.) that sees a disabled author as either a boon (if they’re trying to increase diversity) or a bust (if they don’t want to deal with accommodations, etc.). How can you know? And yes, what does it do for the invisibly disabled, who could technically pass for non-disabled: should they? Should it matter if the person writing about a subject is disabled or not, or how they’re disabled? The problem is, with identity studies, it often DOES matter, because your identity affects your work in big ways, and it can be important for a reader to know from what position you’re writing. It gets complicated really fast.