A DisHuman Perspective: A Resource for Critical Psychology

One possible answer to the question left hanging above is offered by an approach that we term DisHuman. This is a split positionality that acknowledges and celebrates a disavowal of the human described above. It begins from the following statement: what we describe below pertains exactly to how disabled people have been living their lives for many years. Our DisHuman manifesto (outlined at www.dishuman.com):

  • • Unpacks and troubles dominant notions of what it means to be human;
  • • Celebrates the disruptive potential of disability to trouble these dominant notions;
  • • Acknowledges that being recognised as a regular normal human being is desirable, especially for those people who been denied access to the category of the human;
  • • Recognises disability’s intersectional relationship with other identities that have been considered less than human (associated with class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age);
  • • Aims to develop theory, research, art and activism that push at the boundaries of what it means to be human and disabled;
  • • Keeps in mind the pernicious and stifling impacts of ableism, which we define as discriminatory processes that idealise a narrow version of humanness and reject more diverse forms of humanity;
  • • Seeks to promote transdisciplinary forms of empirical and theoretical enquiry that breaks disciplinary orthodoxies, dominances and boundaries;
  • • Foregrounds disability as the space for interrogating oppression and furthering a post-human politics of affirmation.

While we do not have the space to develop all of these points, we understand this manifesto as fitting well with the disavowal of the human subject. This bifurcated position recognises that the human subject remains a category evoking recognition and identification but, simultaneously, is a category necessarily troubled and disrupted by the presence of disability. The human subject at the epicentre of the human category is a humanistic one. This subject is the cherished sovereign self-governing and autonomous self that emerged through modernism to become the subject of psychology (Venn, 1984). Unlike some post-structuralist critical psychologists, our sense is that we can never totally do away with this category. This sense is not simply an intellectual one; it is a viewpoint developed through our engagement with disability politics, research and our own lived experiences of disability and crip community. Many disabled people continue to be marginalised in societal spaces as monstrous and distant others to the human subject. A key aim of disability politics relates to being recognised not as other but as human. But even as we make these statements, we feel uneasy. Why would anyone want to be given access to a human subject when this ontology brings with a whole host of normalising tendencies? Our unease is reduced by the presence of disability; precisely because disability politics has always deconstructed the humanistic epicentre of what it means to be human. Disability evokes connection, inter-dependence, expansion through the use of prosthetics and novel forms of support. And these extensions of the human—whilst seemingly pulling people in line with the demands of the humanistic subject—actually expand the narrow confines of the subject. This contradictory work upon the subject keeps a disavowal of the subject in what Puar (2012) terms a frictional tension: of crip and normative; dis and human; collective and individual.

Our DisHuman approach connects with a number of recent developments across critical disability studies. We consider this recent work to be responsive to ideas from critical psychology. Jenny Slater’s (2015) work on disability and youth manages to circumnavigate the normative desires of disabled young people, alongside a celebration of their crip potential. For example, she shows the ways in which young disabled young women extoll the virtues of dressing in ways that might be deemed highly normative (make up and gendered dress) and indicators of the worth of performing as a self-contained female subject. At the same time, these very same young women draw upon (and employ) personal assistants in order to enable their access to places occupied by nondisabled young people; thus troubling the social capital at play and offer different versions of femininity and ways of performing the female subject. Anat Greenstein’s (2015) work similarly combines a valuing and destabilisation of the human subject. Her work with disabled young people in segregated settings of schools illuminates the desires the young people have to be recognised as people in their own right (as valued students and learners) whilst disrupting educational spaces in ways that open up new forms of pedagogy. Greenstein contests the able humanistic subject at the heart of much socially just and critical pedagogy and shows—through reference to her participatory research work with young disabled people—that student subjects demand expansive forms of connection and alliance with other students and teachers. Paradoxically, these alliances might permit learners as subjects to be recognised as autonomous in their own right, albeit with a shift in perspective and the culture of schooling. Our third example relates to the work of one of our authors—Liddiard (2012, 2013, 2014)—in which she revisits sexual desire in the company of disability. Whilst many of the disabled people she spoke to expressed their desires for sex and intimacy that might be deemed as illustrative of a typically sexually functioning and normatively gendered human subject, the input of prosthetics, personal assistants, technologies, and sometimes, sex workers, as well as the opening up of the totality of the body and impairment as sites of polymorphous pleasure, reconfigures how we think of and enact sex, desire and intimacy. All three of these examples showcase the possibilities for thinking about the humanist human subject and alternatives that might expand how we might think of the subject. They are, we would argue, quintessentially DisHuman.

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