A Disabled Society in an Abled Social Body


The headline of Ashley Taylor’s JSTOR Daily essay doesn’t so much articulate the problem as illustrate it: “The Complicated Issue of Transableism.”

In the late 1990s, the Scottish surgeon Robert Smith performed elective, above-the-knee amputations on two people. (The hospital he was affiliated with eventually compelled him to stop.) Smith’s patients are just two examples of people who have body integrity identity dysphoria, also known as being transabled: They feel they are disabled people trapped in abled bodies. Some people feel that they are meant to be amputees and will even injure themselves in order to create the desired amputation or make it medically necessary for a surgeon to perform it. Other people feel that they were meant to be blind or deaf.

A healthy society would not find “transableism” complicated at all.  It is an indication of deep mental illness, and it should be treated, not indulged.  To the extent our society cannot articulate this unambiguously, we are clearly falling into social illness.

At the very core of this question is a denial of our right as a community to hold Platonic ideals — not to mention the necessity and even inevitability of doing so.  Being able-bodied is the objective norm, the ideal.  When people are disabled, we make allowances and provisions for them in order to close the gap to that ideal.  It is therefore objectively wrong to expect society to offer those accommodations to somebody who deliberately moves away from the ideal.

Somebody of an opposing view might turn this argument around and suggest that all they’re doing is accommodating the person’s psychological distance from the ideal of feeling like an able-bodied person.  But making permanent physical changes compounds the distance rather than relieving it: the person is now disabled and still averse to being able-bodied.

The best one could say is that the person is closer to the ideal of being comfortable, but that is potentially fleeting.  After all, it is always possible to be more disabled.

Elevating the ideal of individual comfort is also destructive of the possibility of objective norms.  On the social scale, such principles have to be taken as simply true, else the utility of culture evaporates and society simply falls apart.