Disability, Eco(in)justice, and Transnational Solidarity
University of Utah Disability Studies Lecture, March 21, 2022: Dr. Nirmala Erevelles
While much has been written about the eco(in)justices in two global cities, Bhopal, India &. Flint, Michigan separately, very little has been done to map out the continuities and discontinuities of the ways in which disaster capitalism in transnational contexts separates and divides communities collectively brutalized in its wake. Further, much of the published literature fails to recognize that, in these contexts, disability proliferates. When disability is recognized in these contexts, these writers tend to treat it as a pathological condition, and thus fail to engage disability as a historical category forged at the intersections of race, caste, and class by the violence of disaster capitalism. This talk draws on “contemporary materialist postcolonial criticism” (Barker and Murray; 2010) to explain how the story of environmental (in)justice is tied to racialized, classed, casteist and ableist “histories of segregation, abandonment and the relationships among people, property and capital” (Ranganathan, 2016) and discusses the implications for transformative praxis.
Dr. Nirmala Erevelles is Professor of Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Alabama. Her teaching and research interests lie in the areas of disability studies, critical race theory, transnational feminism, sociology of education, and postcolonial studies. Specifically, her research focuses on the unruly, messy, unpredictable, and taboo body—a habitual outcast in educational (and social) contexts. She is the author of Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Towards a Transformative Body Politic (Palgrave 2012).
ANGELA SMITH: I’m going to go ahead and get started. I would like to welcome everyone to the University of Utah Disability Studies Lecture, sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the University of Utah’s Disability Studies Program, and its School for Cultural and Social Transformation, known as Transform.
We are delighted to have you all here with us, and we are thrilled that tonight’s lecture will be given by Dr. Nirmala Erevelles of the University of Alabama.
My name is Angela Smith, and I am the director of Disability Studies at the University of Utah. I use she/her pronouns. I’ll give a brief visual description: I am a white woman with long straight brown hair, wearing a blue shirt against a virtual background showing the Gardner Commons building at the U of U, behind a lot of green foliage.
I acknowledge that the land where I am, named for the Ute tribe, is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute tribes. The University of Utah recognizes and respects the enduring relationship that exists between many Indigenous Peoples and their traditional homelands.
We respect the sovereign relationship between tribes, states, and the federal government, and we affirm the University of Utah’s commitment to a partnership with Native nations and Urban Indian communities through research, education, and community outreach activities.
This event is a Zoom webinar. We welcome our ASL interpreters, Klaryne and Melody. The event is set to gallery view to show their videos throughout. We also welcome our captioner, Denise. If you click the “CC” icon at the bottom of the screen, or click “more” and then CC, you can select “live transcript” or “show subtitle.” Thank you to our interpreters and captioner for their work this evening.
The chat will not be available for this event. However, we do have the capacity to ask questions of Dr. Erevelles for the Q&A following the lecture. The Q&A will be visible to panelists only. You may enter a question at any point in the talk; after it is answered, your question may be made visible to all attendees. We will get to as many questions as we have time for in the Q&A.
This event is being recorded and registrants will be emailed a link to the recording when it is available. You can also look for the recording on the U of U transform YouTube channel or the Transform home page: transform.utah.edu.
Before we start, I’d like to offer immense gratitude to those who’ve made this event possible. A big thank you goes to the Dean of Transform, Dr. Kathryn Stockton, for her constant and continuing support of Disability Studies.
Thank you to our amazing Assistant Dean, Estela Hernandez, for all her work in organizing and running this webinar! Thank you also to Kaya and Eunice from our wonderful EDI team, for their promotional support and technical advice.
And boundless gratitude, as always, to my fabulous colleague in Disability Studies, Dr. Lezlie Frye. I’m now going to hand over to Lezlie, who will introduce us to tonight’s speaker.
LEZLIE FRYE: Thank you Angela, can you hear me? Hi, everyone, I’m a white queer with boxy brown glasses, asymmetrical hair, a denim button down, and some book-friends and sunlight behind me.
It really is my distinct honor to welcome Nirmala Erevelles for our annual Disability Studies Lecture. She is Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Alabama. Her research and teaching have meaningfully contributed to an impressive range of scholarly fields, including disability studies, critical race theory, transnational feminism, sociology of education, postcolonial studies, carceral studies, and more.
In Nirmala’s words, she has focused on the “the unruly, messy, unpredictable, and taboo body, a habitual outcast in educational (and social) contexts,” contexts that she’s explored at the site of schools, prisons, courtrooms; in transnational economic policies, sex education curriculum, care/work relations; and at the sites of war, exploitation, and slavery.
Nirmala’s 2012 book, Disability and Difference in a Global Context: Towards a Transformative Body Politic, is an essential text in the field of disability studies, one which deeply troubled the existing framework of the field upon its publishing, but also remains an emergent source of new directions in the field today.
The book, which was awarded the Critic’s Choice award from the American Educational Studies Association, directs our attention to the social and economic production of disability on a global scale, the conditions of structural violence that call into question celebrations of disability as a fixed identity or a site of political citizenship.
Nirmala also offers a foundational theorization of Blackness and disability, which I revisit at least annually, figuring transformative possibilities through what she calls a historical-materialist analysis of disability, one that centers the brutal violence unleashed on captive flesh. Her early methodological commitments to this approach, here and in other iterations of her research, shaped what was later termed the “materialist turn” in disability studies.
Her book has retained an almost uninterrupted place among the half dozen or so books that there’s room for on my desk for years, while others cycle in and out as I write and teach, for its utility and importance to how I think and what I need to remember in order to remain accountable to the communities and politics that matter most to me.
Nirmala’s contribution to the field of education and the sub-genre of DisCrit, critical disability studies in education, deserve special mention. She has brought her characteristic incisive analysis to bear on special education (which she theorizes as a post-colonial ghetto); on the production of the cognitively disabled subject; the policies and curriculum around sex education; and the historical practices of segregation in contemporary schooling.
Articles like “Crippin’ Jim Crow,” for example, an early topic in our disability studies reading group, also further develop the field of carceral studies. Theorizing the role of disability in materializing the school-to-prison pipeline, Nirmala calls for investments in empowerment over racialized discipline.
Nirmala has been doing such political-relational, intersectional analysis of race, disability, caste, class, gender, and sexuality before those key words were more popularly legible and well before disability studies gained the kind of institutional recognition that would allow for a division like the one we have here at Transform.
She has an incredible knack for queerly reading real-life moments through this lens, both the quotidian interpersonal matters of living under racial capitalism, and the large-scale popular and catastrophic events that shape these smaller moments.
Nirmala’s research, and her dedication to teaching, which has been formally recognized, is matched by her embodied practices of collaboration. This takes shape in her commitment to mentorship, her practice of positioning herself ethically and fluidly within her scholarship, her consistent engagement with grassroots social movements, and her unwavering skillfulness and generosity as a colleague.
