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Selected Papers, Poems, and Prayers
SFSU Annual Human Rights Summits

2004 - 2007

San Francisco State University
Treganza Museum Anthropology Papers

Numbers 24 & 25
2007- 2008

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Treganza Anthropology Museum Papers
Department of Anthropology

San Francisco State University

Year Double Issue: 2007 - 2008

Numbers 24 and 25

Editor Mariana Leal Ferreira

Editorial Board
Mariana Leal Ferreira

Miko Yamamoto
Bernard Wong

Lucia Volk
Eva Langman

Kellen Prandini
Tina Palivos

Copy Editors
Eva Langman

Andrea Fitzpatrick
Kellen Prandini

Celia Alves

Jennifer Kennedy

This Special Issue of the Treganza Anthropology Museum Papers was funded by
San Francisco State University

College of Behavioral and Social Sciences
Public Research Institute

The Biobehavioral Research Center
Center for Health Disparities Research and Training

Instructionally Related Activities
Jay Young

Special Thanks

Joel Kassiola (Dean, College of Behavioral & Social Sciences, SFSU)
Jim Wiley (Director, Public Research Institute, SFSU)

In Memory of

Floyd Redcrow Westerman (1936-2007)

Copyright © 2007-2008 by the
Treganza Anthropology Museum

ISSN 1532-5687

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Dialogues of Disability:
Reproductive Rights and the ‘Double Handicap’


Women with disabilities are often said to be encumbered by a “double handicap.” Their socially-

framed inferiority as members of the female sex is compounded by physical or mental impairments, the
delineative features of which are also often socially conceived and imposed. Because they do not conform
to stereotypes of the socially beautiful body, women with physical disabilities suffer egregious violations of
their human rights. They are “constrained in their opportunities to nurture and be nurtured, to be loved and
to love, and to become parents if they so desire.” Through an inquiry into the social construction of the
body and the prejudice toward the “disabled” form in contemporary culture, we can better appreciate how
the process of embodiment is manipulated to reflect and reiterate society’s expectations of the individual
body. In my examination of the popular perceptions of disability in American society, I argue that we must
look closely at who is classified as “disabled” and who is invested with the power to confer this label on
others. I also consider the ways in which these formulations are intimately connected to the tropes of
productivity, competency, and “worth” that govern the construction and reproduction of social and
individual bodies.


This paper is partly an attempt, as an able-
bodied individual sharing collective space with
those marked in public discourse as “dis-abled,” to
come to terms with my own ignorance of the lived
experiences of these men and women. There have
been no comprehensive attempts, neither within
federal policy nor popular culture, to dispel the
myths surrounding disability. I feel unwillingly
bound to an abstruse narrative that limits the depth
of our understanding and our abilities to
authentically respond to other bodies and others’
embodied experiences. Who do we protect, who do
we claim to respect, when we avert our eyes in
order not to see, in order not to be held
responsible? On whose behalf do we maintain our
awkward ignorance? Who benefits from the myth
that we are all equal?

Human Rights Watch postulates that
approximately 300 million women around the
world suffer from mental and physical disabilities,
and are more inclined than men to become
“disabled” within their lifetime (n.d.). This fact is
largely the result of pronounced discrimination
imposed on women worldwide, one symptom of
which is the unequal “allocation of scarce
resources and…access to services” that precipitates
these disparities in lifestyle, and experiences of
illness and wellbeing (United Nations 2006:2). It is

This paper was originally presented at the 4th Annual Human
Rights Summit in 2007, as part of the panel entitled “The
Reproductive Rights of Women and the Family.”

not surprising then, that women with disabilities
are often said to be encumbered by a “double
handicap” (Chinery-Hesse 1991:ix). Their socially-
framed inferiority as members of the female sex is
compounded by physical or mental impairments,
the delineative features of which are also often
socially conceived and imposed. “Disabled women
and girls face the same spectrum of human rights
abuses that non-disabled women face,” according
to Human Rights Watch, “but their social isolation
and dependence magnifies these abuses and their
consequences” (United Nations 2006:2).

It is therefore vital to identify the multiple
circuits of connectivity whereby women are doubly
derogated, and to examine the ideological factors
and practices that cooperate against them to carve
out a distinctively gendered discrimination. I argue,
however, that the trope of the “double handicap” is
itself problematic, and reinforces dialectically the
very oppression it seeks to expose in the
hegemonic social structure. In other words, the use
of the term “double handicap” in discourse
perpetuates the image of the handicapped woman
as irredeemably dependent on society for support
and personal validation because of this dual onus.
It implicitly condones her secondary status through
the naturalization of relationships between the
disabled and able-bodied members of the

I would like to clarify the way in which I use
the words “impairment,” “disability,” and
“handicap” in this paper. Because we do not as yet
possess the collective vocabulary necessary to
competently refer and respond to the lived


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experiences of people with physical and
developmental disabilities in the U.S., we are
likewise limited in the ways we conceive of and
acknowledge their needs and rights as equal
members of society. Despite certain shortcomings,
I’ve adopted the definitions used in the United
Nations’ 1983 document, “World Programme of
Action Concerning Disabled Persons,” which
identifies an impairment as “any loss or
abnormality of psychological, physiological, or
anatomical structure or function;” a disability as
“any restriction or lack (resulting from an
impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the
manner or within the range considered normal for a
human being;” and a handicap as “a disadvantage
for a given individual, resulting from an
impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the
fulfillment of a role that is normal, depending on
age, sex, social and cultural factors, for that
individual” (UN 1983:I.c. 6-7, italics mine). This
definition of “handicap” clearly acknowledges the
likelihood that the main source of a disabled
person’s incapacity to perform certain tasks or
achieve a specific degree of faculty may be social,
and that the experience of disability may largely be
the reflection of a lack of opportunities, lack of
accessibility, lack of services, poverty or
discrimination, which it often is.

