Wheelchair Jesus

Cover of Planet of the Blind....man and dog....

Scholars and students of disability studies have had a great deal to tell us about the components of embodiment by which we mean “fringe” bodies held at remove from the tasteful drawing room. The TDR is your university, corporate conference table, the chamber of commerce, and yes, organized religion which is excused from adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act presumably because in this “Christian” nation everyone knows the lame and halt are outcasts though Jesus said no such thing. One imagines the bishops reading John Rawls whose just society supposed no one would ever become ill. With a tip of the hat to Mel Brooks: “let’s have the dancing Jesuses over there; the singing Jesuses over here!”

Of course I like the wheelchair Jesus and the sign language Jesus and the guide dog traveling Jesus, the limping Jesus, and so forth.

In her edited volume “Foucault and the Government of Disability” the philosopher Shelley Tremain unpacks the creation of enforced disability, that is, disability as a vehicle for governance:

“…the governmental practices into which the subject is inducted and divided from others produce the illusion that they have a prediscursive, or natural, antecedent (impairment), which in turn provides the justification for the multiplication and expansion of the regulatory effects of these practices. That the discursive object called “impairment” is claimed to be the embodiment of a natural deficit or lack, furthermore, conceals the fact that the constitutive power relations that define and circumscribe “impairment” have already put in place broad outlines of the forms in which that discursive object will be materialized (Tremain 2001). In short, an argument about disability that takes Foucault’s approach would be concerned to show that there is indeed a causal relation between impairment and disability, and it is precisely this: the category of impairment emerged and, in many respects, persists in order to legitimize the governmental practices that generated it in the first place.”

If you’re not a philosopher or a historian of governmental effectuation this passage might be as difficult as abstract poetry but let’s say disability was created by government to withdraw status from outlier bodies because they couldn’t work in the newfangled factories of the late 18th century. Disability originally meant and continues to mean lack of economic agency. Governments then created carceral institutions hidden behind tall hedges. Thus the government of disability both creates disablement and enforces the lived experience of disability.

Now putting a ramp on a church is just too damned expensive. Easier to keep the fringe out. If there wasn’t something wrong with them Jesus wouldn’t need to cure them. Curing them is Jesus’ job. We love Jesus. But you must agree the disabled aren’t tasteful.

What does this have to do with Foucault and the government of disability? Plenty. Enforced unfitness is designed to be unresolvable. Then exclusionary. A human difference that’s always too expensive. And in the pandemic, why not let them expire?

The best of the liberal intellectual tradition calls on us to engage with and talk back to the enforcements of bio-politics.

Here comes wheelchair Jesus.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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