I would argue that we need such models of solidarity within academia as well as outside of it. Indeed, as we face the unfolding crises of climate and health injustice, proliferating austerity politics, and the accompanying opportunism of disaster capitalism, we are in desperate need of rich theoretical and practical approaches to the normalization and mutation of these forms of structural violence. To that end, Nirmala’s work offers a pressing case for transnational solidarity.
It is my absolute pleasure to welcome you, Nirmala.
NIRMALA EREVELLES: Thank you, Lezlie. I’m a little overcome right now because your wonderful introduction. Actually, it’s something I needed right now to feel a little more confidence. So thank you so much for this.
And I’m going to try in my talk to deserve as much of it as possible. I’m a South Asian woman with reddish brown hair, shoulder length. I’m wearing glasses, and I have a black cardigan, and the back of me are some pictures in my office where there’s some interesting light passing through the window.
Before I start my presentation, I also specifically wanted to thank Angela and Lezlie, and actually Estela, too, because I just realized we would have been in communication since 2019, when I was supposed to come literally a month after we had the pandemic and everything got shut down. But it was also really… a lot of stuff has happened over those last two years, both personally in my life and around the world.
So, I wanted to also mark that as a moment of both respect, silence, and acknowledgment of sadness, because the fact that I can do this again after a year and a half is itself, I see, some sort of — like some sort of like miraculous moment that we could all be in the space together. So, I just wanted to mark that as a moment.
My paper today is, as you can see in the title, is “Disability, Eco-injustice, and Transnational Solidarity.” I was going to read my paper, because I can talk really fast, and I thought it would be more accessible. But I’ll try to read in a way that draws you in, I hope. I’m going to start my paper with a quote from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. In this quote, Leah writes:
When the wind blew from Norton’s ceramic abrasive tile plant, you wanted to puke at my school, 500 yards away. Every year, another teacher came down with alopecia. Another teacher got breast or colon cancer. I was nineteen when my mother was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer…. The first girl I ever kissed grew up in Leicester, where there was a little uranium leak in the 80s. She found out she had invasive cervical cancer at 28, in her first pap smear in ten uninsured years.
This quote is from the author of Care Work, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a Toronto- and Oakland-based poet, writer, educator, and social activist. Her writing and performance art documents the stories of queer and trans people of color, abuse survivors, mixed-race people, and diasporic South Asians and Sri Lankans who are already building, and I quote, actually, this is a quote from Eli Clare, “radically resilient sustainable communities of liberation,” supporting this “wildly liberating vision of disability justice.”
I want to be very careful here about appropriating this term “disability justice,” a term that was coined by the original disability justice community, Patty Berne, Leroy Moore, Mia Mingus, Eli Clare, Sebastian Margaret, and, of course, Piepzna-Samarasinha, activists who have done much to create an intersectional revolutionary disability politics.
Disability justice, as envisioned by this collective, is not the sort of organized, dreary, ideologue-ish, pragmatic, and pedantic notion of justice that is bandied around in progressive academic circles for academic honors and academic accolades. Instead, there is a gritty materiality embodied in this movement work that Piepzna-Samarasinha describes as follows:
You wanna know how you’ll know if you are doing disability justice? You’ll know you’re doing it because people will show up late, someone will vomit, someone will have a panic attack, and nothing will happen on time because the ramp is broken on the supposedly ‘accessible’ building. You won’t meet your benchmarks on time, or ever. We won’t be grateful to be included; we will want to set our own agenda. And what our leadership looks may include long sick or crazy leaves, being nuts in public, or needing to empty an ostomy bag and being on Vicodin at work. It’s slow. It’s people even the most social-justice minded abled folks stare at or get freaked out by. It looks like what many mainstreamed people have been taught to think of as failure. (Care Work 124)
In the two quotes cited in this essay, Piepzna-Samarasinha foregrounds how disability appears dialectically as both limit and possibility. On one hand, as the inevitable consequence of eco(in)justice, disability is cast as pathological, thus requiring its own erasure as an act of justice. On the other hand, disability justice constitutes disability as — and I quote from the Care book — “a set of innovative virtuosic skills… [with] the commitment to not leaving each other behind” (126) resulting in the “crip art of failure (124)” that nevertheless makes the case for “crip futures” (240) as radical possibility.
This possibility, however, is indeed the provocation for this essay/presentation. Does this then mean that the proliferation of disability as an outcome of eco(in)justice is justifiable? And if disability is one of the “natural” consequences of eco(in)justice, then how have environmental justice activists engaged disability?
Additionally, recognizing the ethical commitment that the founders of disability justice have to foreground how ableism is intimately interrelated with heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism, then what are the implications of this recognition for transnational solidarity against eco(in)justice?
I argue here that disability (justice)/eco(in)justice and transnational solidarity are all concepts that exceed the dialectic as I described earlier. Moreover, while these concepts remain in productive tension with each other within the analytic of intersectionality, I also argue that that it may be necessary to move beyond the intersectional (most distinctly articulated via Annamma, Connor, & Ferri’s tenets of DisCrit) to witness how vectors of difference, in this case race, class, caste, and disability, are mutually constitutive of each other, an argument I have made in my re-reading of Hortense Spillers’ iconic essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” via a critical disability studies lens.
This analytic turn from the intersectional foregrounds a transnational historical materialist theorization of disability that marks the social production — not the social construction, but the social production of disability — as the extractive by-product of transnational capitalism, in a manner similar to how Kathryn Yusoff (2018) framed “the Anthropocene in the alchemy of race and geology as a calculus of extraction” (105). And this was a quote from Yusoff.
Thus, rather than merely refusing pathological inscriptions of disability, not only within discourses of eco(in)justice, but also in the more radical discourses of Yusoff’s “Black Anthropocene,” I call attention to the labor that disability is called to do when deployed by oppressive forces, but also as it opens up transformative possibilities for solidarity.
I argue here that both oppressive and progressive forces within eco(in)justice/transnational capitalism exploit disability, constituting it as “social death” – a status that is not “reducible to the capital-labor relation” (Wang 2018) because it’s even outside of that, but is rather “marked as disposable/superfluous to capitalism.”
My argument starts with the recognition of how disability is, in fact, at the very heart of the constitutive politics of race, class, gender and eco(in)justice, as mediated through the imperialistic practices of transnational capitalism, and it is these practices that can be disrupted for us to imagine transnational solidarity for ecojustice.
The locus of this argument, as you may have guessed, is transnational. I foreground the ecological/economic injustices that unfolded in two cities: Bhopal, the capital city of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in India, and the impoverished city of Flint, Michigan, USA. Separated by space and time (nearly 30 years apart), both cities have experienced unimaginable environmental disasters that have had long-term effects on the embodied futures of their citizens.
On December 2, 1984, the Union Carbide Plant that manufactured pesticides in Bhopal leaked 40 tons of deadly methyl isocynate, also known as MIC, gas into the night air, killing thousands of people, while thousands of others acquired cancers, illnesses, and injuries. Nearly 30 years later, around April 2014, residents of Flint, Michigan complained that the red brackish water from their kitchen faucets was producing rashes and other allergic reactions.
