My speech at the Psychiatry Disrupted: Theorizing Resistance and Crafting the (R)evolution book launch.
My chapter is “Disability, Definitions, and Disablism: When Resisting Psychiatry is Oppressive.” I am disabled, queer and trans. I am calling on people involved in the consumer/survivor/ex-patient/anti-psychiatry movement(s) to actively support disability movements and adopt anti-oppressive practices and discourses. While I focus on issues of disablism, I think it’s essential for this and all social justice movements to also combat white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, cisism, colonialism and capitalism.
I also want to be clear about what I am talking about when I talk about disability. Disability, like race and gender is a social construct – it is a political category that is imposed on people deemed deviant, abnormal, and/or un- or under-productive. While it is a social construct, disablism has real consequences.
Firstly, these movements often use disablist language. For instance, they describe psychiatric drugs or ECT as “brain-disabling,”1 “crippling”2 and they “disable and disempower through their unique and disabling effects.”3 Disability is considered entirely bad and in need of prevention. I would also argue that regardless of the authors’ intentions, the concept of disability and disabled people are inseparable.
People tend to use disability as a stand in for harm. But, I would implore people to address the harm rather than devaluing a marginalized group. For example, the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza have led to over 2,000 deaths and 11,000 Palestinian people being injured.4 Many of these people will be categorized or categorizable as disabled. An anti-oppressive social justice practice would require us to address the harm including the bombing of schools and apartment buildings and the ongoing apartheid system – not denigrating disabled Palestinians. The tragedy of Gaza isn’t the surviving disabled lives, it is the violence, murder and depravation.
There is also a tendency within these movements to argue that psychiatrized people are not disabled. Underlying this argument is often the sentiment that there is ‘nothing wrong’ with mad, crazy or psyciatrized people. But the implications of this assertion are that there is something wrong with disabled people. This belief reinforces problematic depictions of disabled people as flawed rather than understanding disability as an imposed identity. Indeed, many people in these movements regard psychiatric diagnoses as social constructs but fail to consider medicine itself as a social construct. This is especially troubling with regard to intellectual disability which is also classified within the DSM but many people in these movements distance themselves from and reinforce the oppression of this community.
The argument that disability is permanent and psychiatrized people can recover or become survivors also indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of disability and disabled people. Individuals move into and out of disability and definitions of disability have changed over time, depending on the needs of power.
Some people reject the categorization of disability because they don’t want an ‘additional’ stigma. This argument, however, does not represent a misunderstanding of disability inasmuch as it does a misunderstanding of stigma and privilege. Choosing to identify in a particular way is often irrelevant to how one is identified and, therefore, stigmatized by others.
Fighting among ourselves about who should get what stigma, about what kinds of medicalization are legitimate or about what kind of abnormal is okay is a waste of time. This is a practice that works to divide us rather than unite us. And, if we view it as a legitimate practice, is there any point when groups should stop dividing in pursuit of privilege? In the book I trace through how the mainstream gay rights movement worked to divide itself out from the category of mentally ill, reinforcing the stigma and oppression of those it left behind. This practice is an active one within the trans community right now. Max Zachs, the person who started the We are Trans* Not Sick petition to get being trans declassified as a disease which has more than 85,000 signatures, demonstrates this. He says “The whole point is we are perfectly healthy, there is nothing wrong with us, and we don’t need to be treated like nutters or pitied as physically afflicted.”5 So, for Zachs, the oppression that mad people and physically disabled people experience is okay but trans people should not be subjected to it.
I am arguing that psychiatrized and mad people are disabled not because there is something wrong with them but because it is a category imposed on us. But even if you reject that, you cannot reject that many psychiatrized people are otherwise disabled just like many queer or trans people are also mad or physically or intellectually disabled. Selling out these communities also means selling out your community. Social justice takes action so let’s fight together and fight win.
1. Dr. Peter Breggin uses this term a lot. For example: Breggin, P. (2008). Brain-Disabling Treatments in Psychiatry.
2. Mindfreedom Virginia. (2012). “What’s needed to improve mental health recovery rates?”
3. McCubbin, M., Weitz, D., Spindel, P., Cohen, D., Dallaire, B. & Morin, D. (2001). “Submissions for the President’s Consultation Regarding Community Mental Health Services,” Radical Psychology.
4. Palestine Chronicle. (2014, September 9). “Palestinian Girl, 5, Dies of Injuries Sustained in Gaza War. For more on this see my post about Gaza.
5. Morse, P. (2012) “‘Transgender People Aren’t Mentally Ill’: World Health Organsation Urged To Change Classification.” Huffington Post UK.