There is a growing forum for women with
disabilities to voice opinion and fight for the
acknowledgement and extension of their political
and human rights. However, many activists still
adamantly argue that neither the feminist
movement, which fails to give ample attention to
the concerns and needs of handicapped women, nor
the disabled rights movement, which often
overlooks the very specific social impediments
women with disabilities face, adequately represent
the lived experiences of this community (Schur
2004). We must likewise explore the limitations in
representation for which any claims to
“community” is inevitably liable, and strive to
reveal the differences between the type of woman
the disabled community purports to be
representative and the woman whose experience it
actually embodies in political and social process.


For the purposes of this paper, I focus on the
experiences of women with physical disabilities
living in the United States, with conditions that
exist either from birth or as the result of an
accident or illness. It is important to note that only
15% of people living with disabilities are born with
them, a truth that challenges the predominant
notion that the disabled population is stable and

determinate (Siebers 2001:742). In other words, we
are all only temporarily able-bodied, and
mainstream culture has a difficult time accepting
the notion that one day in the ineludible future we
will all experience disability to some degree,
whether through the often incapacitating natural
consequence of growing old, for instance, or as a
result of injury, illness, or the particularities of our
position on the socio-economic ladder.
Furthermore, selfhood and disability is experienced
differently by women with noticeable physical
handicaps, on the one hand, who must deal on a
daily basis with the public’s response to the overt
visibility of their impairment and on the other hand
by those who can, however temporarily, conceal or
disguise it. Therefore, the conspicuousness of the
handicap inevitably influences the degree to which
the physical and gendered identity of a person with
a disability is socially managed or infringed upon.

Understandings of what constitutes physical
disability are differentially formulated within the
channels of an active social praxis that dictates
citizens’ roles in society at large. An examination
of the popular perceptions of what designates
disability in America requires looking closely at
who is classified as disabled and who is invested
with the power to confer this label on others. It is
therefore necessary to inquire, too, into both the
discursive and the imaginative discrepancies
between self-ascribed and imposed identification
with physical impairment to appreciate the
difficulties faced in “standardizing” disability.

Paramount to an understanding of the social
construction of the body is a reflection on the ways
in which it is portrayed in contemporary popular
culture, especially in the media and within the
realm of Western biomedicine. Through such an
inquiry, we can better appreciate how the process
of embodiment is manipulated to reflect and
reiterate society’s expectations of the individual
body, further complicating the experiences of
disabled people in America and contributing to
their circumscribed status as individuals within
community and citizens of this country.

What constitutes disability? How is it defined,
and for whom? There is much controversy
concerning what characterizes a “real” physical
handicap. In the increasingly integrated worlds of
modern technology and biomedicine, impediments
to the enjoyment and expression of the material
body that would have been insurmountable less
than 20 years ago are now much more easily
overcome and even considered trivial. We must
therefore also ask, who decides what characteristics
are essential and optimal for the human body to
possess, and towards what purposes its potential


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Wooden beads
round her invisible mouth
Memory sharp and taut,

laughing at her goal to surrender

She wakes me intermittently –
tells me she’s found her children

but they’re cold
and they’re hungry

And their eyes are dull
like diamonds in the rough

That there are cracks in the pavement
where their fingers smuggle seeds

Like little deities to adorn
in fabric and flour

And sometimes no flour at all

Her ankles fat from walking
Kilometers in her head

What can I know about these milestones

Except that they’re mine without my asking

forbidden truths –
songs sold on the market block like the summer’s harvest

And sometimes no harvest at all

My human sister
Escapes the plague

but buries her life in her hands –
no longer to clutch her children

or beseech the gods for fire
strength to keep her going

Don’t matter if it’s borrowed
or remote

She creeps into my sleep and enfolds me

Like grain
like soil

my guts dense like relics from the ancestral hearth
– there’s something stunted --

something rude inside

Lips poised to recite
a living song to the dawn

And sometimes no dawn at all


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"And I told them not to dig for uranium, for if they did, the
children would die. They didn't listen, they didn't listen, they
didn't listen to me. And I told them if the children die, there
would be no keepers of the land. They didn't listen. And I told
them if they destroy the sky, machines would come and soon
destroy the land. They didn't listen... And I told them if they
destroy the land, man would have to move into the sea. They
didn't listen... And I told them if they destroy the sea -- they
didn't listen..."

- From Floyd Red Crow Westerman’s song "They Didn't Listen."
Recited at his testimony in 1992 at the World Uranium Hearings
in Salzburg, Austria.

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