Simultaneously, a local pediatrician noticed that children were testing positive for dangerously high levels of lead in their bloodstream. In both cases, the people most brutally affected were those who were the most marginalized, with most of those who survived acquiring life-long physical and intellectual impairments.
In Bhopal, more than 130,000 residents, most of them Dalits and Muslims living in the slums that directly faced the Union Carbide Plant, became the unwitting victims at the epicenter of that disaster. In the already economically depressed city of Flint, the city that became famous by the film Roger & Me, 55% of the city’s population is Black, with more than 40% of the entire population living below the poverty line.
These conditions of poverty led to the inevitability that both communities also had little or no access to the already deplorable health care, rehabilitation, and education that has only served to further exacerbate their precarious embodied futures.
While much has been written about the eco(in)justices in these two cities separately, there has been very little done to map out the continuities and discontinuities of the ways in which disaster capitalism in transnational contexts separates and divides communities collectively brutalized in its wake. Further, much of the published literature fails to recognize that, in these contexts, disability proliferates.
When disability is recognized in these contexts, these writers tend to treat it as a pathological condition, and thus fail to engage disability as a historical category forged at the intersections of race, caste, and class by the violence of disaster capitalism. Thus, I will draw on “contemporary materialist postcolonial criticism” to explain how the story of environmental (in)justice is tied to racialized, classed, caste-ist and ableist “histories of segregation, abandonment and the relationships among people, property and capital” and discuss the implications for transformative praxis.
The picture that I have here is of the factory after it was burned down. And there were some statistics I shouldn’t have put on the screen, because even I can barely read them. I apologize for that on the screen.
Bhopal, Madya Pradesh, on December 3rd, 1984, at 12:40 a.m: the deadly gas MIC busted out of the pipes in the Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal and spread over the sleeping city, killing some people and impairing others.
Union Carbide, a “respected” US based company, produced petro-chemicals, industrial gasses, metals and carbon products, consumer products, specialty products, and technology services: chemicals that are called upon to destroy other matter-out-of-place, a term that has also been associated with disability. It was losing money because the pesticide market was getting crowded, with companies such as Dupont & Monsanto, among others, and, in an attempt to diversify, decided to expand the Bhopal factory to manufacture five pesticide components including MIC.
Establishing these new technologies made these plants more hazardous, especially since it was located in what would be termed a “light industrial use” area. In the 1970s, the city population grew exponentially with migration from the rural areas. Shortage of housing allowed for the growth of shanty towns around the plant, but there was little knowledge that this plant was potentially dangerous. Rather, most of the people living in these shanty towns, with little formal education, presumed that the chemicals manufactured here kept plants healthy. They were fertilizers, after all.
What caused the disaster was a series of human and technological errors. Some malfunctioning caused water used to flush pipes into the MIC tank. Here, the water combined with the MIC to produce a hot and highly pressurized mixture of gas, fuel, and liquid that escaped though the plant’s stack into the atmosphere. Additionally, when the gas escaped into the night, the state officials called to the site advised people to run, rather than to lie on the ground with faces covered with wet clothes.
Before the week was over 3000 people had died and more than 30,000 were affected by the deadly poison. And then, I’ve moved to another slide, where you can see on one side, on the right-hand side, you see a man holding a chart, a huge placard with photos of all the people who are either dead or missing. And on the left side — oh, actually I may have messed up, on my left side you saw that. On my right side, there are slogans that are basically calling, complaining about how badly both the international as well as the national response has been to the issues. These numbers were, however, highly disputed, because it is hard to count people who were unaccounted for in census data. Uncounted bodies are disposable bodies. Further, the dead were cremated quickly, and there was no organizational infrastructure to do this counting.
Better counting occurred regarding those who survived, numbering around 300,000, many of them having to deal with respiratory illnesses, bronchitis, pneumonia, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, neuromuscular problems. About 60,000 had severe impairments, and 40,000 more had a mild to moderate disability. The long-term harm destroyed standing vegetation, and yet government officials insisted that fruits and vegetables and even water was deemed safe, even though not much was known about this.
In 1989 after many years of deliberation, the Indian supreme court ordered the Union Carbide corporation to pay 470 million dollars in damages, which, according to legal experts as reported by the New York Times, seemed a “reasonable response,” even though the initial court case had sued for 3.3 billion dollars in damages. Ironically, stock in Union Carbide rose by 2 dollars on the day of the settlement.
It then fell to the Indian government to distribute this sum to the more than 500,000 claimants. Disability played a significant role in this demarcation, such that monetary value was affixed to a sliding scale of disability. 30,000 people were identified as “permanently disabled,” were allotted approximately $5,200. 20,000 people identified as ‘temporarily disabled’ were allotted $3,215. A final medical category, for people who had suffered injuries of “the utmost severity,” would be the basis for up to $25,000 in compensation.
At some point, though, when one leading politician, in an effort to garner votes, suggested at least $200 to be paid to all patients, then people who were not victims of the disaster came forward to claim money. What eventually happened, then, was that “victims were no longer identified by scientific standards for medico-legal documentation but by political considerations” — and this is a quote from a writer — that served to undermine the utility of disability in these determinations. That’s what I mean by the labor of disability, in my argument.
On February 15, 2019, nearly 30 years after this environmental genocide, it is reported that 574,000 people were poisoned and almost 5300 were killed. Court cases are still pending. Union Carbide is now wholly owned by Dow Chemical.
Flint, Michigan — and it’s basically, we’ll basically see this container which looks like liquid gold, and it’s in kind of like a plastic paper, and the liquid gold is actually contaminated water. If you watched the film Roger and Me, you know about how the powerful corporate giant General Motors impoverished this small town in Michigan, a mere four driving hours from the urban expanse of Detroit.
But as Malini Ranganathan has pointed out, Flint’s troubles began long before GM. In her article, “Thinking with Flint: Racial Liberalism and the Roots of an American Water Tragedy,” Ranganathan describes how, and I quote, “racialized property underlay the city’s financial duress, abandonment, and poisoned infrastructure.”
Describing how the FHA, that’s Federal Housing Association, from the 1930s to 1970s denied “high-risk” neighborhoods federally-backed loans, by instructing their appraisers to manipulate numbers to ensure a D grade, Ranganathan describes how the everyday practices of a racialized liberalism ensured that “the infiltration of a lower grade population” — this is a quote [Highsmith, 2015, 40] — was kept away from rapidly expanding white suburbs and were restricted to decrepit houses and poorer transportation and utility services.
By 2014, nearly half of Flint’s 100,000 residents lived below the poverty level. The city of Flint had been receiving water from the Detroit Water and Sanitation Department since 1967, where its water costs were comparable to many of the other suburbs served by the DWSD. It was, however, only in 2013 that the city was called out for an unprecedented rise in its water bill from an average of $27.17 to $59.37.
In efforts to address a nine million deficit facing Flint’s water supply fund, governor Rick Snyder, instituted an emergency management system, switching the city’s water supply to Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), citing costs less than 25% of the projected water costs. The native Huron-Petun people referred to Lake Huron as Karegnondi, which literally means “where the mouth of the river opens or pours out.” But the KWA was yet to be built and thus the decision was made to switch to the Flint River, in the interim.
