Disability, Sexuality, and Stigma

Katherine Quarmby offers a critical framing of the stigma attached to sexuality and people with disabilities, both historically and today. The article draws on the work of Dr. Tom Shakespeare, author of the seminal The Sexual Politics of Disability. Eugenics’ hereditary ideas of “fit” and “unfit” bodies was crucial in creating the pervasive trope of “contamination” that Shakespeare identifies as one of four tropes surrounding sexuality and people with disabilities.

“Asexual, hypersexual, perverse and contaminated: these four damaging tropes from history combine to form a bitter legacy for disabled people.”

Sofie Middernacht and Maarten Alexander/Mosaic, via The Atlantic

Read Quarmby’s article in full. 

See also: Sins Invalid, a national performance project that uses performance art as a platform to reframe conversations about sexuality and disability through an intersectional LGBTQ and people of color lens. 

Perspectives on Disability, Ethics, and Self-Determination: Harriet McBryde Johnson (1957-2008)


Why are some lives valued (and protected) more than others? How is value and worth accorded based on normative, hierarchical understandings of ability?

In 2002, disability rights activist and attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson accepted an invitation to debate Princeton professor and moral philosopher Peter Singer at Princeton University. Singer, best known for his writings on animal rights/liberation theory, was (and remains) notorious amongst disability activists for his belief that parents should ethically be able to euthanize their disabled children during infancy so that they can be replaced by nondisabled babies who have a “greater chance at happiness.” Johnson, who used a motorized wheelchair due to neuromuscular disease, was a longtime advocate for disability rights, working alongside organizations such as Not Dead Yet.

In 2003, Johnson published an incredible, long-form account of her conversations with Singer in The New York Times Magazine. The account presents two fundamentally opposed worldviews: Singer’s “logics” of preference, quality of life, and devaluation of the life worth of people with disabilities (perhaps not dissimilar from eugenicists’ calls for “efficiency” and the “social good”), and Johnson’s call for self-determination and support for the potentially rich and fruitful lives of people with disabilities.

Read the full essay here. Selected excerpts are included below.


“It is a chilly Monday in late March, just less than a year ago. I am at Princeton University. My host is Prof. Peter Singer, often called — and not just by his book publicist — the most influential philosopher of our time. He is the man who wants me dead. No, that’s not at all fair. He wants to legalize the killing of certain babies who might come to be like me if allowed to live. He also says he believes that it should be lawful under some circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with cognitive impairments so severe that he doesn’t consider them ”persons.” What does it take to be a person? Awareness of your own existence in time. The capacity to harbor preferences as to the future, including the preference for continuing to live.”

– – –

 “It is an interesting exchange. In the lecture hall that afternoon, Singer lays it all out. The ”illogic” of allowing abortion but not infanticide, of allowing withdrawal of life support but not active killing. Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.”

– – –

“In the discussion that follows, I argue that choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality — dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden — are entirely curable. Singer, seated on my right, participates in the discussion but doesn’t dominate it. During the meal, I occasionally ask him to put things within my reach, and he competently complies.”




“Law and Order”: State Violence and People with Disabilities

Two recent news stories call attention to the inability of police officers and the criminal justice system to deal fairly and constructively with the disabled community.

Last night, two men with intellectual disabilities were executed after being found guilty of murder. Robert Wayne Holsey was executed by lethal injection in Georgia, after the state Supreme Coart rejected his lawyer’s argument that the state’s “unusually strict standard for judging mental disability violated the Constitution,” reports the New York Times. Holsey had an I.Q. of around 70, putting him on the borderline of the legal level of disability that would have made his execution illegal. In a similar case, Paul Goodwin was put to death in Missouri, after being convicted of murder. His IQ was said to be around 73, also on the precipice of a seemingly arbitrary borderline of legal disability.

In Maryland, a grand jury recently declined to indict a police officer involved in the death of 26-year-old Robert Ethan Saylor. Saylor, who has Down Syndrome, was killed in an altercation with police who were attempting to remove him from a movie theater. He was unarmed.

In August, the Twitter hashtag #disabilitysolidarity called attention to experiences of prejudice, intersectionality, and police discrimination faced by people with disabilities. The issues are especially pertinent for people of color with disabilities, who face multi-layered discrimination in their encounters with law enforcement. Participants highlighted the death of Kajieme Powell, a black man who was shot and killed by police officers in St. Louis this summer. Mental health advocates who watched video footage of the altercation said it was clear that Powell was dealing with an untreated or under-treated mental illness.

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Read more:

How misunderstanding disability leads to police violence (The Atlantic, May 2014)

Police brutality’s hidden victims: the disabled (The Daily Beast, September 2014)




“The Marching Morons”

Marching Morons

Set hundreds of years in the future the 1951 C. M. Kornbluth short story “The Marching Morons” tells the story of an Earth overrun by the unintelligent. Just as eugenicist’s predicted, this future is the result of overbreeding by the “unfit” and the average IQ is just 45. The ever-shrinking elites are too small in number to overcome the enormity of the problem until John Barlow arrives from the past with a eugenics solution: the morons are convinced to migrate to Venus only to be euthanized in their spaceships!

The scientific eugenics movement may have declined in the 1930s and lost popular support following the revelations of Nazi atrocities during WWII, but eugenic ideas have continued to be reused in popular culture consistently. Check out the whole story here.