Ash Brittenham, at a July 28th, 2017 rally held in Portland, Maine in support of Sen. Susan Collins’s decision to vote “No” on the ACHA

Image Description: Activist Ash Brittenham sits in a motorized wheelchair, surrounded by other protestors in front of a theater marquee. Wearing a cap and sunglasses, a large hand-drawn sign is taped to their legs that reads: “If I’m dead, who will inspire you?”

Disability: A Democratic Dilemma

Committee: Linda M.G. Zerilli (Chair), Patchen Markell, Demetra Kasimis, and Susan Schweik (UC Berkeley)

My dissertation, “Disability: A Democratic Dilemma,” brings into view the significance of disability in mediating the relationship between the citizen and the American state. Drawing upon historical and contemporary examples—among them the rise of waged labor, the Flint, Michigan water crisis, the healthcare debate, and, most recently, the proposed expansion of public charge requirements in U.S. immigration law—I show how the boundaries and defining features of political membership are stabilized and recast in and through disability. Where existing research emphasizes the exclusionary ground of liberal citizenship and its consequences for people with disabilities, I argue that disability as a concept, legal category, and medical condition has become a crucial mechanism through which to negotiate transformations in the obligations and entitlements of citizenship. Whether strategically employed in an effort to secure remediation for longstanding economic and racial inequalities, as in the case of Flint, Michigan, or referenced as the basis from which to assert an ungrounded claim to government aid, as in the case of disabled activists protesting cuts to Medicaid, disability provides alternative framework for conceptualizing rights and obligations.

Beginning from the perspective of contemporary debates over the persistence of segregated, subminimum-wage employment of disabled workers, the first part of my dissertation situates these debates within a longer history of the relationship between disability and work. Building upon, but ultimately departing from, scholarship that sees the increasing dominance of wage labor in the nineteenth century as coterminous with the exclusion and institutionalization of people with disabilities, I show how theemergence of disability as a clinical and administrative category worked to conceal the centrality of disability and disabled labor to the construction of the docile, regimented worker-subject of industrial capitalism. In the absence of the structuring opposition between slave and free labor, I argue that disability was crucial to facilitating the transition to low- or semi-skilled factory-based labor

The second part of the dissertation examines the ongoing Flint, Michigan water crisis through the lens of disability, showing how demands for the remediation of longstanding racial and economic inequalities have found traction in the legal recognition of disability and the potential long-term mental and physical consequences of lead exposure. Examining the role of IQ testing and IQ point loss in indexing harm, I argue that the appeal to this controversial measurement is indicative of the insufficiency of the crisis framework to account for the complex intersection of environmental racism, state disinvestment, and toxic harm. Considering the relative silence of disability studies on the subject of Flint (or environmental harm more generally), I bring these two literatures into conversation in order to think through how we might remediate the disabling effects of lead exposure (or other, similar harms) without therefore passing judgment on the value of disability.

The third and final part of the dissertation considers the strategic redeployment of bodily vulnerability and dependency in the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Focusing on the protest tactics employed by Ady Barkan, a thirty-five-year-old man with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and the militant disability rights group ADAPT, who have each foregrounded their disabilities, knowingly playing upon the sympathies and aversions of their audiences in order to challenge the limits of government aid. Departing from recent literature in feminist theory that has found in the shared condition of bodily vulnerability and precarity the possibility of new modes of political attachment, I focus instead on protesters’ frank acknowledgment of their needs, locating within this rhetoric an alternative to existing models of rights that treat the satisfaction of needs as an exchange relationship.