This switch occurred despite the fact that it was common knowledge that the Flint River had already been tainted by decades of industrial dumping by GM and other industries lining its banks. Jason Stanley writes that what was not common knowledge was that KWA needed about 3000 million dollars to build its own pipeline and thus it was assumed that Governor Snyder was intending to use the money generated by the switch to help this effort.
Another motivation Stanley pointed to was the move to privatize DWSD and sell it to the French company Veolia. Malini Ranganathan argues that unelected managers used the neoliberal language of fiscal austerity to justify this switch. Flint’s eviscerated property tax base simply could not support a costly and apparently life-supporting water system.
Here, Flint is framed and punished as if — in some ways, it’s also pathologized — as if it were a financially reckless individual, while structural and historical causes of its financial duress are thoroughly masked. With its credit ratings slashed and simultaneously residential water rates have been hiked to meet austerity standards, Flint residents have been demonized, blamed for not paying their water bills and for living in foreclosed properties.
The costs needed to replace these pipes is estimated at $1.5 billion. There is no timetable by EPA to fix this in the near future. Meanwhile, nearly 6000 of Flint’s children have been exposed to drinking and bathing in hazardous waste and their food has also been washed in this hazardous waste.
According to the CDC, “[e]xperts now use a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels that are much higher than most children’s levels.” But according to the US-based EPA, actionable level for lead is 15 parts of lead per billion parts of water, or ppb, whereas for the World Health Organization (WHO), the maximum lead level is 10 ppb. However, when testing water samples in Flint, it was found that the drinking-water samples all had extremely high lead levels, between 200 to 13,200 ppbs. Water containing more than 5,000 ppbs of lead exceeds criteria that classifies water as a hazardous waste.
The effects of long-term lead poisoning are devastating, leading to a variety of health problems in kids, including decreased bone and muscle growth, poor muscle coordination, damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and/or hearing, speech and language problems, developmental delay, seizures and unconsciousness, in cases of extremely high lead levels, and last but not least, and I’m putting that in quotes, “behavioral challenges.”
Harriet Washington reports on Baltimore’s high lead density homes where 37,500 children also have high lead content. In fact, the Kennedy-Krieger Institute associated with Johns Hopkins encouraged landlords of 125 lead-tainted houses to rent to families with small children and gave them grants to work on lead abatement but only on condition that they get families with small children to live in these homes. In other words, they were putting children in harm’s way to prove that lead poisoning is dangerous to children. It’s taken more than eight years for this case to be resolved in 2001, where the judge found for the families. According to the judge, of course, using children as biological monitors is ethically indefensible. However, in 2016, a study found that 5.7 million children of color continue to live within a mile of a toxic facility.
Public health pressure on industrial polluters has been largely supplanted by a focus on laboratory science and the mantra of personal responsibility. And in doing so ignores the “real racial segregation, poverty, inequality, and poor housing and instead urges people to live cleaner, more healthful lives.” Washington writes, and I quote, “Getting rid of lead poisoning would entail getting rid of poverty and the slums and, as such, become just another way of pathologizing Black Americans and poor people, rather than focusing how lead gas, lead paint, and lead-coated toys were spontaneously generated in these slums.”
Ellen Griffith Spears, who’s actually a colleague in my university, points out that environmental degradation thrives in a culture that also values militarism. Spears describes how Anniston, Alabama, with its soil saturated by pcbs courtesy of Monsanto, also hosts a disproportionate share of the US military’s hazardous environmental legacy. Here, it is possible to see how war exacts a profound toll on human health and the geophysical environment, even in places untouched by physical combat. Here, the American chemical industry nurtured the symbolic association of chemicals with national pride to ensure continued government support and public acceptance of Monsanto and pcbs.
Presently there are on-going protests by the Black community in Anniston, as they negotiate for more substantial settlements, as so many in their community have been diagnosed with cancer, infertility, and many chronic illnesses. This is my “disability as colonial/racialized oppression.” Claire Barker and Stuart Murray have argued that, and I quote, ““[the] history of colonialism (and its post/neocolonial aftermath) is indeed a history of mass disablement” (230). The examples I described just now support this assertation.
Most critically, disability here is not an apolitical construct, the embodiment of natural difference. Instead, here, disability is a historical materialist construct, its production occurring amidst what disaster specialists term “complex emergencies” that include “mixtures of civil strife, famines, genocidal activities, epidemics, and large-scale displacement and movement of refugees.”
Thus, Carrigan argues that, and I quote,
These experiences are centrally implicated in the production of disability, which in many post-colonial states is a constitutive feature of community life. Not only do physical and psychological disabilities proliferate in disaster zones, but people with disabilities also represent one of the highest risk categories in terms of vulnerability to disasters [as is now evidenced in the recent Russian aggression against Ukraine] — a point that is especially true of economically under-privileged postcolonial states in which medical care and institutional support networks are often lacking. (255-6)
It is for these reasons that Jampel has argued for theorizing disability as a process that includes the interaction between the social construction and the social production of disability. The social construction of disability refers to the ways language and culture shape ideas of what bodies and minds are ‘normal’ and the ways in which ideas about the normal lead to social conditions in which people are “handicapped,” disabled or whatever by their environments.
Social production, on the other hand, refers to the ways in which historical processes, ranging from human reproduction and genetic variation to the development of industry, have led to the diversity of human bodies and minds. And these are what I would call material differences.
Socially produced difference includes both embodied difference as well as affective difference to describe the physical pain of aching joints following years of labor, the effects of radiation exposure on a growing fetus, and the changes in brains exposed to different levels of lead.
In the Indian context, ironically, disability is conceived of as socially produced even though this notion of disability does not apply to disabled people themselves. For example, the tests applying to classify certain people as “untouchables” in 1931 used the following language:
“Whether the caste or class in question is merely depressed on account of its ignorance, illiteracy, or poverty and but for that would be subject to no social disability.”
Or, “Whether it would be depressed on account of the occupation, followed and whether but for that occupation it would be subject to no social disability.” (Revankar 108)
Thus while “other” bodies are conceived of as disabled in order to alleviate their disability, disabled bodies themselves in this Indian context are subject to that same logic of eradication that can range from medical attempts to enact cure to the actual extermination of disability through violence that includes applied behavioral analysis, eugenics, and murder.
Here it is possible to note the argument I had made early on in this presentation about the labor that disability is called upon to do by transnational capitalism and a kind of capitalist neoliberal state. The other labor that disability is called to do is the ways it has been deployed to justify violence against other bodies. This is why possible alliances between other “othered” bodies are often fraught, since disability conceived of as pathological difference has been deployed to justify this violence.
Thus, for example, read how Spiller’s depiction of the violence of slavery is co-constitutive of race, gender, and disability. In other words, you can actually see the production of race, gender, and disability in this code.
