I. Colonialism and Disability

My presentation at the Conference on Disability, Culture, and Human Rights was on the relationship between colonialism and disability. As a scholar of Rhetoric, which examines all the possible means for inducing belief, one question guiding my research on disability has been: "How is it we have come to believe in 'ability'"?

In the course of answering this question, I discovered that the belief in the body as a site of production — one of the core aspects of ability — is a particular historical invention. It was a belief invented and circulated by the London East India Company in the early 17th century, a foundational belief to what we now know of as "economics." It produces the notion of the human body as "human capital."

The East India Company produced this belief to justify its depredations, cruelty, and inhumanity in the course of its corporate colonizing ventures, which produced suffering at home and abroad. The "able body" is the body able to produce a profit for the corporate colonizers.

Although disability is more multi-dimensional than simply being "unproductive" (or "unable"), the oppression faced by disabled people at the basic level of resources and respect is generated, for the most part, by the notion that the unproductive body, or the body that requires accommodations, or the body that "consumes" more resources than it "produces," is an economic waste.1

As we learned at this conference from my sister and conference presenter, Brenda Brueggemann, the Nazi T-4 program — in which the disabled, otherwise known as "useless eaters" or "life unworthy of life," were murdered through a planned, medicalized bureaucratic system — demonstrates the logic of human commodification, i.e., profit-based economics, taken to its logical conclusion. The "Final Solution," the bureaucratic genocide of whole groups based on religious beliefs, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, was developed and fine-tuned on the bodies of the disabled.2

I am not convinced this has ended. I believe we are still experimenting on the bodies of the disabled as well as the bodies of those less privileged. For example, I remember that it came up twice during our conference that some of our Kenyan sisters and brothers had become disabled by receiving inferior vaccines as children.

This is one reason that we use the term, TAB: temporarily able-bodied. Although there are many causes of disability, it is frequently created by work, by war, by the lack of resources as basic as clean water, by age.

Because our "value" is tied to the colonizing equation of "profit" equals "worth," too often resources allocated to disabled people come under the auspices of "charity."

But charity does not alter the equation between "profit" and "worth," and, thus, does not change the societal respect and resources received by people with disabilities. Charity is an exception, just as disability is believed to be an exception, not the rule. The lack of resources and respect given to people with disabilities is, on one level, the lack of resources and respect afforded every human body under the profiteering system.

II. Disability as a Human Right

What is an economic equation between value and productivity has, through the history of colonialization and now the language of globalization, become a societal equation. Thus, much of our energy as disability activists, researchers, and educators is consumed by trying to prove our "value," both individually and on behalf of the perennially un- or under-employed constituency we represent, as productive people. Even in our own work, we become complicit with the notion that the end of a society is profit for the few rather than harmony and equality for all.

I would suggest that we take our value as given and direct our energy towards another end. The question I began my presentation with is a question still with us: "We have global poverty, we have global disability, but we also have global resources. Who has those global resources?" I would suggest, as one source, the multinational corporations, which now occupy the historical space of unjust wealth carved out by the East India Company.

I say unjust because the wealth owned by these entities is premised and accumulated based on the human body as commodity, as object. Those already disabled are a disvalued commodity. The process of extracting economic "value" from other bodies all too often produces "disability," and a devaluation of the now exhausted commodity. Thus, once the value of these bodies is used up, they are discarded. In the U.S., more value may be extracted from the exhausted commodity through the cold-blooded ingenuity of the profiteering insurance industry.

My suggestion is that disability is a given of the human condition, not an economic exception. Thus, the equitable distribution of resources is not a privilege to be earned, but the most basic component of human rights. Basic respect for the disabled means respect for the inherent fragility and mutability of the human body.

Without the equitable distribution of resources and respect for the fragility of the human body, any other human right is meaningless. One must have a body that is sustained and accommodated to exercise all other rights, such as the right to self-determination or the right to education. The fundamental human right is the right to be human, and this right is also the right of human fragility, human mutability, and the myriad contingencies of human embodiment. This is the right of disability.

III. Bringing Back the Baby Lion

My scholarly research has been conducted primarily in the U.S. for a U.S. audience. My esteemed Kenyan audience understood much of all of this even before I began, being well-versed in their history of British colonialism, which ended in 1963 and which included a term of rule by the British East Africa Company. We in the U.S. — perhaps because, as my brother and conference presenter Ken Walibora said, of our long-standing Anglo-American solidarity — are often unable to distinguish between our legacy of democracy and our inheritance of colonialism.

Our political democracy, which we are very proud of, becomes blurred with a type of market meritocracy, and the colonializing implications are not at all clear to people in the U.S., if I can generalize about a country that is great in many senses of the word.

But because much of this is clear to so many people in Kenya already, and because of the work being done today, right now, by Kenyan and East African disability activists, researchers, and teachers on education, gender, displacement, and psychological warfare3 — to name just a few of the areas covered by our conference — there is something very different happening in Kenya with disability, something of immense promise and possibilities. For example, in studying the Kenya Disability Act 2003, the legislation that prompted this conference and occupied the beginning of our first day, and listening to the knowledgeable activists working on that legislation, I was struck by how different it was from the United States — for example, how directly the activists were shaping the legislation, and how legislative implementation relied on organizations of disabled people, even though funding remains an issue.

