Disability and Representation » Ageism http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com Changing the Cultural Conversation Sat, 11 May 2013 05:07:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.1 Evading Responsibility by Making Science the Solution http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/07/06/evading-responsibility/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/07/06/evading-responsibility/#comments Fri, 06 Jul 2012 04:00:40 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=564 I have been reading, with great interest, Susan Wendell’s The Rejected Body. I have been particularly interested in her analysis of our cultural “myth of control” — the notion that we can control our bodies and protect them indefinitely from illness, disability, and death — and the ways in which disabled people become stigmatized for being an affront to this myth (Wendell 1996, 93-94). Wendell writes that the emphasis in Western culture on curing disability, and all of the millions of dollars spent on cures that never come, is a manifestation of our discomfort with the fact that what happens to our bodies is largely out of our control (Wendell 1996, 94). Our bodies age, they break, they do things we don’t want them to, they don’t do things we do want them to, and ultimately, they fall apart and die.

Our faith in science and medicine to exercise control over disability and death means that resources don’t go to the things that we can control for disabled people. I agree with Wendell that medical science should continue to act in the service of easing suffering, healing illness, and saving lives, but the emphasis on control through science is so extreme that we neglect all the ways in which we can make life better for people who are living, right here and right now, with disability (Wendell 1996, 110-111). We spend an inordinate amount of time and money waging war on disability and death, and very little time and money on things that we actually do have some power over — such as whether buildings are accessible, employment is available, housing is affordable, medical care is within reach, and people generally have access to all of the things that make life more than mere survival.

The myth that we can control our bodies against difficulty, illness, injury, aging, and death is simply a blanket denial of physical reality, but the more I look, the more I see this myth all around me. I see it when people assert that you can protect yourself against rape by how you dress. I see it when people hawk the latest weight-loss program, as though within every woman is a sleek supermodel just waiting to be born, and as though it were a mark of shame to be anything else. I see it in advertisements for products that promise to reverse the visible signs of aging, as though aging were an insult to human dignity. I see it whenever I read an obituary about someone having waged a “courageous battle” against whatever they died from, as though they have gone down in defeat, rather than simply surrendered to an entirely natural — and inevitable — process.

Recently, while all of these issues were knocking around in my brain, I happened across the article David Frum on How We Need to Learn to Say No to the Elderly. Please be warned: the article is very painful reading. It is full of blatant ageism, beginning with the entirely inaccurate assertion that elderly people are the worst drivers in America. In point of fact, according to a report from the census bureau for 2009 (the latest date for which such statistics are available), the worst drivers are those between 25 and 34 years of age, with drivers over 65 accounting for the fewest numbers of accidents (just over 8%). And then there’s a lovely graphic showing the proverbial little old lady in the huge automobile about to drive into a terrified 30-something young man. The caption credits Darren Braun for the photo illustration; all I can say is, How proud he must be! The rest of the article is a scapegoating, dividing-and-conquering mess. It blames elderly people on Medicare and Social Security for bankrupting the young and causing the economic woes afflicting the US; in fact, the subhead reads, in part, “If we don’t push back, they’ll steal our benefits and bankrupt the country.” In this, it reads in a manner reminiscent of the tabloid stories in the UK that blame disabled people for the recession (Briant et al. 2010, 9).

So the article was a tough go, but what I found most troubling were some of the responses. I try to stay away from reading comments to most news articles, lest I despair of humanity altogether, but I was anxious to see whether anyone had called out Frum’s absurdities. Fortunately, a number of people had, but a few had chimed in with absurdities of their own. One comment, in particular, caught my eye as an interesting fantasy of what to do about the “problem” of elderly people bankrupting the economy with their lavish Social Security checks. It read, in part:

Simple: fix aging, as in lets use the now rapidly developing sciences of biotech and nanotechnologies to reverse aging….Aubrey de Grey, founder of the Mpize and the SENS foundations (now with the SENS foundation) estimates we need just 1 billion, spent over a 10 year period, to eliminate the day to day damage of aging in a mouse model, then people in the next decade).