The smack of the whip is all day long in the ears of those who are on the plantation, or in the vicinity; and it is used with such dexterity and severity so as not only to lacerate the skin, but to tear out small portions of the flesh at almost every stake. (221)
I have argued elsewhere that this historical moment of the marking of the flesh is the exact moment of “becoming,” where disabled bodies become Black at the very moment when Black bodies become disabled. Similarly, Michelle Alexander points to a social production of “blackness” and “disability” when she writes in The New Jim Crow:
For black youth, the experience of being “made black” often begins with the first police stop, interrogation, search, or arrest. The experience carries social meaning — this is what it means to be black…. For the racial caste system to succeed, black people must be labeled criminals before they are formally subject to control. Thus black youth must be made — labeled — criminals. This process of being made a criminal is, to a large extent, the process of ‘becoming’ black. (194-5)
Here, once again, disability is invoked as pathological difference without even recognizing the crucial labor that is appropriated by oppressive structures of violence via transnational practices of capital. And, additionally, these invocations of disability as pathological difference is very central to the production and enablement of empire. This has been vividly described by Jasbir Puar, in her book The Right to Maim, where she, and I quote: “The Israeli state manifests an implicit claim to the ‘right to maim’ and debilitate Palestinian bodies as a form of biopolitical control and as central to the scientifically authorized humanitarian economy” (128). Puar calls this a “speculative rehabilitative economy” of debilitation (129), “marking the shift from the production of populations available for injury to the targeting of populations to be injured ….where the idea is to shoot in order to cripple” (129). Here, “maiming results in the dual production of permanent disability via the infliction of harm and the attrition of life support systems that might allow populations to heal from harm” (143). This is also a quote from Puar.
While Puar invokes the Foucaultian conceptualization of biopolitics and the Deleuzian construct of assemblage to support her conceptual shift from disability to debility, my own project is a little different. My argument conceives of disability as a historical materialist construct whose labor is appropriated in the production of, or more specifically, as constitutive of, difference.
In other words, my project makes the production of disability central to the maintenance of empire and its violent ideologies and practices of anti-Blackness, imperialist practices of extraction, exploitation, and appropriation, and the brutal necropolitics that include “the right to maim.” Yet, even though disability is central to the production of empire, it is invoked as an inevitable pathology, the outcome of this unspeakable violence.
For example, Kathryn Yusoff’s project in her book, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, describes how the humanist project articulated via the Anthropocene is dependent on a virulent materialist construction of anti-blackness that invokes a particular notion of disability.
She argues for the necessity to, and I quote,
understand blackness as a historically constituted and intentionally enacted deformation in the formation of subjectivity, a deformation that presses an inhuman categorization and the inhuman earth into intimacy. This contact point of geographical proximity with the earth was constructed specifically as a node of extraction of properties [which is the materiality that she’s really talking about] and personhood. At the same time, this forced intimacy with the inhuman was repurposed for survival and formed into a praxis for remaking other selves that were built in the harshest of conditions. The proximity of black and brown bodies to harm in this intimacy with the inhuman is what I call the Black Anthropocene. It is an inhuman proximity organized by historical geographies of extraction, grammars of geology, imperial global geographies, and contemporary environmental racism. It is predicated on the presumed absorbent qualities [that’s the pathologization that she’s referring to] of black and brown bodies to take up the body burdens of exposure to toxicities and to buffer that violence of the earth. Literally stretching across the seismic fault lines of the earth, the Black Anthropocene subtends white geology as a material stratum.
I cited this quote in full so that you could catch the rhythms in this poetic prose where disability is an absent presence that both exemplifies, as well as is exemplified, in the act of extraction for both oppressive and transformative purposes. I argue here that both oppressive and progressive forces within eco(in)justice/transnational capitalism exploit disability, constituting it as “social death,” a status that is not only “reducible to capital-labor relation, but is also marked as disposable/superfluous to capitalism”.
Herein lies the contradiction. My argument starts with the recognition of how disability is, in fact, at the very heart of the constitutive politics of race, class, caste, gender, and eco(in)justice as mediated through the exploitative structures and imperialistic practices of transnational capitalism, and it is to these practices and structures that need to be disrupted in order for us to construct transformative practices of transnational solidarity for ecojustice.
I have just a couple more pages, am I doing okay on time? I guess so. I’m just going to finish it. Okay.
I especially appreciate Jina Kim’s dissertation, “Anatomy of the City: Race, Infrastructure, and U.S. Fictions of Dependency,” where she takes up my argument that disability is more than a singular identity, but rather disabled subjectivities are constituted via the social and economic transformations wrought by global capitalism. But then, Jina Kim adds a brilliant nuance to my argument. Kim introduces the concept of infrastructure into the exploration of the anatomy of the city, where infrastructure refers not just to “equipment, facilities, services, and supporting structures” (Yaeger 15), but also “organized systems like healthcare, emergency services, education, and law enforcement” (Yamashita 57). All these services that are in Kim’s words, “indelibly tied to a city’s well-being.”
Kim argues that “[r]ather than viewing race, gender, and disability as entirely conceptual or epistemological formations, or effects of the perceived social world,” Kim demonstrates how infrastructure and its aesthetics of dependency register the impact of resource deprivation on racialized and minoritized bodies, what Lisa Lowe has called the ‘material trace of history’” (26). Kim then asks, “Who is supported by infrastructure? Who is disabled by it? And which subjects, through the forceful extraction of their unseen and unvalued labor, become the scaffolding, the living infrastructure, for others’ fantasies of independence?” (5). This is also a quote from Kim.
The arguments I have just made here answer some of those questions regarding the production of disability within this context. But I also intend to follow another strand of Kim’s argument regarding how state infrastructure creates a discourse of dependency that utilizes the labor of disability to shift its own failures onto bodies who have been most harmed by this violence. In Kim’s feminist crip of color critique, they foreground the over-used and violent trope of
the welfare queen who only becomes legible as a rhetorical figure and epistemological object through narratives of disability: she is defined necessarily as a pathological mother, a social aberrancy to be [excuse me] rehabilitated through workfare programs. Through her alleged inability to mother, work or (re)produce properly, she furnishes a useful story for global capitalism to propagate itself through the dismantling of social safety networks. In this way, the discourse of the welfare queen operates as the definitive disability narrative of late capitalism, a cautionary tale of state dependency that enabled the reallocation of public resources towards elite interests. This is a crip of color critique.
In contrast to this clearly debilitating image, Kim draws on disability justice activists from working-class communities of color who have refused these shaming monikers of dependency and, instead, envisioned environmental and social justice in terms of interdependency. Here, I’m referring to Alison Kafer’s more inclusive notion of “cripkin” that, she writes,
might be particularly useful frames for extending our theoretical imaginings, whether thinking through the necessity of imagining kin differently in the age of climate change, or reckoning with the ways in which kinship networks have been pathologized, decimated, and destroyed through slavery, mass incarceration, settler colonialism, and eugenics.
