For someone with little knowledge of queer and/or disability studies, McRuer's intro. is not the best overview of these disciplines; however, he does a thorough job of situating his thesis amidst other critical studies that question and reimagine heteronormative/dominant ideologies. McRuer's terms his theory, "compulsory able-bodiedness" (2), and argues:
the system of compulsory able-bodiedness, which in a sense produces disability, is thoroughly interwoven with the system of compulsory heterosexuality that produces queerness: that, in fact, compulsory heterosexuality is contingent on compulsory able-bodiedness, and vice versa...Neoliberalism and the condition of postmodernity, in fact, increasingly need able-bodied, heterosexual subjects who are visible and spectacularly tolerant of queer/disabled existences (2).When situated within a postmodern social construction, the "flexible" (3) nature of heterosexual and able-bodied subjects becomes apparent, especially when acknowledging queer theory and disability studies. McRuer works at establishing the inter-dependency between heterosexual and able-bodiedness with queerness and disabilities by revealing the problems with defining able-bodiedness as a stable and unwavering entity. Ultimately, the "normalcy" of able-bodies has been repetitively enforced to the point of proving its failure and therefore impossibility (Judith Butler 9). The able-bodied identity, when viewed with emphasis on ability to work, can be traced to the nineteenth century and the beginnings of industrial capitalism (8). (What happens when the "work" aspect of able-bodied identity is overthrown? Can we track this theory back further to leisure-class heteronormative hegemonies?)
McRuer cites Michael Bérubé's memoir about his son's Down syndrome and concludes, "an important common experience that links all people with disabilities under a system of compulsory able-bodiedness -the experience of the able-bodied need for an agreed-on common ground" (8). McRuer then raises questions that the able-bodied person would ask, "wouldn't you rather not be HIV positive?" or "wouldn't you rather not be deaf?" (8-9). But what happens with the common ground formed by disabled bodies is overturned? It seems that any upheaval of experience would depend upon who is acting on whose behalf. It also raises the question of privilege: can able-bodies disavow their privilege of compulsory heteronormativity? I was reminded of an Anthro. Language & Culture course where we watched a documentary on the changes occurring in the deaf community due to the introduction of hearing devices. Parents who were deaf who had deaf children didn't want their children to get the device because in doing so, the children would lose any chance of acting as a participant or possessing in deaf culture. Would these children (formerly deaf, but still considered virtually disabled) act as compulsory able-bodies? Would their "transformation" be considered what McRuer calls the "heteronormative epiphany"? McRuer writes:
the production and reproduction, at the end of the twentieth century, of more flexible bodies -gay bodies that no longer mark absolute deviance, heterosexual bodies that are newly on display. The out heterosexual works alongside gay men and lesbians; the more flexible heterosexual body tolerates a certain amount of queerness. The more flexible gay or lesbian body, in turn, enables what I call 'heteronormative epiphanies,' continually making available to the out heterosexual, a sense of subjective wholeness, however illusory (12).The main example that McRuer uses to emphasis his theory is the movie As Good as It Gets, where the disabled heterosexual Melvin undergoes a heteronormative epiphany which results in his able-bodiedness. The constant in this "experiment" is his disabled homosexual friend. McRuer concludes that compulsory able-bodiedness and heterosexuality is a critical component to the epiphanic process. One of the requirements for the epiphany to occur is that the heterosexual subject acts as though there is not a crisis, but instead, shifts into the flexible role of working with queerness/disability rather than working against it.
One of the chapter's most critical points works toward overturning the reliance of compulsory able-bodiedness. McRuer says there is a gap between the virtually disabled (basically, everyone) and the critically disabled where, "the disability rights movement and disability studies have resisted the demands of compulsory able-bodiedness and have demanded access to a newly imagined and newly configured public sphere where full participation is not contingent on an able body" (30). Is this the forefront of disability studies stands today? What are the consequences that occur when able-bodied heterosexuality's hegemony is in danger of collapsing? (and does in fact, collapse?) Are there any adequate resolutions? McRuer's book focuses on twentieth-century film and literature examples, but can his compulsory able-bodied theory be found in Victorian literature? Can there be an able-bodied figure who is simultaneously disabled and passes seamlessly (without crisis) through various hegemonic ideologies? I'm thinking of my next Victorian reading, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
McRuer, Robert. "Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence." Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: NYUP, 2006.
Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence."