Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Cultural integration of the ‘disabled subjects’ and transforming ‘arts of governance’

Kateřina Kolářová Ph.D.


The proposal for Konstanz Fellowship is a part of Post-Doc project interrogating contemporary cultural representations of the ‘disabled subject’ from the perspective of the ‘arts of governance’. Conceptually, the project discusses the relationship between ‘the abled’ and ‘the disabled’, cultural understandings of ‘disability’ and their transformations as mirroring and revealing the modes of contemporary processes of socio-cultural integration. In other words, I argue that cultural representations of disability expose normative coding and effects of integration processes and their cultural foundations, which otherwise remain obscured while they formally make use of language of individual freedom, autonomy, authenticity as well as accentuate advantages of social diversity and flexibility

In Konstanz, I will specifically focus on representations of severe physical disability (para- or quadriplegia) and examine them in relation to:  (a) personal autonomy (b) modes of relationship between ‘the disabled’ –‘the abled’, (c) biopolitics and embodiment (d) gender.

Conceptual Framework

‘Disability’ and ‘impairment’ – or more precisely – the modes of their social and cultural conceptualization have come a long way in the modern period. Beginning with the 1960s, social and cultural scientists started to overcome the so far prevalent paradigms of medicalisation and pathology. Instead attention was drawn to the fact that much of the categorisation and typologies of bodily differences, ‘dysfunctions’ and ‘deformities’, in brief ‘disability’, depend upon cultural and social background and understanding of the ‘proper’ and/or ‘healthy’  body. Most significantly, works of Michel Foucault have launched a critical debate upon the historical genealogy and contingency of categories as ‘healthy’, ‘unnatural’, ‘normal’ etc. (cf. e.g. Foucault 1965, 1979) The emerging social model accentuated that ‘disability’ and/or ‘handicap’ is not lodged (solely) upon the bodies but is socially constructed and subsequently somatised. Consequently, the social structures and oppression rather than ‘the disabled body’ was recognised as the seat of exclusion mechanisms.

Recently, though, Robert McRuer has noted that present western societies “d[o] not simplistically stigmatise difference and can in fact celebrate it” (2006: 2). This celebration poses as if it was reaching out to embrace also (physical) disability. In contrast to older modes of representation of disability that either rendered ‘it’ invisible or employed stigmatising discourses of abnormality/ extraordinariness/monstrosity (Wendell 1996; Garland-Thomas 1997; Goffmann 1986), recent media and pop-culture presentations manifest significant changes both in terms of visibility of ‘disability’ as well as in terms of their affirmative, and positive nature. It would seem that ‘the disabled/crippled’ body has ceased to represent the ‘inappropriate/d other’ (Harraway 1992). Obviously, these changes relate to the fact that the issue of disabilities has been in the last decades accepted as of major social relevance which resulted in complex social changes, new legal measures, ‘correct’ language, increased social visibility and acceptability of (physical) ‘handicaps’ etc. All of this seems to testify to increasing integration of people with disabilities into society.

Social theorist Iris Young, however, identifies another tendency that in her eyes conversely hinders and complicates processes of cultural and social inclusion. Young observes a marked contradiction between what she coins as “conscious acceptance” and “unconscious aversion” of difference. (Young 1990:130, see also Nussbaum 2004 and 2006). Young argues: “Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and ableism […] have not disappeared with that commitment [to equality], but have gone underground, dwelling in everyday habits and cultural meanings of which people are for the most part unaware.” (124)
Sharing both McRuer and Young’s reservations towards current processes of ‘disability mainstreaming’, my proposal hopes to further and supplement their perspectives on the present integration of people with disabilities. I propose to examine the very processes in which images and narratives of physical disability are becoming part of the cultural politics of visibility and representation. It is essentially important to deal critically with arguments that speak up for successful integration and/or inclusion of people with disabilities. I argue that cultural representations of disability offer us a way to expose the normative basis of integration processes and their cultural foundation which otherwise remain obscured. Therefore, this project presents a critical examination of normative codes that underlie the language of integration formally calling for recognition of individuality, personal autonomy and one’s right to determine one’s life-choices and which explicitly emphasises the contribution people ‘differently abled’/‘differently bodied’ bring to society and to its diversity.

These research questions are discussed in relation to three particular themes

  • Representation of severe disability and bodily paralysis
  • Motherhood as a tool of governance
  • ‘Crip’ responses to ‘flexible normalisation’