October 2019

Decolonizing the Body: Indigenizing Our Approach to Disability Studies

If critical disability studies is to replace our traditional analyses and modes of intervention, then we must continue to approach dis/ability within the broader matrix of colonization, questioning and challenging the ways in which dominant power relations recognize, regulate, and govern our lifeways.

by Rachel Presley

“Disability is not fundamentally a question of medicine or health, nor is it just an issue of sensitivity and compassion; rather, it is a question of politics and power(lessness), power over, and power to.”[1]

(Dis)ability is inherently colonial. While disability studies as an academic and activist discipline has traditionally worked to “weave disabled people back into the fabric of society,”[2] it wasn’t until recently that the field took a much-needed critical turn, recognizing that traditional disability studies relied too heavily on a dangerous neoliberal model of medical communication and scientific rationality. As Ann Fox writes, this transformation is direly needed in order to address the field’s previous “erasure of bodies of color, reinforcing hierarchies, policing points of view, and moments of careerism over coalition.”[3]

Indeed, the contours of disability scholarship have recently embraced a newfound intersectionality: the productive coupling of queer theory and critical disability theory has informed the emergence of “crip theory;” critical race studies and black disability studies have transformed our understanding of racialized matrixes of power, such as the school-to-prison pipeline; and re-reading Foucault’s concept of biopolitical ethics has proved indispensable in moving beyond a strictly biological interpretation of dis/abled bodies.[4] 

Yet a gap that remains largely unexplored by both traditional and critical disability scholar-activists is the indigenization of our bodyminds; the decolonization of lifeways towards an autonomous sovereignty that rewrites disability as a social condition rather than a social identity. Helen Meekosha explains:

[We] need to confront as a central issue the production of impairment in the global South. The processes of colonisation, colonialism, and neo-colonial power have resulted in vast numbers of impaired people in the global South. Much of this relates to the global economy; it concerns control of resources. Impaired people are ‘produced’ in the violence and war that is constantly provoked by the North, either directly or indirectly, in the struggle over the control of minerals, oil and other economic resources – ultimately control of the land and sea themselves.[5]

Of course, it’s necessary to note here that neither Meekosha nor I are suggesting a return to the rhetorics of disability prevention; instead, I argue that these histories provide the necessary framework to move us towards analyses of colonial processes that imagine, produce, sustain, and profit from marginalized and minoritized folx’s dis/abilities. Such a fundamental change in this conceptualization of power relations is undoubtedly in line with a global decolonial paradigm shift.

Inherent in this proposal is the recognition that colonialism is not merely a metaphor for power; rather, colonization is a processual lived reality for the peripheral Other – communities who have been constituted as disabled, “whether because of their perceived unproductivity as laborers; embodied racial-sexual differences; ‘unchaste’ proclivities of their women; susceptibility to moral contagion and infectious diseases; or inability to learn.”[6] Thus, disability serves as both a marker of difference and a rationale for differing. Such a cyclical relationship allows dis/ability to operate as a fluidly capacious concept and, as David Scott argues, emerges as weaponized mechanism – an act of “disabling.”[7]

Indigenous chronic pain. Courtesy of Panteha Abareshi.

I highlight the following two cases in order to raise our critical awareness regarding the centrality of colonialism in the active dehumanization of disabled bodyminds and especially in the medical and professional power exerted over disabled peoples:[8] first, the ideology of eugenic purity, and second, the exportation of toxic pollution.

In 1883, Sir Francis Galton (a cousin of Charles Darwin) defined the term ‘eugenics’ as the “cultivation of race” or the “science of improving stock.”[9] (Translated from Greek, the term literally means “good creation”).[10] Just a few years later, W. A. Chapple published The Fertility of the Unfit, arguing that mental illness, criminal tendencies, and poverty rates were direct results of a country’s “defective stock,” or those with “undesirable” mental and physical “ailments.”[11] By 1912, rhetorics of the “feeble-minded” gave way to a public hysteria that such “defects” could be passed from one generation to the next and must therefore be “bred out;”[12] or as Ezra Gosney and Paul Popenoe wrote, “sterilization for human betterment.”[13] Ideologies of eugenic purity and genetic engineering are, of course, most evident in Adolf Hitler’s master-race mania: The Nazi’s passage of the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases authorized a “mercy death” program, resulting in the mass execution of approximately 275,000 disabled individuals, and Josef Mengele’s gruesome experimentation on Jewish prisoners renders eugenic ideologies as a literal executor of racial purity.

Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921. Courtesy of Connecticut Magazine.

Eugenics as a colonizing endeavor can therefore be linked to a desire for imperial expansion, or as Caleb Saleeby proclaims, a pathway to “rebuilding the living foundations of empire.”[14] Galton’s original conceptualization of eugenics continued to flourish under a “climate suffused with notions of European imperial superiority bolstered by a growingly confident scientific establishment, at the core of which as a wide-ranging biology of humanity in which the measurement and scaling of difference played a devastating central role.”[15] In other words, genetic colonization is yet another permutation of ideological and corporeal control in which a new social order can be biometrically built.

