From Eugenics to Paralympics: Inspirational Disability, Physical Fitness, and the White Canadian Nation

  • Author / Creator
    Peers, Danielle L
  • Inspirational representations of athletic disability are ubiquitous in contemporary Western culture, and are often considered uplifting for disabled and non-disabled audiences alike (Berger, 2008; Kama, 2004; Silva & Howe, 2012). Critical disability scholars have argued, by contrast, that such ‘supercrip’ representations are harmful because they often undervalue the athletic achievements of disabled athletes, they create unrealistic expectations of disabled people, and they reaffirm the notion that disability is a medical problem rather than a problem of political oppression (Charlton, 1998; Clare, 2009; Linton, 2006; Withers, 2012). These critiques have proven useful for analyzing media representations of the supercrip, however they offer few tools for engaging with some of the key concerns of this dissertation. These concerns include: the processes through which inspirational, physically fit disabled people are produced and governed as subjects; the specific historical contexts in which inspirational disability has emerged, proliferated, and become politically useful; and the ways that inspirational disability interacts with other systems of subjection (e.g., the production and governance of racialized, gendered, and classed subjects). In this dissertation, I use Foucauldian genealogy and poststructuralist autoethnography to trace the emergence and effects of inspirational, physically fit, disabled subjectivity in Canada, from Confederation (1867) to contemporary times. I argue that inspirational, physically fit disability is a deeply historical and political phenomenon; this phenomenon emerges, proliferates, and shifts in particular contexts because so doing serves very particular political configurations. More specifically, I argue that inspirational, physically fit disability emerges out of, and often serves to reproduce, eugenic and white supremacist projects that are at the heart of Canadian nation-making: projects that continue to reproduce the rampant inequality, poverty, ii and violence faced by many of Canada’s colonized, racialized, and disabled populations. In the first three chapters, I introduce the project, outline relevant literature, and discuss both my genealogical and autoethnographic methodologies. In chapter 4, I begin my genealogical analysis of the conditions of possibility for the emergence of inspirational disability in Canada. Specifically, I trace the proliferation, racialization, and sexualization of disabled kinds in the early eugenic era (1869-1910). I argue that disability governance in this period differentiated between those pathologized as physically disabled, and those thought to have forms of disability that were inheritable traits of racial degeneration. In chapter 5, I trace how this differential governance of those deemed physically disabled and degenerate became intensified through early provincial and federal interventions into social security (1910-1945). In chapter 6, I argue that, during the interwar years, the Canadian government began to explicitly use inspirational discourses and techniques on those deemed physically disabled in order to both govern injured soldiers and to legitimize increased federal intervention into the health and physical fitness of the (white) Canadian population. I argue that through such programs, physically disabled white masculinity came to be synonymous with inspirational physically fit disability. In chapter 7, I demonstrate how making certain kinds of disabled subjects the explicit target of eugenic practices helped to rebrand white supremacist practices and formations in Canada during the post-war, welfare state years (1945-1970s). In chapter 8, I trace how – since the mid-1970s – spectacles of legislative inclusion and inspirational physically fit disability both served to exalt (white) Canada (and Canadians) as morally superior. I then discuss the implications of such inspirational spectacles in light of the ever-present neo-eugenic and white supremacist formations that it serves to justify, reproduce, and exalt. In chapter 9, I shift methodologies and offer a poststructuralist critique of my own iii inspirational subjectivity. Through this autoethnography, and through my conclusion in chapter 10, I explore the implications of this research on the daily enactments of disabled subjectivity. I also explore alternative, non-inspirational and even potentially revolting practices for undermining and reimagining the subjectivities and inequalities that are reproduced and governed through inspiration.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2015
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.