In other words, building coalitions of solidarity that can be transformative would require that we theorize cripkin as a site of power, friction, and potentiality that still holds through with Sins Invalid’s (that’s the disability justice grassroots organization) conceptualization of justice: And I’m just reading this quote, and I’ll be ending after this quote:
The histories of white supremacy and ableism are inextricably entwined, both forged in the crucible of colonial conquest and capitalist domination. We cannot comprehend ableism without grasping its interrelations with heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism, each system co-creating an ideal bodymind built upon the exclusion and elimination of a subjugated ‘other’ from whom profits and status are extracted. 500+ years of violence against black and brown communities includes 500+ years of bodies and minds deemed dangerous by being nonnormative, again, not simply within able-bodied normativity, but also within the violence of heteronormativity, white supremacy, gender normativity, within which our various bodies and multiple communities have been deemed ‘deviant,’ ‘unproductive,’ and ‘invalid.’ (Sins Invalid 2016, 13–14)
If we see how eco(in)justice is shaped by these inter-related violence, then our response is to challenge the infrastructures and actual material practices that fail us and through interdependent practices of care we can build a solidarity movement that is transformative.
I’m really sorry I took really long [laughing], and I hope we still have time for questions.
ANGELA SMITH: That was wonderful, Nirmala, thank you, Nirmala, so much. And it really did strike me in the two years of pandemic that have elapsed since we started planning your visit here — the one that we had to cancel, at the start of the pandemic — I think this complex thinking-through of disability in relation to race and class and colonialism, and its relationship to eco-injustice, it’s all just become more evident and urgent than ever.
So, I really appreciate you helping put some of that into focus tonight and attending to all of the layers that are so important in understanding disability in the contemporary context. So, thank you. We are going to make space now for further conversation and questions. So, I would like to invite folks to put questions into the Q&A, and Lezlie and I will take turns reading out those questions, so that Nirmala might address them.
So, I’m going first to a question from Rua Williams: “How do we move from registering disablement through ecological violence as some sort of natural consequence of naturalized poverty, to recognizing survivors of ecological violence as embodied evidence of that violence, a living body of proof and condemnation of neo-liberal colonial white supremacist violence? But, also, how do we figure those who have been maimed as survivors of violence, without reifying the moral model of disability: survivors are not simply the consequence of society’s moral failure?
NIRMALA EREVELLES: Wow, thank you, Rua Williams, and fabulous question. And that is precisely actually the tension that I am trying to work through in this paper, actually, in my broader book, which this is going to be a chapter in this book, which I’m calling, I’m talking about “cripping empire.”
Because I’m making the argument that disability is very central in the production of empire but without a way of, exactly as you put it, I just love the way you put it, disability doesn’t have to be an embodiment of moral failure, while at the same time it should not in any way erase the reality of what happens. And that’s when I have been trying to work through, which is what I want to foreground this argument, that I want to render visible the labor, to literally render visible, that’s what I’m calling the labor the disability is now caused to do. In some ways, it’s been appropriated by capital to use it in these ways, taking it out of the realm of, say, those of us who are really committed to intersectional materialist analysis of disability.
This work is also in a way of trying to reclaim it. When you read stuff on eco-injustice, I mean, disability gets precisely used as this means — like when I had that picture about, when I was talking about disability as spectacle. Disability is used as spectacles particularly in these disasters. And, so, we have to really work to unframe it. And that’s why even in this really cool work by Yusoff that I haven’t read, I’ve just started the book, and I was reading it, and I was finding their work so useful about the Black Anthropocene, the lack of engagement with what this would mean when you start producing this — when you start engaging with these notions of, what you would say, you know, are all like all the pathologizing aspects that are so almost casually linked to disability without any question.
So that’s why the other — That’s why I also think that, like, I appreciated that we could now move from the social construction of disability by really talking about the social production of disability because then disability doesn’t become just an example, but it becomes a way of us from shifting it particularly — That’s why I was also citing Jina Kim’s work because of her shifting to the infrastructures that then create these forms of embodiment. And in my — some of my other work I’ve also really been pushing about, like, I really love Alison Kafer’s question that has also been done by a lot of people in disability studies, the idea of disability futurity.
Because I felt when I wrote my book that Lezlie was — like, there was a part of me at the end of my book, like, the book on disability in the global context, that I felt that I would fall precisely into the critique that, Rua, you just offered. And I was like I need to be able to, I need to be able to in some ways — my second book was in the way of engaging precisely that argument about how do we presume crip futures, which is not just kind of like a discursive breaking of normative?
But we can imagine crip futures within eco-justice, anti-capitalist and anti-black and the violence that’s now being enacted around gender identities in my state of Alabama. And how do we imagine crip — like crip futures, that is broader than a certain embodied narrowness that happened before. I’m sorry if I… I hope I answered it somewhat. And, actually, I’m trying to answer it in my book. So, thank you for the question.
ANGELA SMITH: I can go to this next question here which takes us in a quite different direction. From Jose Sandez: I have a master’s degree in political science, in particular international relations, but I would like to get into the field of disability studies, specifically research. What advice would you give someone in my position that wants to break into the field?
NIRMALA EREVELLES: Oh. I’m not a political scientist, and have a degree in international relations, but actually, you have an awesome opportunity, Jose, of asking the fundamental questions of who is the subject citizen in these fields, because political science, they all constitute a subject that is very normative.
So, the minute — actually, the first time I ever articulated my own argument on disability, when I was a graduate student, I was taking a political science class. And I kept hearing like we were talking about how to claim political — it was a very radical class — and we were talking about racialized radical third-world subjectivities, but they were constituting the subjectivities in opposition to this notion of disability. And I was just a grad student. I was just introduced to this notion of disability as a social — as this social construct, as a category that is produced, and this notion of the norm.
And I even dared, arrogant that I was as a 20-year-old, which I may not do right now — even dared asked the question about what would it mean if the subject was not — it wasn’t so sophisticated, but — why wouldn’t you allow a disabled subject any kind of presence in that space? And, of course, it was dismissed. They were, like, but that’s not the issue. Disabled people get help. They were very able to apply a charity model to disability.
So, for you to you really break into it, take courses in disability studies and start asking the questions about who is the normative subject in political science and international relations, and also what kind of language they use. How do they use disability to constitute the other, even in empowering discourses? Like, if you’re fighting for third-world liberation, you’re still using disability in a way to distance third-world subjects in a broad sense from engaging with disability.
LEZLIE FRYE: Thank you for that, Nirmala, and thank you for this talk, oh my goodness. It was so generative for me, and I’m really excited for the book. And there were a lot of moments — there were a lot of moments that I’m actually trying to — [toddler calling]. Excuse me — I’m trying to think through, and one thing in particular is about social death. And I would love for you to speak more about disability. Sorry, I have a sick kid right now, so I’m sorry. I’d love for you to speak more about disability in relationship to social death, and I’m thinking right now about the politics of life and death a lot, and particularly trying to engage work on necropolitics that centers blackness, and that emerges through an examination of slavery, largely in relationship to slavery.
And I’m finding myself struggling to address how disability is figured in and as proximity to death and simultaneously to take accounts for the ways that it’s been translated into both national and transnational legibility through, sort of, rights-bearing subjects and you might think about that through citizenship or other rubrics, right?