Accessible voting, without equivocation, is covered in this act as the paramount civic right.4 The act prohibits concealing people with disabilities.5

Disability, from the Kenyan perspective (and again, I know I'm generalizing too much for another great country and on too brief an exposure to it), is not simply a private experience — it is a social experience.

Further, disability is a social experience that is shared. Of paramount importance is not simply bringing the disabled to productivity — although that is another goal of the legislation, and further efforts will be made in that direction — of paramount importance is in bringing the disabled to society and bringing society to the disabled.

With all the resources of the West, too often people with disabilities are still institutionalized, and if not institutionalized, kept out of society, excluded from the larger fellowship, hidden in the margins. They are still the poorest of the poor, the untouchables, the unmentionables. From my brief glimpse of Kenyan society, I believe that bringing the disabled to society and society to the disabled means that they will become both touchable and mentionable in a way that remains still unimaginable for many of us living in the U.S.

IV. Opportunities of the Imagination

While I was in Kenya, I had the chance to spend a day at the Masai Mara. I visited one tribe, and I was hosted as a guest in one of the huts. Our guide took a large white plastic barrel, one of those tubs that oil comes in, and turned it upside down for me to sit on. To me, the hut was dark and smoky from the stove, and I had a hard time seeing inside or clearly making out faces.

There were six of us inside the hut, discussing the construction of huts in Kenya and crofts in Scotland. While we were sitting there, talking about the environmental merits of such dwellings, our guide suddenly pointed out to us: "Look, they have a baby lion!" I jumped on my white tub and turned to see it — there, next to one side of the dwelling, close to the bed, was a small glowing animal. A baby lion!

How had I missed it? I peered at the baby lion. It was watchful and patient, just as I imagined a baby lion might be, but also resting peacefully and confidently, not too differently from my cats in the mid-day heat.

The more I watched it, the clearer my eyes were able to focus on the small, still, quiet animal. Then I laughed. It was a dog, a yellow type of dog, maybe a type of Labrador, a puppy really, a baby dog, not a baby lion.

For a few moments there, we visitors were sitting in the midst of a baby lion. And we would have missed that opportunity — an opportunity of the imagination — if our guide had not pointed it out to us.

An opportunity of the imagination is an opportunity, and even if it is realized as a dog, not a lion, I was happy to know there was a small dog in the hut, which I had missed entirely. As disability activists, researchers, and teachers, we need to create more opportunities of the imagination, and we should not be afraid if what we realize is not the baby lion, but the baby dog — an equally remarkable animal, and incidentally, one that will not (reputedly) eat you.

Works Cited

  • Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. "Economics, Euthanasia, Eugenics: Rhetorical Commonplaces for Disability and the Nazi 'T-4' Program." Disability, Culture and Human Rights Conference. Lenana House Conference Centre. Nairobi. 15 June 2007.
  • Brueggemann, Brenda Jo and Marian E. Lupo. Foreword. Disability and/in Prose. Eds. Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Marian E. Lupo. London: Routledge, 2008.
  • Karanja, Michael. "Disability in Contexts of Displacement." Disability, Culture and Human Rights Conference. Lenana House Conference Centre. Nairobi. 15 June 2007.
  • Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 1986.
  • Lupo, Marian E. "'Coffins Full of Live Bodies': The Corporate Invention of Disability." Disability, Culture and Human Rights Conference. Lenana House Conference Centre. Nairobi. 15 June 2007.
  • Ndanu, Lillian. "Women with Disabilities in Kenyan Education Context." Disability, Culture and Human Rights Conference. Lenana House Conference Centre. Nairobi. 14 June 2007.
  • Orchardson, Elizabeth. "Disability and Gender." Disability, Culture and Human Rights Conference. Lenana House Conference Centre. Nairobi. 15 June 2007.
  • The Persons with Disabilities Act, 2003. Republic of Kenya. Kenya Gazette Supplement No. 111 (Acts No. 15): Nairobi: Government Printer.
  • Wahome, Lillian. "Disability and Psychological Welfare." Disability, Culture and Human Rights Conference. Lenana House Conference Centre. Nairobi. 14 June 2007.


  1. Lupo, Marian, The Ohio State University. "'Coffins Full of Live Bodies': The Corporate Invention of Disability."

    Return to Text
  2. Brueggemann, Brenda Jo, The Ohio State University. "Economics, Euthanasia, Eugenics: Rhetorical Commonplaces for Disability and the Nazi 'T-4' Program." Deaf Subjects. New York and London: New York UP, 2009. See Brueggemann, Brenda Jo and Marian E. Lupo. Foreword, "Prosing the Possibilities." Disability and/in Prose. Eds. Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Marian E. Lupo. vii-xvi. London: Routledge, 2008; Lifton, Robert Jay. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

    Return to Text
  3. Wahome, Lillian, United States International University, Kenya. "Disability and Psychological Welfare."; Karanja, Michael, International Rescue Center. "Disability in Contexts of Displacement."; Orchardson, Elizabeth, Kenyatta University. "Disability and Gender."; Ndanu, Lillian, Kenya Institute of Special Education. "Women with Disabilities in Kenyan Education Context."

    Return to Text
  4. The Persons with Disabilities Act, 2003. Part IV, Civic Rights; Sections 29 & 30, "Voting" and "Polling stations." Kenya Gazette Supplement No. 111 (Acts No. 15): Nairobi: Government Printer.

    Return to Text
  5. Id., Part VIII, Offences and Penalties; Section 45: "Concealment of persons with disabilities."

    Return to Text
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2009 Marian E Lupo

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)