What does it mean to be human, anyway?

Black and white photo of Joanne Woiak
Joanne’s research interests encompass the social justice implications of knowledge about genetics, reproduction, and health. Her PhD is in history and philosophy of science and technology. She focuses on disability in 19th and 20th century American and British history and culture, including the history of eugenics, compulsory sterilization in Washington state, and discourses about alcoholism. Her recent published work includes studies of science fiction texts by Aldous Huxley, Samuel Delany, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

Missing Links: Disability Studies and Animal Studies

Disability and race as historical constructs are grounded in parallel and overlapping ways in the “dehumanizing ideological practices” of pathologization and animal comparisons (Erevelles 2006). The freak show, for example, signified what types of bodies and minds were socially discredited by displaying nondisabled people of color and developmentally disabled people. These performances hinged on the theory that they “embodied the missing link between primates and humans,” a form of exploitation which “both fed upon and gave fuel to imperialism, domestic racist politics, and the cultural beliefs about wild savages and white superiority” (Clare). H. G. Wells likewise drew upon animal discourses juxtaposed with race and disability descriptors when in 1896 he imagined the surgically engineered Beast Folk of The Island of Doctor Moreau. Moreau represents the process of evolution by natural selection, creating “half-bestial creatures”—missing links—and the survival of the morally fittest. The novel’s suspense, horror, and messages about human nature play upon readers’ understandings of the racialized other and the disabled other as subhuman and atavistic. Described as “savages” and the “most horrible cripples and maniacs,” the Beast Men serve as a reminder of “ethical man’s” origins in the animal kingdom, and a warning that reversion to “deep-seated organic impulses” is prevented only by the thin veneer of society’s moral precepts (Wells).

“Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it,” both in the lived experience of disabled people and in the attribution of disability as biological inferiority to various marginalized social identities (Baynton). Disability studies notes that “disability related labels such as feeble-mindedness and mental illness were often seen as synonymous with bodies marked oppressively by race” (Erevelles 2006). While race and disability are theorized as co-constructed categories, there are also tensions between them. At various points, race theorists, feminists, and animal activists have confronted racism, sexism, and speciesism by leveraging the negative attributes of disability. They distance those groups from disabled people and thus perpetuate ableism (Baynton; Lamp & Cleigh; Barbarin; Taylor). Activist-scholar Lydia Brown elucidates such horizontal oppression within the disability community, where claims to normalcy are deployed to establish personhood:

This is my history, as an autistic neurodivergent person, pressured to perform being as high-functioning and close to “normal” as possible, so I can be treated as almost like a real person if I disavow those other, “severely” disabled, “low-functioning” autistic people. Always trying to gain power at the expense of someone else, to move the fences separating worthy/unworthy, desirable/undesirable, normal/defective a few inches over–still keeping someone else outside–instead of tearing down the walls (Brown)

The fault lines between animal studies and disability studies reflect these historical strategies of dehumanization and distancing that have been used to deny and justify rights. A flourishing scholarly debate seeks to theorize the intersections and tensions of animality and disability, and to advance liberation work by tearing down all the walls. The following sections tug on just a few of the threads from this literature. For instance, some authors note parallels between speciesism and ableism, such as the need to give “voice for the voiceless” (Nocella), or the assertion that “animals and people with disabilities are often seen as competing for the bottom rung on the evolutionary ladder” (Wheeler). A primary target of these efforts is the philosopher Peter Singer, whose arguments for animal liberation are partly based in ableist assumptions that exclude people labelled with intellectual disabilities from personhood (Carlson 137). Singer contends that some disabled infants lack complex cognitive capacities that some nonhuman animals possess, and therefore animals deserve to be afforded rights while parents should be allowed to commit infanticide and try to have a “replacement” child. For Singer, there are humans who are nonpersons and nonhuman animals that are persons (Best). Promoting respect for animal life at the expense of disabled human life doesn’t foster coalition building, as disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson poignantly put it: “Because I am still seeking acceptance of my humanity, Singer's call to get past species seems a luxury way beyond my reach” (Johnson).

Sunaura Taylor challenges preference utilitarianism with arguments that draw parallels and seek reconciliation between disability studies and animal studies. In particular, she critiques Singer’s flawed assumptions about the quality of disabled life, and foregrounds interdependence over the problematic notions of dependency and burden. Disabled people are subject to capitalist exploitation and violence, while animals are similarly rendered disabled and dependent for our benefit (Taylor 201).