It’s not the first time I’ve read someone excitedly going on about science putting a stop to the aging process, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Every time I see it, I’m caught between wanting to laugh uproariously and feeling myself holding back tears of desperation. On the uproarious side, I find it hilarious that anyone would believe that science could stop the aging process. I mean, the implication is that we’d be young forever and… then what? Never die? How would that work exactly? Once science stops the aging process, would it also stop all other breakdowns in the body? And if that were the case, and no one dies anymore, exactly how are we supposed to all crowd together on this tiny little planet? I realize that, in this culture, death is a bitter pill to swallow for most people, but honestly, it’s the cost of doing business on Mother Earth. We each have our time, and then we leave so that others can have their moment as well. If no one died, the planet would become so crowded that we’d destroy one another.

But mostly, when I read these kinds of comments, I feel a combination of puzzlement and exasperation at the assumptions that underlie them. First of all, there is the assumption that aging is a problem. Personally, I don’t have a problem with my body aging (although I could do without the stigma that attaches). I mean, what’s the problem with aging, except that it’s a sign that you can’t live in denial of death forever? Then, there is the assumption that the problem is in the body, rather than in the world at at large — a common assumption in a society enmeshed in the medical model. Finally, there is the assumption that we need to fix the body instead of the way we structure society and allocate resources. This assumption is the most troubling of all. The idea of putting more faith in science than in the moral conscience and behavior of other people really frightens me. Have we really lost that much faith in the power of human beings to work collectively, to do the right thing, and to make positive political change? Are we really turning our moral obligations over to science, fleeing our responsibilities of care and compassion for one another?

We create a world of suffering: young people can’t find jobs, middle-aged people lose their homes, elderly and disabled people end up isolated in nursing homes or on the street. And then we say, in response to the suffering we’ve created, that if we could only change the bodies of elderly and disabled people, society would work swimmingly. Somehow, the suffering we’ve created outside the body begins to adhere in the body, and the conversation turns to “fixing” the body — ending disability, aging, and ultimately, death. I worry about a world with such zealous faith in science to solve problems that require moral will and political action. I worry because service to one another is the highest calling in human life, and while science can be put in the service of that calling, it can never be a substitute for it.


Briant, E., N. Watson, and G. Philo. Bad News for Disabled People: How the Newspapers Are Reporting Disability. Glasgow, UK: Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research and Glasgow Media Unit, University of Glasgow, 2010.

The Daily Beast. “David Frum on How We Need to Learn to Say No to the Elderly.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/06/24/david-frum-on-how-we-need-to-learn-to-say-no-to-the-elderly.html. June 25, 2012. Accessed July 4, 2012.

The United Status Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s1114.pdf. Accessed July 4, 2012.

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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Ableism and Ageism in One Tidy Little Package http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/06/22/ableism-and-ageism-in-one-tidy-little-package/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2012/06/22/ableism-and-ageism-in-one-tidy-little-package/#comments Fri, 22 Jun 2012 16:00:29 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=476
Source: Facebook

I have only two positive things to say about this graphic:

1) I’m sure the person who put it together had the best of intentions.
b) I love the Victrola in the background.

Now for my critique. Let’s start with the text:

How others see you, is not important.
How you see yourself means everything.

The text is meant to inspire and support us in laying claim to our own self-representations. Okay. Fair enough. It’s abundantly true that my own sense of myself should be more important than other people’s ideas about me. People have told me such things from the time I was a small, sensitive child, overwhelmingly in tune with what people thought about me. What they didn’t tell me was how much my sense of myself and other people’s sense of my self were intertwined. I’ve since realized, of course, that most of us get our ideas about ourselves as a result of how others look at us, how they treat us, and whether they respect and value us. If you’ve been victimized, or bullied, or misrepresented, or otherwise had your sense of yourself messed with, it’s necessary to reclaim your sense of who you are, but it generally doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes the support of other people giving you a relatively undistorted mirror in which to see yourself. The need for such a mirror is why I read so widely about the experiences of other disabled people, why I read every piece of disability theory I can get my hands on, and why I have so many disabled friends. If I didn’t, I might actually believe the things that people say about disability.

