Objectifying/humanizing the “third gender” of disability

Two years ago I worked as a graduate assistant at the Institute of Community Inclusion, a collective of non-profit organizations with various focuses including vocational rehabilitation (VR), disability inclusion, and transitions to civilian life for veterans. It was a terrific experience and I learned a lot about disability not only as a general descriptor but as a cultural orientation, political affiliation, and the way of life of many “normal” people in the world. (The word “normal” is in quotes because in the disability world, the word is generally considered to imply judgment; thus, the preferred term for person who does not have a disability is “differently abled” or simply “average.”)

Part of my work at the ICI was writing a weekly disability and inclusion blog post called “Weekly Inclusion Tips” (an example can be found at https://www.facebook.com/serviceandinclusion/posts/10151648174928004), for which I did a lot of reading of online news sources like Disability Scoop and blogs like Disability News Blog and Autistic Hoya to learn as much as possible and gather ideas for posts. One day I found a story in Disability Scoop called “To Erase Stigma, Advocates ‘Undressing Disability’” about a calendar that had been created by Enhance the UK to raise awareness around and legitimize physicality and sexuality of the bodies of people with disabilities. If you click on a link to the story, you’ll see at the top the all-too-familiar image of a young woman in a very small pair of panties and nothing else, facing away from the camera but looking back over her shoulder, cradling her breasts seductively.

That image really bothered me. Not because she was a woman with a disability, but because it was the same process of objectification that we see in representations of women in magazines, on TV, in movies, on billboards, and of course, in sexy calendars. The responses to the calendar full of “scantily-clad models with disabilities” posted in the comment section below the story were positive for the most part (though I wrote my dissent there as well), and it seemed that the calendar was unproblematic for the majority of the respondents, who stated a need to feel “sexy and desired,” a goal that they argued the calendar achieved for the models and their counterparts in the rest of society. I for my part just couldn’t see past the reduction of a person – even a willing, adult person – to being thing-ified, made into an object for the viewer to perceive, take what s/he wants, and discard…in short, what happens to people who are objectified by dominant society every day, which commonly happens to people with disabilities. The calendar didn’t say “liberation” or “acceptance” to me; it said “let me, too, be destroyed in my humanity.”

Maybe this sounds a bit dramatic, but I stick to my guns on the objectification argument. However, I recently found another story from the UK that I love and want to share as a counterbalance to my critique, and a tribute to some of the amazing experiences I had in my time in service to the disability community at the ICI. Oliver Fermariello, a photographer in Italy, took pictures of people with disabilities who consented to be documented in their homes, their intimate relationships, and their natural, nude states. An expression of humanity through intimacy, the photos and their captions are revealing and probe not just the life of a person living with a disability, but the preconceived notions of the viewer as well. Contrary to the “Undressing Disability” calendar (also included in this story, incidentally) which seeks parity in political and sociocultural representation by using familiar means of sexualizing and objectifying women (and a few firemen, I suppose) as an extension of the “normal” view of the female body, the photo shoot creates its own narrative and explores the “third gender” of disability.

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