Speaker examines ableism as social construct

Geneseo students and faculty members welcomed visiting assistant professor of educational studies from Colgate University Ashley Taylor on Thursday Sept. 24 in Doty Recital Hall. She visited the campus to present her lecture “The Discourse of Pathology: Race, Gender, and the Myth of the Able-Mind.” 

Taylor’s presentation centered heavily on examining social justice issues within the frameworks of societal inclusion and accessibility; in addition to questioning why individuals with specific disabilities cannot become citizens. It is important to recognize that she defines disability in categories of race, gender, sexuality, class and mental disability. She has published works in a number of academic journals, including Hypatia, Disability Studies Quarterly and Philosophy of Education.

As Taylor began her speech, she mentioned that she wanted “to focus on the concept of able-mindedness as a kind of pervasive cultural system.” Her lecture delved first into the history of identifying able-mindedness as a social advantage, describing the first records of denying immigrants citizenship.

“The connection between able-mindedness and potential civic status is evident in the historical linking of race, gender, social class, sexuality and national origin to conceptualize certain people as social degenerates within the late 19th to early 20th century eugenics period,” Taylor said. “A whole host of qualities could disqualify immigrants for citizenship in the United States.”

She shared the story of a Mongolian immigrant who was denied admittance into the U.S. because her daughter had a “physical deformity” which ultimately categorized her as a mother incapable of birthing “able-minded” children. “The construct of mental deficiency is mapped onto this woman and that’s in part because she’s considered racially suspect,” Taylor said.

In the context of eugenics, Taylor argued, “Able mindedness depended on the exclusion of some to uphold the membership of others.”

Taylor then applied the legacy of the eugenics era to recent examples in our society. She pointed to a controversial public health campaign in New York City titled “The True Cost of Teen Pregnancy”—a campaign that shames teen mothers and features babies of color almost exclusively on ads.

“These campaigns were haunted by narratives of degeneracy of the eugenics era, represented in the images which entangle race, class, gender and ability to solidify the panic response to supposed civil liabilities,” Taylor said. She referred to this vivid history and its remnants as the discourse of pathology.

By isolating major problems associated with the identification of the “able-mind,” Taylor drew the conclusion that it is our civic responsibility to question disability attributes. At the end of the lecture, the floor was opened to the audience for further questions. Students asked Taylor, “Will ableism go away?” to which she responded, “I see changes happening, but there are possibilities as long as you have more discourses.”

Her argument is basically that we need to continue the discussions on these frameworks of inclusion and accessibility by giving children attention without separating them from others as an example. Taylor asserted that there are pedagogical shifts taking place, such as utilizing a diverse range of learners.

In her conclusion, Taylor left the audience with a question to consider: “In light of the legacy of the construct of civic liability that haunts identification processes, can we really rely on the notion that some attributions are misapplications, while others are useful categories of difference?”