Author: Debby Sneed
A man, leaning on a crutch or cane, converses with a nude dwarf on an early 5th century aryballos by the Clinic Painter (Paris, Louvre CA 2183).
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.