In spaces where the immediate biological engineering of “productive” and “capable” bodyminds is unattainable, marginalized communities are oftentimes subjected to a disabling process instead – a disruption of old forms “by systemically breaking down their conditions.”[16] The export of toxics (or environmental racism writ-large) is one catastrophic way in which the production of impairment situates itself within the mechanics of colonization. Of course, we know that colonialism is concerned with the violent acquisition of land for settlement, but an oft-overlooked dimension of this relationship is the management of pollutants that accumulate from capitalist-driven consumption. (See here for a thoughtful exploration of neocolonialism).

Exporting pollutants from the metropole to the periphery is yet another example of the exploitative relationship between colonizers and their presumed marginalized subjects: Uranium mining and radioactive dumping consistently pollute traditional indigenous lands, much to the detriment of its people’s clean water supply and local flora/fauna crops;[17] nuclear testing seeps into the borders of sequestered, rural populations;[18] and “pollution havens” across the Eastern Hemisphere stockpile electronic waste in the hopes that copper fragments can be recovered for meager compensation, though burning e-waste releases a plethora of toxic fumes such as mercury, lead, cadmium, barium, and lithium.[19] Here, environmental racism as a network of conditions, policies, and practices renders othered communities as “human sacrifice zones” where its residents have the “wrong complexion for protection,”[20] resulting in the rapid increase in cognitive and physical impairments on global South communities.[21]

E-Waste Recycling Facility in Guiya, China. Courtesy of NPR.

What results from the ideological and material production of colonization is a Western-derived, Eurocentric conceptualization of dis/ability as a social identity rather than a social condition. However, narrating these histories and intersections moves us beyond a taxonomy of identity politics to instead consider dis/ability from a decolonial perspective; one that deliberately links oppression to impairment and advocates for a radical bodymind sovereignty beyond our dominant vocabularies. For some indigenous groups, even the terminology of disability is unintelligible:

Race and disability in the global South are fluid concepts. This has been the case both in colonial and contemporary times. Devlieger reports that ‘disability as a category of discourse is foreign to sub-Saharan African thought’ (2005, 693). King also reports that Indigenous Australians have different ways of discussing changes in bodily function (2006, 8). In her work with indigenous peoples, Ariotti (1999) described disability as an alien concept.[22]

From these perspectives, there exists an inherent tension in decolonial efforts to reframe our ontological debates on what it means to be disabled on colonized lands and the cultural negotiation of resisting othering and disabling processes.

Blank Native medicine wheel. Courtesy of SAY Magazine with permission of Kelly Beaulieu (Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation).

Perhaps an accessible entry point to critical disability studies’ decolonization efforts is the conceptualization of a Native medicine wheel which acts as a collective counter-rhetoric to dominant discourses of ability and impairment. As the U.S. National Library of Medicine describes, the medicine wheel is a fluid cultural symbol utilized by a number of American Indian tribes for health and healing. Though the physical form of each medicine wheel varies widely, most embody the “Four Directions, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth, and Spirit Tree – all of which symbolize dimensions of health and the cycles of life.”[23] Judie Bopp, Michael Bopp, and Lee Brown write in Sacred Tree that the medicine wheel represents a nonlinear model of human development with each compass direction offering lessons to support the development of a balanced individual across physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of one’s lifeways.[24] Ann Dapice explains further that the medicine wheel is often used to present complex issues of health and wellness (such as disability and impairment) to support culturally grounded frameworks of understanding and acceptance.[25]

This indigenization of the body, mind, and spirit exhibits a deliberate effort to transcend outside worldviews and promote indigenous narratives that dismantle complex health conditions in favor of holistically understandable and manageable dimensions of wellbeing. While in no way a monolithic approach to indigenous conceptions of dis/ability, the medicine wheel does provide an alternative approach to critical disability studies that moves beyond cognitive and physical characteristics towards a greater affective and spiritual dimension. In line with Meekosha’s suggestion:

We need to acknowledge that there are many ways of describing and understanding disability and impairment. Indigenous activists are struggling for control of traditional medicinal knowledge and healing practices – all of which relate to disability.[26]

Decolonial cleansing. Courtesy of Teen Vogue with permission of Tina Curiel-Allen (Xicana/Boricua).

Adapting the medicine wheel is just one way in which we may resist Western logics and processes of disability and disabling. If critical disability studies is to replace our traditional analyses and modes of intervention, then we must continue to approach dis/ability within the broader matrix of colonization, questioning and challenging the ways in which dominant power relations recognize, regulate, and govern our lifeways. Colonialism is not reconcilable. Let us relish in the sovereign reclamation of our bodyminds.

