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“Abnormal” book explores roots of discrimination

(1 November 2011)

A new book exposes how society’s obsession with the idea of “normality” and “perfection” has led to discrimination, hostility, and the isolation and segregation of disabled people.

Abnormal: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure argues that society must rid itself of its belief that non-average bodies are “abnormal”.

Ju Gosling aka ju90, a leading disabled activist and artist, explores the historical roots of this deeply-embedded “body dysphoria”.

She says: “For centuries, being classed as normal has meant being able to afford to be part of society and to be recognised as a legitimate member of it. Being classed as abnormal has meant being isolated and segregated, and above all poor…”

She adds: “Our dysphoria is now so serious that anything even remotely regarded as being linked to an ‘abnormal’ body is to be reviled.”

She points to the stigma attached to disability aids and equipment – such as wheelchairs and canes – which arises “simply from the ‘abnormal’ people that they are associated with”.

Disability aids are viewed as dehumanising, she says, even though there is “nothing innately negative about any of the items used specifically by disabled people”, while she argues that ramps are far more “normal” and useful than steps.

She says: “Why is a car seen by many people as an essential, but a wheelchair as something to be avoided at all costs, even if this means spending a decade or more inside the home? The answer can only lie in our body dysphoria.”

In her book, Gosling dismantles the arguments of the segregationists and eugenicists, arguing that genetic diversity is vital to the survival of the human race, and pointing to the example of Stephen Hawking, who shows that “just one person can make a profound difference to our species, regardless of – or perhaps because of – their ‘defective’ genetic status”.

She says society needs to “recognise that survival is as much about skill as it is about genetics; that ordinary people are as important to the survival of our species as the extraordinary; and that impairment is irrelevant”.

Much of the research for the book was carried out during an artistic residency at the National Institute of Medical Research, where she focused on society’s perceptions of normality and the part played by the misunderstanding of the power of science to “cure”.

Gosling argues in her book: “If we really want to create a world without disability and premature death, and without disabling barriers in every area of our lives, then it is to politicians, not the men in white coats, that we need to look once we have cured ourselves of our body dysphoria.”

The book accompanies an exhibition, Abnormal: Towards a Scientific Model of Disability, at the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum, which runs until 14 January 2012.

Abnormal: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure is available from Bettany Press.

News provided by John Pring at