Which brings me to the question of what people say about disability, and how the graphic uses disability and aging for the purposes of inspiration. The elderly woman in the wheelchair represents the first part of the text: How others see you. What do they see? Literally speaking, they see an elderly woman in a wheelchair. Of course, no one except a Zen master sees anything literally without attaching to it some value or interpretation, so there is a symbolic meaning attached to being elderly and disabled that makes being elderly and disabled a bad thing. Why do I draw the conclusion that a negative meaning has been attached? Because the first part of the text, How others see you, is placed in contrast with the second part of the text, which talks about what’s really important: How you see yourself. The message is that if people see you in a bad light, what’s most important is that you see yourself in a good light. Apparently, to be old and disabled is to be seen in a bad light.

What does one do in such a predicament? Why, one just imagines oneself as a young, typically able-bodied dancer with an hourglass figure — perhaps a former self that no longer exists, perhaps a fantasized self that never existed at all. Apparently, this kind of imagining is what is means to see oneself in a good light. The message is that young able-bodied dancers with hourglass figures are worthy of esteem, but elderly disabled people in wheelchairs are… not. If you are old and disabled, then, and you want to have healthy self-esteem, you need to imagine that you are someone else. I’m not clear on how one does such a thing without losing touch with the reality of one’s own existence, or without becoming so psychically estranged from oneself as to create an unhealthy amount of stress and self-hatred. Perhaps someone can explain that to me. My attempts at pretending to be someone else have generally been met with anxiety and ill health.

At any rate, it’s clear from the graphic that the association of being old and disabled with low self-esteem is simply a given. It is never questioned. It is assumed that there is something essential about aging and disability that is in itself degrading. No attention is paid to the fact that feelings of degradation have their roots in a cultural rejection and abasement of elderly and disabled people. As Susan Wendell points out, we live in a culture with a nearly pathological desire for control, which causes most people to reject people who show signs of aging and disability:

Disability tends to be associated with tragic loss, weakness, passivity, dependency, helplessness, shame, and global incompetence. In the societies where Western science and medicine are powerful culturally, and where their promise to control nature is still widely believed, people with disabilities are constant reminders of the failures of that promise, and of the inability of science and medicine to protect everyone from illness, disability, and death. They are ‘the Others’ that science would like to forget (Wendell 1996, 63).

The symbolic meanings associated with aging and disability — loss, weakness, dependence, and death — provide both an incentive and a justification for rejecting elderly and disabled people. These meanings spare the able-bodied the responsibility for acknowledging the vulnerability of their own bodies, allow them to deny that they could become disabled at any time, and provide a way for them to distance themselves from the inevitability of death (Wendell 1996, 60). Once these meanings are in place, the burden falls on the shoulders on elderly and disabled people to solve the problem of becoming devalued and unwanted. This state of affairs is apparent in the graphic, as the onus is on the elderly woman to imagine herself to be someone else, rather than on other people to see her — and to treat her — as someone who is beautiful, valuable, and respected.

Forcing minority people to shoulder this burden is a process deeply entrenched in our culture. The aim of many professionals is to get us to adjust to our lot in life by changing our own attitudes and perspectives, rather than by fighting to change the attitudes and perspectives in the world at large that cause us so much grief and pain. When my disabilities became apparent in mid-life, I went through a great deal of sadness and frustration over both my physical difficulties and my social exclusion. The ways in which our society treats disabled people were weighing heavily on me, but my therapist insisted that I simply needed to find better coping mechanisms. At one session, I constantly challenged him with a version of “But why is it solely my responsibility to handle exclusion, and not the responsibility of the people who engage in it?” In response, he simply repeated the phrase “It’s your problem,” as though I were missing a necessary piece of wisdom that only repetition would make clear. Needless to say, that was our last appointment.

Of course, I am not at all opposed to disabled people developing coping mechanisms. That’s a necessity. What I oppose is ignoring the conditions in the world at large that force us to spend so much time and energy developing coping mechanisms in the first place. And I resist the idea that imagining oneself to be a member of the unstigmatized majority is a healthy way to deal with stigma. Rather than fantasizing about being someone else, we ought simply to demand that people respect us for who we are.


Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150887120344632&set=p.10150887120344632&type=1&theater. Accessed June 21, 2012.

Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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