There is a word missing in David Goldberger and Paul Longmore’s piece “The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression.” The authors spend the chapter writing the history of a disability action committee in order to, as they say, draw attention to “major themes of modern disability history, with its complicated interactions among institutional, group, and individual actors” (86-7). The essay covers the Great Depression and the so-called New Deal and discusses how New Deal employment and government assistance programs created a Catch-22 for disabled men and women who wanted to work and be self-sufficient. Longmore and Goldberger describe how disabled workers were systematically excluded from the labor force in an effort to secure and save jobs for nondisabled people. The League of the Physically Handicapped (LPH) fought against this prejudice and achieved hard-fought but eventual victories in many cases of discrimination. While this story is an intriguing tale of civil rights struggle and battles with prejudice, I felt a nagging as I read it: an elephant in the room that I feel the article avoids though it warily approaches.
In Longmore and Goldberger’s discussion of the role of women in the LPH, they find that though women and men did not make up equal populations in the workforce, the LPH had a “significant [number] of female members” (80). The authors then turn to a discussion of ideas about women who have disabilities. It is here where the authors approach the descriptor they have hitherto avoided in their discussions of prejudice against all disabled people. Returning to the women, Goldberger and Longmore argue that “[t]he perceived failure of physically disabled women to meet conventional gender standards and the consequent parental emphasis on school and career may help explain the prominence of women in movements of physically disabled people” (80). By conventional gender standards I assume that the authors mean the often disabled women are regarded as lacking sex appeal by a prejudiced nondisabled populace.
But why don’t the authors simply use the term that they mean? The descriptor has much to say about why disability is disregarded, ignored, and made invisible in society. Nondisabled people think that disabled women are—I’m going to say it—ugly. This is what we mean when we talk about conventional gender standards, right? We actually mean conventional (gendered) standards of beauty. Disabled bodies do not fit within this popular standard. But these standards of beauty are not specifically about women; they affect the disability community as a whole. Why else are disabled people asked, so frequently, to hide their disabilities, to make them unobtrusive? Why should the man with a metal leg hide his prosthesis under a pair of long pants? The reason, of course, is that society deems that prosthesis to be unsightly, ugly.
There are further implications to this line of thinking and they have to do with the term disability itself. A man with vitiligo or another skin condition, or a woman with a pale patch on her face is not physically impaired. Neither of these people is even medically diagnosable as sick. They possess abnormal bodies, physical features the public deems to be ugly. I think it is important to repeat the word because, as we can probably all agree, ugliness is completely and totally subjective. It is not impossible to medicalize, certainly, but we all know that ugliness is really about how we personally feel about looking at someone else.
And isn’t this what most of the prejudice against people with disabilities is really about? It isn’t that disabled people are an “added burden” on the state. Many want to work, many want to be as bourgeois and as heteronormative as the rest of us. But we don’t want to let them. We want to exclude them. And the real reason we want to exclude them, the real reason we don’t feel guilty about keeping them out of our workplaces, keeping them out of our places of recreation—our amusement parks, our restaurants, our theatres, our classrooms, our streets—is that their bodies are different from ours. And we need to believe our own bodies to be beautiful. Perhaps our prejudice toward people with disabilities is less related to assessments of impairment—cognitive or physical—than it is to assessments of beauty.
Longmore, Paul K. and David Goldberger. “The League of the Physically Handicapped and the Great Depression: a Case Study in the New Disability History.” Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. By Paul K. Longmore. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2003. 53-101.