Able Normative Supremacy and the Zero Mentality

Within our neoliberal cultural imaginary, disabled people are rendered as bodies lacking agency. As a result, the measures of progress used to gauge the inclusion and liberation of disabled people within an able-normative supremacist culture tend to be organized around, what I name, “the zero mentality.”

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Source: Martin Kliehm via Flikr

By Eddie Ndopu at The Feminist Wire

Within our neoliberal cultural imaginary, disabled people are rendered as bodies lacking agency. As a result, the measures of progress used to gauge the inclusion and liberation of disabled people within an able-normative supremacist culture tend to be organized around, what I name, “the zero mentality.” Let me explain. Globally, disabled people, most of whom are bodies of color, experience structural violence, monstrous neglect and economic disenfranchisement in ways that render such conditions normal. So, because our lives and bodies have been, and continue to be, systematically relegated to the margins of societal consciousness, we as disabled segments of society personify the bottom rung of otherness. Therefore, we are operating at “negative ten” as it were. And because we are operating at “negative ten,” “zero” is celebrated as the benchmark of our well-being, human dignity, and self-determination.

On no account do I (as a “wheelie”) marvel in gratitude when I access a ramp, an elevator, or wheelchair accessible restrooms because on no account do my able bodied counterparts (“non wheelies”) marvel in gratitude when they access a flight of stairs, an escalator, or “regular” restrooms. Eliminating infrastructural barriers that prevent people with visible disabilities from negotiating space within the built environment is not something we should celebrate as a crucial milestone in our effort to deconstruct able normative supremacy (to do so is to invoke the zero mentality) because it is tremendously reductionist and prevents us from having nuanced conversations about disabled embodiment, exploring Crip subjectivities and deconstructing deeply entrenched manifestations of ableism (read: moving from zero to ten).

Non-disabled people receive support all of the time, but because such ‘help’ is built into social institutions and normalized it looks like independence.

The zero mentality, as a by-product of able normative supremacy, pervades the lives of disabled people in ways that make ableism harder to identify and deconstruct. As a disabled black (Afrikan) queer femme male undergraduate student, I have access to twenty-four hour personal care through my university’s attendant services program for students with physical disabilities living in residence.

Almost all of my attendants are other students who are predominantly white and non-disabled and who work for the program because it is one of the only campus jobs with the most flexible working hours. Employing the zero mentality, many people —non disabled people in particular, even allies, especially allies— regard attendant services for disabled students as “groundbreaking” because the overwhelming majority of universities throughout the world fail to adequately validate the experiences of bodies inscribing Crip subjectivities and disabled embodiments.

My receiving support with getting out of bed, getting dressed, and preparing for school in the morning should neither engender gratitude on my part nor invite reductive interpretations of survival. On countless occasions, I’ve felt compelled to adopt a perennially pleasant disposition in exchange for personal support. This is perhaps one of the most devastatingly subtle ways in which “the zero mentality” intersects with disabled embodiment. I have become well adept at employing “the right tone” when asking for help (I dislike the word “help” because it is a colonial way of narrating empathy. As I see it, help is benevolence with an expiry date. By “help” I actually mean what Mia Mingus refers to as “interdependence”) because I don’t want to ask for more than what our ableist society deems “reasonable” and “adequate” within the constraints of “accommodation” and “disability services” (zero).

Non-disabled people receive support all of the time, but because such “help” is built into social institutions and normalized it looks like independence. If the entire world is constructed with your body and bodily experience in mind, allowing you to move, albeit within the constraints of race, gender, and class, then that is support, institutional support. To demand institutional support, as disabled people, is to move beyond “the zero mentality,” bordering on the burdensome. Well, guess what? Because my Crip subjectivity and disabled embodiment reconfigure the spaces through which I move, my body and the complex, painful, magnificent experiences attached to it deserves more than zero. Indeed, it deserves a perfect ten.