I seek to weave two threads of analysis — disability and colonialism — that are not often in conversation in Disability Studies. How might we productively think through disability and colonialism to illuminate how non-normative bodyminds were (and continue to be) imagined, produced, and disciplined?

In the broadest sense, colonialism demanded able bodyminds from subordinated subjects. Colonial projects imposed impossible regimes and expectations of self-regulation its subjects would not be able to perform. Thus, the colonized were always already figured and constituted as disabled, whether because of their perceived unproductivity as laborers; embodied racial-sexual differences; "unchaste" proclivities of their women; susceptibility to moral contagion and infectious diseases; or inability to learn. In the undulating colonial hall of mirrors, the inversion of these qualities — too much learnedness and the adoption of European manners, for example — could mean colonized people had failed to maintain the vigor of their "race." Thus, we begin to see how disability operated as a flexible and capacious concept and a very useful weapon during the incarceration, elimination, and removal of unfit colonial Others.1

Lest we think of disability as a relatively recent scholarly paradigm, let me linger on the pointed use of disability in one nineteenth-century settler-colonial context. Reverend Sereno Bishop, prominent American missionary descendant in Hawai'i, characterized Hawaiians as a disabled people in an 1888 address five years before the American-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. Asking "Why are the Hawaiians dying out?" Bishop proceeded to itemize the "elements of disability" of Hawaiian people. These elements included unchastity, drunkenness, oppression by chiefs, infectious and epidemic diseases, and idolatry.2 Bishop thus deployed disability explicitly to mark a Hawaiian failure to thrive.

If colonists tied ablebodiedness to compulsory productivity and racialized heteronormativity, then how might decolonization projects differ in their relationship to disability? While Bishop's 1888 speech floridly illustrated disability as civilizational failure, Kimo Armitage's stunning 2016 novel The Healers imagines embodied difference as integral to wellness in contemporary Hawai'i.3 The novel's skilled practitioner of Hawaiian medicine, Laka, may seem to fit Bishop's ominous nightmare of a "disabled" Hawaiian: a man born without arms and legs to a woman who had contracted leprosy. However, far from representing the inevitable destruction of Native lifeways, Laka offers life-giving possibilities. Laka was not shunned, but raised as the most treasured child of his extended family. As a healer, he senses deep wounds wrought by colonial violence and trains the next generation of healers. May we follow Laka's example in pursuit of a decolonial disability studies that embraces a spectrum of abilities, embodiments, and decolonizing practices?

  1. The utility of disability is especially evident in settler-colonial projects that rely on the "elimination of native societies." Patrick Wolfe, "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native," Journal of Genocide Research 8 (2006): 391. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623520601056240
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  2. Rev. S.E. Bishop, Why are the Hawaiians Dying Out? Or, Elements of Disability for the Survival Among the Hawaiian People, s.n., 1888.
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  3. Kimo Armitage, The Healers (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016).
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