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Disability: An Opportunity To Rethink The Human

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Helen and DanBy Jacqueline Grima

It is difficult to understand how, in our supposedly modern world, there can be a large section of society that, on a daily basis, faces prejudice, marginalisation and the denial of its right to participate in the world of education, work and relationships. In other words, who appear to be treated as less than human. This, however, is the scenario that currently faces millions of the world’s disabled people and is the issue that was discussed in the final event of the ‘Human Trouble: Dis/ability’ strand of the Humanities in Public Festival at Manchester Metropolitan University this week.

According to Dan Goodley, Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Sheffield, it is the capitalist society, or, as he calls it, ‘uber’ culture, in which we live that has led to the misconception that disabled people’s contribution to the worlds of work, education and, even, love is lacking. Speaking to Humanity Hallows before his talk, Professor Goodley said, ‘In our capitalist society today, uber-working, uber-shopping, uber-thinking are what we refer to as ‘ableism’. For example, if you take children in schools, parents aren’t really interested in their children being average any more. They want them to be gifted and talented. Therefore disabled people become the objects of non-disabled people’s own anxieties.’ In other words, it seems that society has an ingrained perception of ‘the ideal’, that is difficult for a disabled person to reach. Hence, as Goodley states, ‘Only some people are recognised and other people are banished from the category of being human altogether.’

Introduced at the main event by MMU’s Dr Lucy Burke as a man who ‘challenges the conditions of disablism and ableism’ in order to dispel myths about both, Professor Goodley, referring to recent projects undertaken with colleague Rebecca Lawthom and Katherine Runswick-Cole, Senior Research Fellow at MMU, went on to explain that, in order for a disabled person to be categorised as human and, thus to be treated as a societal equal, perhaps it is necessary for us to drastically readjust what we understand a human being to be.

Drawing on the 2013 work The Posthuman by contemporary philosopher Rosie Braidotti, he claims this readjustment can be achieved by examining humanity in three different ways. Firstly, we must examine what Goodley refers to as Braidotti’s ‘Life Beyond the Self’. ‘No one person,’ Goodley says, ‘is entirely solitary’, human beings primarily formed by the relationships with those around them and, by looking at the support networks surrounding disabled people, we can learn a vast amount about how relationships are formed. Secondly came Braidotti’s ‘Life Beyond the Species’ which examines a human being’s relationship with animals, often, according to Professor Goodley, denigrated in order to give humans a sense of superiority.

Lastly, Professor Goodley examined Braidotti’s ‘Life Beyond Death’ theory, making particular reference to a project undertaken by Dr Runswick-Cole, which involved meeting children with life-limiting conditions. According to Professor Goodley, these children made clear that quality of life does not necessarily equate with having a long life and that death, often still a taboo subject in our society, can actually be discussed openly and, in some cases, planned or even celebrated.

Professor Goodley’s aim at this week’s talk was, as he stated, ‘to engage with the question of what it means to be human in the 21st century and to examine the ways in which disability enhances these meanings.’ He also expressed the desire ‘to contest the idea that disability is always about lack’, ideas that led to a highly engaging evening and to much feedback during the talk’s Q&A session.

The Humanities in Public festival continues on Monday 2nd March with the first of the ‘Multi-Lingual Life’ events ‘Urban Youth Identity and Language’.

Jacqueline Grima is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing whilst also attempting to find a publisher for her novel Coming Second. She loves music and going to concerts and, much to her waistline’s dismay, is an avid baker.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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