Event report: Animal and Disability Liberation at iHuman’s Animal-Human-Machine

18 October 2017
By Dr Seán McCorry

Disability rights activists and animal liberationists have not often found themselves working towards common goals in political coalitions. From the assertion of shared humanity, which has been a crucial strategy in disability activism, to the frequently problematic way in which disability has been invoked by prominent animal rights philosophers, it is probably fair to say that relationships between zoocentric and anti-ableist thinkers have been characterised by an amount of mutual suspicion. More recently, though, academics and activists have begun to explore connections and continuities between these two historically opposed programs for social and political justice. On 10th October 2017, scholars in animal studies and disability studies met at the University of Sheffield for the iHuman network’s Animal-Human-Machine symposium to attempt to work through some of these tensions between animal and disability politics.

The first half of the symposium centred on a discussion of Sunaura Taylor’s important new book, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation (New Press, 2017). Taylor’s work reconstructs the ways in which a discourse of species is used to articulate ableist prejudice, and conversely, how disability theory can provide a new perspective for understanding the political ontology of animal lives. Within oppressive systems of knowledge, both disabled humans and nonhuman animals are commonly measured and evaluated in relation to a standard of ‘normal’, able-bodied (and, we could add, white, male, heterosexual) humanity. Lacking some supposedly definitive human characteristic – be it language, high-functioning rationality, or upright, two-legged gait – both groups are imagined as experientially impoverished, and perhaps also as less deserving of moral standing.

Our discussion covered the uses and dangers of appealing to scientific knowledge to demonstrate the capacities of disabled people and nonhuman animals. We talked about the politics of morphology as a point of continuity between animal and disability studies. We also discussed the strategic usefulness of asserting the animality of humans themselves as a way of resisting human exceptionalism, while remaining aware that the risks of this strategy are unevenly distributed across different human demographic groups.

Later, scholars from the iHuman collective showcased their recent work at the intersection of animal and disability studies. Professor Dan Goodley made the case for posthumanist theory as an area of intellectual inquiry that is well suited to thinking animals and disability together. Professor Katherine Runswick-Cole gave an overview of recent disability activism, and tried to account for the disparity of concern for (at least some) animal lives and disabled people. Dr Kirsty Liddiard presented a new research project into interdependence and animal/human intimacy in the lives of disabled people and their service animals.

Further questions were raised about the relationship between animals, disability, and other categories of identity, particularly race. Plans for a future meeting were provisionally drawn up with the hope that these concerns could be explored more thoroughly. If you are interested in getting involved in organising or participating in these plans, keep an eye on the ShARC Blog and the iHuman website as more information will be forthcoming shortly.