For humans to stop treating animals as exploitable “things,” we must actually continue to have relationships with them, relationships that are not shaped by ownership (pets), spectacle (zoos), or exploitation (eating them), but by interdependence, where we recognize, value, and respect the help they give us and their right to live (215).

Implicit in the debates about connecting disability and animal rights is the question of whether countering Singer’s ableist assumptions is itself a speciesist move. Disability activists testify to the personally harmful effects of being called less than human and equated with nonhuman animals. Eli Clare hesitates to reclaim the term freak because “today’s freakdom happened every time I was taunted retard, monkey, weirdo.” Taylor likewise laments as a child “knowing that when my fellow kindergarten classmates told me I walked like a monkey, that they meant it to hurt my feelings, which of course it did.” She concludes nonetheless that disability studies has a unique value system and responsibility “to consider justice toward nonhuman animals” (219). Since both groups are traditionally cast as burdens or lacking rationality, disability activists should embrace their animal affinities and fight against all forms of mistreatment.

Mel Chen’s disability and queer of color scholarship on animacy hierarchies also aims to acknowledge symmetries and “the possibility of significant horizontal relations between humans, other animals, and other objects” (Chen 50). Chen interrogates “how the ‘animal‘ is relentlessly recruited as the presumed field of rejection of and for the ‘human’” (23-24), in particular through linguistic practices of dehumanization and objectification “by way of juxtaposing and blending” discredited human subjects with entities lower on the “scale of relative sentience” (40). Specific conditions make possible, for example, the utterance and meanings of an animal name being hurled as a racial slur at a political event; the presumption that mentally disabled people are irrational, incompetent, and “subhuman, even nonhuman…[so] when we speak, our words go unheeded” (Price); or the rhetorical slippage between the disabled bodies targeted by ugly laws and the legal language of “street obstructions” that brings to mind inanimate objects such as a pile of bricks (Schweik). However, Chen contends that theorizations of forms of dehumanization put forward in critical race, feminist, and disability theory themselves reinforce animacy hierarchies. These often critique the animal comparisons or the metaphor of “persistent vegetative state” without challenging the problematic “great chain of being” itself.

Philosopher Licia Carlson centers her case against Singer’s ableism on the “face of the beast” of intellectual disability. Those so labelled have historically been most likely to be animalized (hence self-advocates developed and continue to favor “person-first” language), and “animal analogies abound in philosophical discussions” where “severe” cognitive disability is considered to test the limits of the concept of personhood (Carlson 135). In addition to identifying the harmful consequences of distancing from the perceived other (in both directions), Carlson also urges scholarship to “proceed with caution” in connecting disability and animality for liberatory ends, for instance by stressing shared vulnerability and dependence. Instead, alliances can be forged that recognize unique forms of discrimination and that presume “complexity and dynamism” rather than sameness (159).

These various threads that theorize the relations of nonhuman animals and disability represent exciting work in disability studies, yet they’re also limited in how they address some of the field’s weaker—if not missing—links. Eli Clare, a disability justice community scholar, centered these issues in his essay “Freaks and Queers” 20 years ago and they are still relevant here and now. The history of freakdom manifested particular forms of violence against people of color and people with intellectual disabilities by animalizing and pathologizing:

I hate how the freak show reinforced the damaging lies about disabled people and nondisabled people of color. I despise the racism, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism that had showmen buying and kidnapping people into the freak show. I rage at how few choices disabled people had (Clare 95).

Disability studies struggles to address the entanglements of racialized bodies and mental disability that are the legacies of the freak show, eugenic incarceration and sterilization, and rhetorics of “uncivilized” races (Stubblefield). Disabled people of color are often erased in the contrasting practices of distancing from the other in order to shore up a group’s rights claims, and of asserting affinities with other oppressed groups. Some of the most significant interventions in DS are thus coming from historians who uncover the distinctive experiences of Black disabled and Deaf lives (Burch & Joyner), and education scholars at the intersection of DS and critical race theory (Erevelles 2014; Connor et al.).

Disabled animal-rights advocate Taylor acknowledges the “slippery territory” of arguing for kinship with nonhuman animals, given how such comparisons supported the atrocities of racism, eugenics, genocide, and slavery (196). Those links need to be more fully exposed in future animal and disability studies work, especially because disabled and Black people continue to be “considered non-persons” (Baggs) and deemed disposable (Milbern; #ICUgenics). Coalition building should value differences, avoid disavowal, and dismantle hierarchies, while elevating the voices of mad, neurodivergent, chronically ill, and BIPOC activists who are most impacted by intersecting systems of oppression.

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