And that that’s come at the expense of those, as Jasbir Puar has argued, has come at the expense of those actually positioned in material ways proximately to death through incarceration, or policing, or through military occupation and, of course, this has everything to do with race and whiteness more particularly. But it’s really tricky, right, to talk about what the relationship between disability and death, and disability and social death, is, and I’m wondering if you want to flesh that out anymore.
NIRMALA EREVELLES: And that was actually five years after writing my book, that was the sudden, like, the question that came to me. And that wanted me to go back and rewrite it. Because I couldn’t rewrite it, I’m trying to write it further than that.
The reason it’s taken so long, is because we have to get ourselves out and through that — that space, the notion of disability is social, disability as very much the embodiment of no future. And that’s why I think I have to reconnect it back to Rua’s first question, in the sense that this notion of social — the notion of equating it to social death is because we want to see — I don’t think we really care about disabled bodies per se as social bodies, or that we in fact kill disabled bodies on a daily basis.
Because we don’t. We don’t. We literally don’t. That’s always an afterthought. But we use it because that’s the label. We use it because we want to talk about this idea of — I mean, it becomes the kind of discursive way of mapping for this kind of like radical subjectivity, right.
And so, I really want us to — for me to engage this, we also, I’m also thinking like when we do, like I had written a paper with actually with D — I’ve written a paper with Dean Adams on where we used Agamben’s notion the idea of bios and zoē and the idea of how, we were using it in the way in which schools — see, it’s not that disability becomes the embodiment of social, we create social debt for disabled people.
Like, in the school system, you’re talking about behavior, especially the ways in which we use the AB… sometimes I have word-losing problems… but when we use these horrible behavioristic, some of them to do with shock to justify the disciplining, quote/unquote, “disciplining” of disabled bodies. The act is social death. And that’s where so maybe the way to engage it is, that’s why I think I like the concept of materiality, because then it makes social death a kind of construction, that then gets applied to different kinds of bodies.
I’m thinking that because, that’s where I wanted to go, because I got this notion of the labor that disability does, when I was actually reading, again, I’m blanking out, No Mercy Here, by the Black historian [Sarah Haley], her name will come in ten minutes later, where I actually wrote about — She’s talking about slavery and production… She’s basically talking about how, like, convict labor was used to build up the South. And so much of her argument engages disability precisely within that context of social death, even though she never uses the word disability.
And, so, I start, and then even in some of Saidiya Hartman’s work, so now, I get to see — I’m trying to make the argument that the labor that disability is called to do. But if we actually looked at it as practices, and not, which is what a lot of people are using it as, disability as pathologically equated with death. That’s why also constructing disability as a historical materialist category may get us out of that space of pathologization, or as a site of embodiment. Because it’s becoming, the becoming would then, — now I’m thinking aloud. Fabulous question that’s making me think.
ANGELA SMITH: Thanks, Nirmala. I’m going to ask another question from our Q&A section. From E. McKinley Hopf: “Other than the reasons you already articulated, that they haven’t been compared to each other, even though they’re both pressing examples of what you’re talking about, why did you specifically choose Flint and Bhopal to compare here? What prompted this comparison? Were there other cities or examples you thought about using, and were there any reasons that pushed you to focus on these two? Is there something about these two examples that links them in a particularly generative way for you, or is the point, rather, that they’re just two of seemingly infinite examples, and you had to just choose at some point to focus your examination.
NIRMALA EREVELLES: Great question here, too. Actually, I was writing about Flint, Michigan, because I’m also a professor in education. And I was actually writing about Detroit schools. Then you talk about Flint schools. And, like, Flint came up because it’s so close and near.
But I’m Indian, and one day I wanted to write — I was thinking about — I was invited to talk about some connection of South Asia and disability. And I was, like, Bhopal, I was a child in India when Bhopal happened. I remember waking up, and hearing the news, and feeling the horror. But I had only childish memories of it, because I was a child. And it was something that grown-ups talked about.
My father worked for a private capitalist company. And the manager of his company supposedly had business interests in Bhopal. And I had friends who worked, friends’ parents who worked for Union Carbide, if not in Bhopal, also in other parts. So, Bhopal was very close, and so, when I started bringing them together — that’s also something that’s cool when you’re doing research, you’re reading about a place and a time that’s very different, about Flint, Michigan. And you’re thinking about it in a very different way.
And then while you’re reading, when I was reading about it, I remembered Bhopal. I was like, wow. And then I went to start reading about the literature in Bhopal. And then I could see the similarities. I mean the idea of how — there’s actually also a fabulous book that Jina Kim, who I’ve cited here, not a fabulous book, but Jina Kim wrote a fabulous article on a book written by an Indian, a fiction, a book of fiction written by an Indian author, called Animal’s People. And I had read that book as an adult.
The book is — the protagonist of the book is disabled in a very distinct way because of the gas explosion. He calls himself an animal, right? That’s him. He’s become an animal. And Jina’s Kim’s analysis is the ways in which the tropes of disability get taken up. But as an Indian reading the book — it was an Indian author using a lot of puns that, as an Indian, I would have understood. It’s a paper, I would also want to include that in writing this paper.
But it was reading that book, being from India, knowing about, in the back of my memories, Bhopal. And watching right now. What happened in India was literally back in the day when I was a young kid. The fact that it’s a poor country, we did not have the so-called resources. For me, the most troubling thing is we are watching what’s happening in Flint, the same way as a child, I was watching what was happening in Bhopal.
And that may be the reason that made me want to connect the two together. That was for me terrifying. Because, it is not, Flint is not on any of the social justice things right — it should be right at the forefront. People are being impacted in brutal ways. And the rest — so, I grew up in India with Bhopal at the back of my mind. And we are still growing up with Flint in the back of my mind. So that’s what brought it together. And, of course, the disability analysis. So, I hope I answered that.
ANGELA SMITH: Thank you, Nirmala. And someone has asked in the questions, could you please again share the name of that fiction that’s based on Bhopal?
NIRMALA EREVELLES: It’s called Animal’s People.
ANGELA SMITH: Animal’s People, thank you.
NIRMALA EREVELLES: I can’t remember the author’s name. Another easy way to find it is, type, Jina Kim and Animal’s People. It’s actually an article that was published, actually Jina got an award for outstanding paper. So it will be on the Society for Disability — It was actually in Disabilities Studies Quarterly, the article was published. So if you can read their article and then you go to the book, you’ll find it.
ANGELA SMITH: Another question for you. Oh, sorry, this is from Edmund Fong, here at the U of Utah: “If extractive and disaster capitalism drives the production of disability and eco-injustice, what resource do you find, if any, still within the Marxist oeuvre; in particular, Marxist futurity could be fairly easily critiqued as ableist.
NIRMALA EREVELLES: Yes, and thank you, Edmund for that question. And, yes, you’re right. In some ways — Actually, the way I came to disability studies was my frustration, and my own work was my frustration and not just Marxism, but almost all so-called emancipatory, radical, transformative forums by not actively engaging disability, actually are ableist. In so many ways, consciously or unconsciously, we produce ableism. So, I don’t want to beat up just Marxism.
