This blog article draws upon some recent research and writing with my colleagues Rebecca Lawthom and Katherine Runswick Cole (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Kirsty Liddiard (University of Sheffield, like myself) . Our work centres around a key question; what does it mean to be human in the 21st Century and in what ways does disability enhance these meanings? In posing this question we are drawn to two realisations. First, we recognise that the human being is what we might term an entangled expansive entity (bound up in tight connections of nature, technology, culture). When we think of our friends we now might point to our social media networks and when we consider the human body we are certain to note that we are plugged in to a whole host of relationships with the internet, computers and machines. While it is important to recognise the ever-morphing practices that impinge upon humanity we wonder if disability might shed further light on these entangled and expansive shifts and changes. Historically disabled people have been considered to be less than human by their fellow (non-disabled) humans. Just as people of colour and queer people have been marginalised, so disabled people have been institutionalised, segregated and on many occasions threatened with eugenics and medical interventions that seek to wipe them out. Fortunately, the disabled people’s movement that now enjoys global presence – reaching out across rich and poor nations – demands us not only to include disabled people as members of the human race but, and this is what we find particularly exciting, asks us to think again about what it means to be a full, paid up member of humanity.
The second realisation is that we are living in a time when the human being is under threat. We know that the gap between the rich and the poor is wider now than it has ever been. In June 2014, The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that the number of people displaced by bloody conflict and persecution had exceeded 50 million for the first time since the post-World War II era. Meanwhile, as more and more governments execute austerity politics, many human beings find themselves at risk. Yet, the dominant message from politicians is that in order to survive humans need to start taking responsibilities for their own lives. It is not the State that will support you but your hard work, your entrepreneurial verve and your self-sufficiency. We know though that the reality for many of us – indeed, all of us – is that we cannot live alone. The mythical notion that being a valued human being equates with displaying great individual displays of autonomy and independence needs to be exposed in these dangerous times of global conflict, welfare cuts, precarious labour conditions and the fragmentation of our communities. And this is where disability can help us refresh the values that we attach to humanity.
Disabled activists, artists and researchers have long argued for a rethinking of those qualities that make us all human beings. People with impairments – whether they be sensory, physical or cognitive – have always demand imaginative ways of being human. Wheelchair users fuse human bodies with machinery in order to move. Disabled people have always been cyborgs. People with intellectual disabilities have helped to promote extended support networks, spanning communities, bringing individual human beings into more collective human gatherings. Disabled activists have pushed governments to embrace anti-disciminatory legislation that forces employers to (at the very least) acknowledge employing disabled people. And when employment for disabled people works it does so not only because the skills of disabled people have been allowed to shine but because forms of human support have been put in place to make workplaces inclusive, enabling and accessible. We might hope, then, that the 21st Century becomes a DisHuman century: a time when disability is adopted as the category for thinking again about what it means to be human. Hopefully, the humanity valued in this period of history will be one that emphasises mutual support, interdependence and an enabling blending of bodies, technology and culture.
Dan Goodley, School of Education, University of Sheffield