Rachel Presley is an Assistant Professor of Rhetorical Theory in the Department of Writing Studies and the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. As a critical rhetorician with training in cultural studies and political philosophy, her primary research interests engage issues of social movement and resistance rhetorics, (trans)national citizenship and belonging, and postcolonial/decolonial/anticolonial theory. She views marginality as a fundamentally intersectional position, so her scholarship makes use of rhetorical criticism, historiography, and critical qualitative methods to assess its representations and resistances.

Further Reading

[1] Diane Pothier and Richard Devlin, Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law (Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press, 2006), 2.

[2] Simi Linton, “What is Disability Studies?” PMLA, 120, no. 2 (2005): 518.

[3] Ann Fox, “We Must Be Critical: The Current Purpose of Disability Studies,” Disability Studies Quarterly, 37, no. 3 (2017).

[4] Shelley Tremain, Foucault and the Government of Disability (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2005).

[5] Helen Meekosha, “Decolonising Disability: Thinking and Acting Globally,” Disability & Society 26, no. 6 (2011): 668.

[6] Adria Imada, “A Decolonial Disability Studies?” Disability Studies Quarterly 37, no. 3 (2017).

[7] David Scott, “Colonial Governmentality,” in Anthropologies of Modernity, ed. Jonathan Inda (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 23-49.

[8] Karen Hirsch, “From Colonization to Civil Rights: People with Disabilities and Gainful Employment,” in Employment, Disability, and the Americans with Disabilities Act: Issues in Law, Public Policy, and Research, ed. Peter Blanck (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press), 412–431.

[9] Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (New York City: Macmillan Publishers, 1883).

[10] David Galton, “Greek Theories on Eugenics,” Journal of Medical Ethics 24, no. 1 (1998): 263-267.

[11] W. A. Chapple, The Fertility of the Unfit (Melbourne: Christchurch, Wellington, Dunedin, N.Z., and London, 1903).

[12] Henry Goddard, The Kallikak Family. A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness (New York City: Macmillan, 1912).

[13] Ezra Gosney and Paul Popenoe, Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California (New York City: Macmillan, 1929).

[14] Caleb Saleeby, Parenthood and Race Culture: An Outline of Eugenics (London: Cassell, 1909), 34.

[15] Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1982), 126.

[16] Scott, “Colonial Governmentality,” 25.

[17] Peter Goin, Nuclear Landscapes (Creating the North American Landscape) (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).

[18] “Nuclear Test Sites,” Atomic Archive, National Science Digital Library, last revised 2015, http://www.atomicarchive.com/Almanac/Testing.shtml

[19] Violet Pinto, “E-Waste Hazard: The Impending Challenge,” Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 12, no. 2 (2008): 65-70.

[20] Robert Bullard, Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1999), 12.

[21]Paul Abberley, “The Concept of Oppression in the Development of a Social Theory of Disability,” Disability Handicap and Society 2, no. 1 (1987): 5–19. Shaun Grech, “Recolonising Debates or Perpetuated Coloniality? Decentring the Spaces of Disability, Development and Community in the Global South”, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 15, no. 1 (2011): 87–100.

[22] Meekosha, “Decolonising Disability,” 672. For the referenced sources, see: Louis Ariotti, “Social Construction of Anangu Disability, Australian Journal of Rural Health 7, no. 4 (2008): 216–222. Patrick Devlieger, “Experience of Disability: Sub-Saharan Africa,” in Encyclopedia of Disability, ed. Glenn Albrecht, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2005), 666–698. Julie King, J. 2006.

[23] “Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing,” U.S. National Library of Medicine, accessed 2019 October 12, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/medicine-wheel.html

[24] Judie Bopp, Michael Bopp, and Lee Brown, Sacred Tree: Reflections on Native American Spirituality (Detroit, MI: Lotus Press, 1894).

[25] Ann Dapice, “The Medicine Wheel,” Journal of Transcultural Nursing 17, no. 3 (2006): 251-260.

[26] Meekosha, “Decolonising Disability,” 678.

1 comment on “Decolonizing the Body: Indigenizing Our Approach to Disability Studies

  1. thank you so much for this. i’ve been trying to investigate whether a single person on this planet has ever thought about disability AS A TYPE OF colonialism. i’ve asked fellow folks with disabilities, and i’ve literally had one say to me “i don’t know if you understand what colonialism means….?” which is typical for Ablebodieds, but, when i think about it, it’s not that it’s even ATYPICAL for people with disabilities, since we’re taught to think of ourselves as “not being disabled”.

    the reason i’ve wanted to know, well, first of all, it’s for clarity on my own identity. but secondary is to further my ability to understand what i’m trying to say in the writing i’m working on. i want to work in the tradition of Magical Realism, and the way i found into it was to realize, a) colonialism is, i would say, the driving motivation behind Magical Realism; and b) that disability life among ablebodieds IS colonialism: we are, in a similar way to women (of color, with disabilities, or otherwise), colonized by our ablebodied authority figures.


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