Disability and Politics

My research on disability and politics began in a bathroom. After entering a supposedly wheelchair accessible stall in Tokyo, I found that my foreign powerchair could not reach the toilet. I swore a bit, and in my anger shouted “what does accessibility mean, anyway?” If I couldn’t use the ‘accessible’ toilet, then who could? Maybe a blind person? A deaf person? A person with ALS? My off-the-cuff remark quickly gave way to a flood of interrelated inquires: (1) What is disability? (2) Who says so? (3) Why do people accept or reject their definitions? (4) How do their decisions affect individuals with diverse bodies and minds? and (5) If someone wants to challenge dominant ideas about disability, what tools and strategies can they use? My area studies training told me that I was not going to find an answer to these questions divorced from cultural and historical context. So, I set out to explore the politics of disability in a broad range of regional and temporal milieus.

I have pursued questions related to disability and politics in two peer-reviewed articles. The first is an article in preparation for a special issue of Japanese Studies, “Prosthetic Dharma: Understanding Debility and Defilement in Medieval Japan,” which examines how competing religious institutions ‘disabled’ women, children, elderly and impaired individuals by promoting constructions of purity and pollution in premodern Japan. The second is an article that I recently submitted to the Journal of Japanese Studies called “Seeing the Future: How Blind Elites Created the Concept of ‘Disability’ in Modern Japan,” which explores the social, political, economic, and cultural contingencies that allowed blind people to become the only group of impaired individuals directly involved in the drafting of Japan’s first disability welfare law in 1949. “Seeing the Future” is based on the first two chapters of my doctoral dissertation, which I hope to eventually publish as a book entitled Politics, Prosthetics, and Public Imaginations: 150 Years of Disability in Japan.

My investigation of disability and politics has also led me to publish several policy-relevant articles in newspapers like The Japan Times. In “Disability Doesn’t Define A Criminal Suspect: Linking Mental Illness to Violence Tarnishes an Entire Community,” for instance, I describe for general audiences how professionals in numerous fields unwittingly stigmatize impaired people by defining disability and I propose practical measures for inclusion based on historical precedents.