From the Series: Disability as Rupture
In the March 19, 2010, edition of Public Agenda: Ghana’s Only Advocacy and Development Newspaper, Frederick Asiamah reported that staff and visitors at Nsawam Government Hospital were “held spellbound” because members of Ghana’s Society of the Physically Disabled (GSPD) volunteered to clean the “Children’s Ward and its environs as if they were able bodied persons.” Quotidian routines at the hospital were further disrupted when the chapter, founded and led by Komabu-Pomeyie, presented staff with pineapples, oranges, and Ghana’s own Kalyppo box juices for the children. What was likely on most bystanders’ minds was the question of how people with disabilities could make donations of such precious commodities when disabled people are frequently marked in Ghanaian society as outcasts and beggars? This was precisely the image Komabu-Pomeyie wanted to rupture by organizing the event. Even her proposal of these hospital interventions to the local GSPD chapter rattled members’ sensibilities. She recalls:
For some of them it was a hard nut to crack not because of any doubt of their own capacity but most of their fear was around the external forces. First, they thought, it was impossible (just because of bureaucracy) to attain an acceptance letter from the hospital administration to render the service. Secondly, we did not have money to buy the fruits and provisions we presented to the hospital for the patients, so for some of them that was too unbearable. Thirdly, it was also difficult for some to expose their body to the public in this activity. They do such work at home by scrubbing their bathrooms and so forth, but the bodily position in which they do it is not for public consumption, so they were reluctant at first.
Asiamah’s article in Public Agenda describes onlookers of the Nsawam Hospital clean-up as riveted by what they observed: “Even without arms, Louisa Enyonam, 45-year-old kindergarten teacher … clutched a mop stick between the shoulder and neck to clean the terrazzo floor. She explained that she could not watch her colleagues do it alone but more importantly the act constituted a message to non-disabled persons that ‘disability is not inability.’” Enyonam’s “anomalous body” held hospital staff and community bystanders enthralled because she appeared not as a stereotypical disabled beggar but as a young woman engaging in the everyday practice of mopping the floor. Komabu-Pomeyie’s intention of breaking the spell of ableism was taking effect.
At the time of this event, Komabu-Pomeyie had been a disability justice leader in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area for many years, and Geurts (trained as an anthropologist) had been collaborating with her and others in the movement since 2003. Conducting ethnographic research at the Accra Rehabilitation Center, Geurts had involved herself in the activities and advocacy of a wide range of self-help and voluntary organizations such as the Ghana Association of the Blind, Ghana Association of Persons with Albinism, Sharecare Ghana for Persons with Autoimmune and Neurological Conditions, etc. During that first decade of engagement with the movement, Geurts had been reflecting on what disability-as-rupture does to how we think about ethnographic methods. When disability justice first and foremost demands radical care work, what parts of ethnographic practice do we sacrifice? Do we skimp on time spent in observation? participation? documentation? That “compulsory able-bodiedness” (and neurotypicality) “operates in and through anthropology’s disciplinary norms” (Hartblay 2020, S34) had Geurts spellbound for many years, leading to a sense that disability was a disruption to—rather than the center of—her life. Komabu-Pomeyie’s strategy was to face disability head-on, even to flaunt it, if it might create greater access and cause people to change.
In the Nsawam Hospital event, Komabu-Pomeyie used radical care work (for the children, the staff, and even the grounds) as a tactic to try to break the spell cast over Ghanaians—a spell that made them unable to imagine people with disabilities as capable of societal contribution. Caregiving was also a principle and value we saw in each other, and it solidified our mutual respect and interest in collaboration. Each disabled in our own ways and belonging to families-with-disability, between the two of us we take care of the effects of symptoms from a range of disabilities such as: sickle cell anemia, diabetes, post-polio syndrome, dysgraphia, major depressive disorder, insomnia, addiction, venous stasis ulcer, and asthma. While our paid professions are in academia, we are also thoroughly occupied with caregiving as it is integral to studying and living with disability.
The civil rights movement for people with disability has traditionally been championed by and in the service of beneficiaries of white privilege and has failed to produce results that change life circumstances for QTBIPOC, low-income families, and people living in the Global South. For daily existence, this leaves many of us dependent on radical care work performed in informal networks (Piepzna-Samarasinha 2018). That is, “rights” to supports and services are only as good as one’s resources to ensure that laws are enforced, so it is typically upper class and elite individuals who enjoy disability rights. In addition, it remains a truism that “the normate anthropologist has always had a non-disabled bodymind” and “there remain oppressive structures unique to anthropology enacting barriers to collective access” (Durban 2022, 10). In other words, most anthropologists (like Ghanaians) are spellbound by ableism. We use our story to help rupture this spell.
Komabu-Pomeyie recalls that she was able to mobilize her members because “our main goal was to rewrite our own story within the same community where we were of no value. Even though we have built our confidence to project ourselves positively, society still sees us as a cursed object or an evil thing. I sold the idea to my people to rebrand our image and identity, and they hailed it as something positive.” In a similar way, disabled anthropologists and allies have recently been rewriting their own story in the community—or simply “occupying anthropology.” Breaking ableism’s spell—both as it is encountered by disabled people in their everyday lives and its integral role in scholarly knowledge production—requires enacting disability’s rupture and working through its effects. Doing so has the potential to make more inclusive worlds.
Asiamah, Frederick. 2010. “Disabled Wash Down Nsawam Hospital.” Public Agenda: Ghana’s Only Advocacy and Development Newspaper 397: 3.
Durban, Erin. 2022. “Anthropology and Ableism.” American Anthropologist 124, no. 1: 8–20.
Hartblay, Cassandra. 2020. “Disability Expertise: Claiming Disability Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 61, no. S21: S26-S36.
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. 2018. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.