Tuesday, January 9, 2007

[Monograph for university course 2001] The Marginalised Body

In today’s world, with the importance placed on physical ability, strength and beauty, it is easy to forget that an entire section of our society has marginalised, ignored and made invisible, by these beliefs and convictions. For too long people with a disability have been excluded from life because our bodies are not within the range of ability and appearance that is deemed acceptable by society. A society that adheres to the simplistic belief that what is beautiful on the outside must be beautiful on the inside; and therefore what is deformed, misshapen, ugly, and disturbing on the outside, must also be these things on the inside.

The body has been used for centuries as a metaphor for internal states of mind, beliefs and feelings. With literature and movies such as "Phantom of the Opera", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "The Tempest" and "Peter Pan", along with many others, the physical deformities of a character are used to indicate evidence of personality defects. Unfortunately people often forget that this is nothing more than a literary device, and it is not a true and accurate reflection of real life.

Being disabled is not seen as a real valid experience of life, but solely as a metaphor. A metaphor for weakness, a metaphor for eternal childishness, a metaphor for evil and depravity, but not as a real space in which to exist.

If you are disabled, you are only accepted if you martyr yourself on the altar of the world’s perfectionism. If you kill yourself, striving to overcome their prejudices. A dead, inspirational cripple is always much more acceptable than a cripple who lives by her own rules.

It is very easy for most people to look at the marginalisation and isolation of people with disabilities, and explain it away by seeing it as a natural result of having a disability. In this way, society shifts the burden of change onto people with disabilities themselves, and can avoid seeing the very real social conditions that cause our oppression.

The human body is not infallible, that is inherent in our existence. Illness, pain and death come to all of us, therefore we must learn to accept it – in others and in ourselves, or in denying it risk destroying ourselves totally in the process. When we strip away the glittering surfaces of our outsides, of our facades that we struggle to make so perfect. When we strip all that away, all we see, and all we have left is imperfect, flawed. What makes us human are our flaws and our imperfections, our disabilities, and we are no less human for them. That is what makes us human, nothing more and nothing less.

We need to change society’s abhorrence of the imperfect body, which results in an expectation of perfection and perpetual youth. Society does not seem to realise the dangers of focussing on the external as opposed to the internal; and a fixed point in time as opposed to growth, evolution and development; and our insistence on not accepting and intergrating death and disability into our lives. This naïve thinking results in the marginalisation of those of us who cannot or will not conform to these expectations, and creates a slowly decreasing noose that pulls in those standards tighter and tighter leaving the elite few, with physically perfect bodies (or the illusion of perfection – there is no such thing in reality) controlling the rest of us. This total focus on the outside obscures the fact that what is in us that makes us human are our hearts and minds and souls, and what makes us alike are our imperfections and our differences.

It is only possible for someone to be trapped in their physical body if their physical being and ability is the only thing about them that is acknowledged and valued. No matter how paralysed a person is, if they are regarded as valuable for something other than their physical abilities or lack thereof, if they are seen as something other than the sum total of what they look like, then they will never be trapped. They will always be free. Because true freedom is not dependent on physical perfection. True freedom is freedom of the heart and mind, of the spirit and soul, and that can never be taken from us.

Recognising the humanity of people with disabilities is not an act of political correctness; it is an act of emotional and social depth and maturity. It enables us to round out the myths and stories of human experience. The more we can recognise the diversity of our live, the more we can celebrate the commonalities. When we diminish others, we diminish ourselves.

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