And that’s where the pressure, that’s why I appreciate some of the work that Robert McRuer has been doing, has done and continues to do, in pushing queer theory and, pushing the ways, by him constituting this idea of crip theory. The work that is being done in DisCrit to push critical race theory. And that’s why we have a context of DisCrit. The incredible work done by feminists, disabled feminists, particularly disabled feminists of color, Sami Schalk, Therí Alice Pickens, and even some of the, like, Dennis Tyler, were all pushing, Leroy Moore, like, not even academics, but just, like, activists, and Sins disability justice, they’re all pushing against the dominant paradigms.
Like, you can still offer — so, the issue is not that Marxism, feminism, queer theory, anti-racist critical race theory, are not always going to provide you the responses, but it’s how are you going to engage with those — a lot of them have — like, even Marx offers the critique of labor and exploitation. He does offer this notion of the industrial reserve army.
Actually, I make the argument of also how disability, like the ways in which he doesn’t talk about disability, but you can see it constituted through the analysis. But then we also have in academia this orthodoxy that you have to stay within the frames of a so-called radical discourse. And what disability studies has shown me, that’s there’s no orthodoxy that can actually engage disability. Disability is a disruptive conceptual practice. That’s the way I would respond to that.
LEZLIE FRYE: Thank you, Nirmala, so much for that answer. I have another question here from Gabriella Huggins. They say your work is making me think of the Fields sisters’ Racecraft, in the way it’s attempting to shift our ideas or ideology away from socially constructed lack of awareness of disability and into the socially produced material realities of disability. I’ve personally noted the increasing visibility of people with disabilities in popular discourse. In the context of disability seeming more celebrated or visible, can you speak to the limitations and possibilities of representation? Are there any merits of visibility in the context of political economy and material change? How do you or we approach speaking to a general populace still disconnected from disability and the disability justice movement about the social versus material, in a way that’s accessible to them but still transformative? And I’ll type that into chat also. It’s a long question. Thanks, Gabriella.
NIRMALA EREVELLES: Thank you Gabriella for that question, too. Yes. Actually, just this past Wednesday, I was doing this kind of thing, a Zoom meeting on a panel, with, at Florida International University, and we had an interesting panel of three people who are — who are visibly, who are very active in what you would call motivational speakers and with disabilities.
And there was one other academic and me. And we had a good discussion, because at one point, one of them was an artist. And he was showing particularly, he was talking about his queer disabled body and wanting to talk about desire and this notion of fetish. And he had these beautiful, like, very powerful pictures of really challenging the discursive constructions of disability as desire, as fetish that somebody wants to occur — like this notion of disability with a future, with a kind of like a sexual — it was powerful.
But we also talked — so, somebody asked him a question about how you put them on Facebook, when has Facebook or Instagram, kind of, like, said “Oh, my God, this is a bit much,” because his pictures were very — there were a lot of nude pictures and very intimate scenes. Very much the kind that Facebook, like, whatever, like, I think he does Instagram. And then he talked about how because they realized he has like some 5,000 whatever followers, they let him go. So, of course, somebody was asking me a question about capitalism.
And this was a group that’s very nonacademic. So this was good. It forced me, so, someone was asking me a question on capitalism, and that’s when I used the example. I said just because disability is visible, doesn’t make it transformatory, because capitalism is about profits over people. And they will do anything to profit off disabled bodies. Now, it doesn’t mean, I’m not making any moral judgment, and I think in a capitalist society if disabled people can profit, can find ways to profit off in the ways in which a disability — I don’t hold it against disabled people doing it. You’ve got to do it in a world that requires that.
But, but, I really wanted — for us, like, for us to be able to think about disability outside, like, at least for somebody me as an academic, I have an opportunity to think about how disability can be conceived of — that’s what I want to do with my work, is I want us to move to a space where we can conceive of disability, but it is not exploited by other forms of — I mean, and maybe there is a bit of utopia in it in my argument.
But as an academic. For those us who are supposed to do the dreaming, for the work, these are spaces where we can imagine and then be able to find — and I should look at the chat, because I’m hoping I’m answering all of your question. In the sense that we need to move disability into the socially produced space. And then I was asking, if we are so fond of disability, why is it that we’ve been so violent to disabled people during Covid? Why is it that disabled people don’t have access to healthcare That is affordable. I’m talking at a university setting. I just have a senior going into high school. And I was just — like, you can’t believe how ableist the whole — even for my daughter doesn’t have any kind of like intellectual disability, but you have no idea how ableist the system is.
Even, like, it actually produces children who are terrified about seeing that they have no self-worth, right? So ,the very fact of access to universities, educational institutions. So, this whole notion, that’s when you see the materiality of disability. Like, today is supposed to be world Down syndrome day. But we don’t, what are the material conditions under which people with Down’s syndrome have to engage their lives? What is the everyday violences? So many of these young people, young and even older people are incarcerated.
[Cell phone ringing.] Sorry, this is my daughter. Sorry I hope she will not call again. But anyway. That’s my daughter’s —
ANGELA SMITH: We are pretty much at time, so, if you had any last thoughts that you wanted to put out there, that would wrap us up nicely.
NIRMALA EREVELLES: Actually, I mean I really, maybe because we’ve been talking about these two other cases, I really want us to go back to this notion of production of disability, and maybe because I’m also doing this in the pedagogy thing on Thursday. But I really wanted us to see how on an everyday basis, we enact notwithstanding our good, including myself, our good pedigrees of, whatever, social justice, Or disability justice, that we enact these kinds of active exclusions. Especially, Covid highlighted, like, this whole pandemic highlighted them, and then immediately took them away.
I just got into an argument with my dean, because they require meetings where you have to be physically present now, because at least in the state of Alabama, the pandemic is over. It may not be in other states, but, for us, it is over. So, this whole notion of you know, disability being completely rendered invisible. How do we produce it? How do we use it? We used it when we said, suddenly, we wanted all teachers and everybody else to produce these brilliant lesson plans, so we could keep students engaged, so we used disability.
And now, we’re being told that if a student says he or she or they cannot enter a class, for whatever reasons, that we have to hold them accountable. We cannot offer hybrid classes anymore. So, you see the kind of — so, for me, this argument about the labor, like, if you thought about the labor that disability does, and the way that impacts and implicates us, is one of the things that I would like you all to think about. And I hope that was — I don’t think I could be any more profound.
I don’t know, I feel a little — But your questions, I just had such amazing questions.
ANGELA SMITH: Yes, thank you to everyone who asked questions. And I apologize to those that we didn’t get to. But I really appreciate all of the wisdom that you brought for us this evening, Nirmala, and there’s a lot for us to think about and take away with us. So, I am so grateful for your labor, your energy and your time tonight. I want to thank everyone who attended. And, again, all of those who made this evening’s event possible. And I wish you all a wonderful evening, as you depart from our event tonight.