Filling an important gap 
in the analysis of disability

In 2007, the suicide of Ontario teenager Ashley Smith, a young woman with mental health issues, while she was incarcerated at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, garnered widespread media attention and brought the issues of prisons and disablement to the surface. For far too long, the struggles of disabled people for equality and improved accessibility have widely been regarded as primarily a medical problem. Too many on the left have failed to regard disability advocates as grappling with real political issues even after the passage of the historic Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 mandated significant steps by both the government and the private sector to include disabled people in many arenas of public life. And far too frequently the oppression faced by disabled people has been relegated to the margins, rarely commented upon or debated by academics and radical activists alike. 

To date, no thorough materialist account of disablement exists in English, despite attempts in that direction by Michael Oliver, Marta Russell, and others. Yet the core idea at the heart of disability politics is simple: disability oppression is largely a social construct created by conscious political decisions and we need to effectively remove disabling barriers, not marginalize the person with a disability. 

Despite a growing body of work in the last twenty-five years that advocates the analysis of disability politically, the edited volume Disability Incarcerated: Imprisonment and Disability in the United States and Canada fills an important gap. This volume specifically examines incarceration, whether in a psychiatric institution, group home, or prison, through the lens of disability politics in the United States and Canada, with passionate contributions from both countries. It hopes to encourage a cross-fertilization of ideas between prison abolitionists and disability rights advocates. In so doing, it addresses the politics of racism and aboriginal marginalization and dispossession in a powerful way. Aboriginal peoples have had a much higher rate of disablement than others because of the complex legacy of colonialism. Featuring a moving foreword by renowned activist Angela Davis, the book includes contributors from a variety of disciplines, but I highlight only selected chapters due to space constraints. 

In an opening chapter, the editors provide an overview of confinement and trace the history of the institution. Influenced by the landmark work of Michel Foucault, they show how the rise of the institution designed to classify and segregate the disabled population went hand in hand with the expansion of capitalism. As it became increasingly important for workers to complete tasks within a given time frame to ensure the profitability of capitalist factories, it became equally important to identify those who were unable to comply with this discipline. This trend was closely related to the rise of eugenics and the expansion of the custodial professions. The editors demonstrate how the growing prestige of many caring professions was reliant on the promotion of the institutionalization of disabled people. They also show how there has been a massive growth of the prison industrial complex (PIC) while deinstitutionalization of people labelled with mental health issues has simultaneously gained popularity, what some refer to as trans institutionalization. This raises troubling questions about equality, as many prisoners are also disabled people. 

A chapter by Chris Chapman provides an historic overview of five centuries of institutionalization through a careful probing of its development, entrenchment, and contested decline. Chapman notes that in the sixteenth century, violence against disabled people was frequently justified by reference to Christian theological principles such as punishment for sin or ascribing disabled people to the work of the Devil. He also surveys how scholars of the day justified colonial violence against non-Christians. By the seventeenth century, confinement in institutions was becoming more widespread as a mechanism to control unruly sectors of the population living in poverty. 

Chapman is persuasive when he compares eighteenth century discourses with respect to aboriginal peoples and French vagabonds. Both were perceived as a threat to the state and of little value and, therefore, institutional mechanisms were established to deal with each problem. He capably shows how goals of rehabilitation of disabled people, although frequently never achieved and flawed with their focus on changing the individual person, became a priority for emerging institutions by the mid-nineteenth century rather than simply dumping people. He is correct in identifying the hegemony of formal equality, or how likes should be treated alike, as inimical to the interests of disabled people who require adequate supports to flourish.  

Philip Ferguson makes a remarkable contribution in analyzing the history of institutional back wards, where patients regarded as having complex needs and a negative prognosis are housed. He shows how there was a vigorous debate among policymakers such as Wilbur and Kerlin in the late nineteenth century on the question of whether New York should follow the pattern of other states and house both inmates with intellectual disabilities, and those with mental health conditions within a single institution. For years, New York bucked the trend by authorizing the creation of the Willard State Asylum in 1869. Eventually, however, numerous factors, including economic pressure and the fulfillment of professional goals regardless of the impact on the patients, produced conformity in New York toward a policy of a single institution. One factor that is not commonly known today is that unpaid inmate labor was used to produce a variety of goods and significantly reduced the costs of the institution. 

Geoffrey Reaume’s contribution is an intellectual tour de force. An established scholar in the emerging field of mad studies and disability history, Reaume analyzes the intricate relationship between class, race, and disability studies through the excavation of the life stories of two Canadian men deported in 1928 for their mental health status. One man identified as Daniel G., a Jewish-Pole factory worker, began to have visions that he was God. Language barriers compounded his alleged mental health disability: no staff could speak Yiddish or Hebrew and consequently could not diagnose him. Yet, he was deported to Poland, notwithstanding financial support by the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. Another man, Andrew T., was a married laborer thought to have paranoid schizophrenia. Unlike Daniel G., Andrew T. was British and had even served in World War I. Despite all these advantages and the support of local politicians, Andrew T. was also deported, illustrating the fervor with which the state pursued such cases. 

Jihan Abbas and Jijian Voronka provide an excellent understanding of how institutional settings shape our understanding of disability as, to use the jargon of Agamben, a state of exception. They use examples from the worlds of both intellectual disability and mental health—such as the Rideau Regional Centre, which housed people with intellectual disabilities in Smith Falls, Ontario—to illustrate how the very construction of the facility is predicated on controlling the resident’s life. While generally regarded as non-punitive facilities, the authors show how such institutional settings were designed for discipline, including the construction of the windows, screened radiators, and lack of curtains for privacy. Their detailed documentation of the marketing of the properties once used as institutions to conform to capitalist expectations adds a creative insight to their work.

While this collection is occasionally uneven and largely ignores the complex issues relating to unionized workers who are employed in these facilities, the editors have produced a quality volume. This book is an important introduction to the issues and essential reading for all activists. 

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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