First of all, I have never tried to claim that disability doesn't exist. I tend to invoke the social model more frequently than the medical model, but this doesn't mean I am incapable of admitting that yes, some characteristics and configurations limit people's abilities in certain contexts, which makes those characteristics and configurations potentially definable as disabilities. (And I also don't deny the existence of real diseases -- like cancer and pneumonia and heart disease -- that, you know, actually hurt and kill people).
Second of all, it is perfectly valid to consider something both a disability and an advantage, and for different traits to be useful in different contexts. As I explained in the tangent at the end of my previous entry:
One aspect of my brain-wiring is that I tend to see the details of, well, everything by default. Every bit of visual information tends to be fairly equally weighted as far as my brain is concerned.
This is definitely part of the reason I've never had a drivers' license, but it's also a part of the reason why I find so much beauty in the world (and why I can draw accurately and why I have excellent edge-detection skills), and I would never trade it for anything. I'm not trying to self-aggrandize here, but this definitely seemed like a good example of a biological trait that can be a strength or a liability depending upon context -- and an example of something that I would never want to lose, even if losing it might make life logistically easier for me in some ways.
Is this aspect of how I see/perceive disabling?
Is it also enabling in some respects?
I could say the same for a lot of traits I exhibit, and most likely, so could you about your own traits. Every person probably has a few things they know they like about themselves, a few things that they like some of the time but not all the time, and a few things that they'd just as soon depart without a trace. This is likely to be the case for everyone, regardless of what kinds of modifications they're able to enact upon themselves throughout the course of their life and regardless of the initial conditions they are born with.
As long as such things as individual identities exist (which I hope is indefinitely, since I like being a discrete!), we're going to have to deal with the reality of constraints. Not in the sense that everyone should feel obligated to maintain whatever constraints they were born with -- as a life-extension advocate it would be incoherent for me to suggest this -- but in the sense that whatever characteristics a person exhibits, those characteristics (no matter how much a person appreciates and desires to keep them) are mutually exclusive of other characteristics.
I don't have any problem with acknowledging people's difficulties. I think it's very important to be realistic about how a person actually functions, in order to best enable them to achieve their goals, provide them with services, and determine how they might learn most effectively. However, acknowledging that something is a difficulty does not mean that it needs to be addressed through particular kinds of alteration of the individual (or through making sure that no similar individuals ever exist again).
The central message of disability advocacy that I don't see being fully acknowledged yet by the progressive sphere (whatever that might be) is that people should not be subject to coercion, experimental surgeries, or enforced "normalcy" as a condition of being enabled and allowed to participate in society. None of that message has anything to do with claiming that difficulties don't exist. But it's one thing to say that you want to help someone deal with their difficulties -- and quite another to say that you'd be happy to replace them with someone else if that someone else had a better chance of living what you perceived to be a better life.
I recently read a book entitled, The Speed Of Dark by science fiction author Elizabeth Moon. Prior to reading the book, I'd known it was about a near-future society in which an experimental treatment for autism in adults had been developed, but not much more than that. The first night I started reading the book, I came across the following passages:
"Yeah. I don't know much about it, but I know someone who does, and he knew I was taking over [as in, managing the employment activities of] a bunch of autistics. It's supposed to fix the fundamental deficit, make them normal. If they were normal, they wouldn't have an excuse for those luxuries."
I can't imagine anyone *wanting* to be like that," Crenshaw said. "And if they do, that's a matter for a psych evaluation, I would think. Preferring to be sick --"
"They aren't *sick*," Aldrin said.
"And damaged. Preferring special treatment to a cure. That would have to be some kind of mental imbalance, I believe, seeing as they're doing sensitive work which other entities would love to have."
Those arguments, even though they are taken from a work of fiction, do sound oddly familiar to me as I run into their variants quite frequently.
I know that a "cure" doesn't exist right now, but if it does someday -- and attitudes haven't changed much by then -- I imagine it would probably be forced on people through the very means being described in The Speed Of Dark. Employers would decide it just wasn't worth providing different kinds of accomodations for different kinds of people when there was some treatment available that would make those people not need those particular accomodations. Anyone who protested would be accused of "whining", "playing the victim", or "having an entitlement complex".
Lest you think I'm being alarmist here, a recent anonymous commenter asserted (in response to On Destigmatizing Difference:
...nobody, disabled or not, gets exactly what they want in our society. You have to give as well as take. The disabled generally do more taking than giving, which can't be helped since they are by definition less able to give. However, if / when a disability can be treated, refusal would constitute the most colossal example of mauvaise foi.
All I can say is that I'm hoping that attitudes like that don't prevail in the long run.
And I do have some basis for this hope, as I've noted the success of various incarnations of civil rights struggles in the past, and I see a similar fervor and dedication in the morphological freedom-fighters of today (a category into which I'd place most disability advocates and most transhumanists, quite easily). So long as social attitudes continue to evolve as technology allows for a greater range of choice in terms of morphology, functionality, appearance, and any number of other personally-defining variables, it should become glaringly obvious that society can become more flexible, and that developing infrastructure to support different kinds of people is a smart investment both socially and economically.
Note: This post edited on 3/13/07 for rantiness and clarity.