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Social Model of Spoons?

Social Model of Spoons?

Spoon theory is a way some people with disabilities, visible (eg using a wheelchair) or otherwise (eg chronic pain) talk about their every day experiences of trying to get through life. There have been critiques of able bodied folks using spoon theory just because they’re tired or stressed by life, and how this is appropriating the term. Anyway, I was thinking about all this, and also about the social model of disability, and how they were connected.

What is the social model of disability?

I’m lucky that some of my friends with disabilities (especially two of you – thanks) took the time to explain to me why I was wrong in my misconceptions that some people couldn’t do things simply because of their physical state. I’m going to use a person who can’t walk as an example.

If someone can’t walk, in the UK they might get a wheelchair through the NHS. If they’re in London theoretically they can then get about – public transport is (too slowly, and due to disabled rights activism) being adapted so that wheelchair users can access it. We have pavements and buildings have ramps and lifts. Its far from perfect: at his local station a friend regularly has to physically pull his wheelchair off the train, as he slides off it on his bottom, because despite booking in advance, he is almost never met by the person with the ramp. But imagine that same person being born in rural India. Even if they had access to a wheelchair, what use would it be on narrow dirt tracks?

Anyone who’s seen me without glasses or contact lenses knows I’m pretty useless. If I’d been born a few hundred years ago, or in a place where I couldn’t access them, because of cost, or remoteness, I’d be scuppered! I couldn’t have foraged, or found my way about, or even been safe walking around without falling over even more often than I do already. But as a UK resident, it hardly affects me at all.

The ability of a person to go about their life is hugely determined by how society is structured. Someone could be disabled in one society, yet not in another.

What about spoons?

I think one of the problems that those of us without disabilities have with spoon theory is that it claims that we have unlimited, or effectively limitless number of spoons available to us, and this just doesn’t reflect our lived experiences. We do get worn out. If we push ourselves one day, we do feel drained the next. We do have to make decisions about where to spend our energy. Its just that the rough number of spoons we have fits in with the number that society is set up for. We are walking in a landscape filled with stairs, but as we can step over them, they are hardly noticeable.

I think the number of spoons a person has is a spectrum. It probably fits a left skewed bell curve – this means its distributed like the normal distributions of attributes like height or intelligence that you’re used to seeing, but has a long tail off to the left representing a substantial number of people who do not have much in terms of the attribute being measured.

source : http://saravanan.org/category/human/page/2/

source : http://saravanan.org/category/human/page/2/ – don’t know where trans people fit into that, but it was surprisingly hard to find a graph showing adult heights :(

For women (I presume just cis :/ ) in that graph above, most are between 150 and 175cm. There’s folks either side, but the vast majority fit within that range. I’m 155cm, so shorter than average, but within the normal range. Society is structured around us normal height folks – we don’t bump our heads into doorframes, and shop counters aren’t too high for us to see and be seen.If I’m in a crowd of cis men, suddenly I’m much shorter than average. My face is full of elbows. Things are put on shelves above my reach. I can’t get served in a pub – nobody sees me, as I’m way below their radar. Its unpleasant and awkward to operate. I haven’t changed, but because I’ve now got much less height than most people around me, my life is more difficult.

And I think that’s how it is with spoons. Society is structured around those of us with average numbers. The workday is set to be what we can manage. Social expectations fit in with that too. And things like lengths of checkout queues are based around how long we can stand for. Its not that we have limitless spoons, though there are those folks that we all know who never seem to get tired, but society is set up so that we rarely come up against the true limit of our spoons, so we don’t have the same dilemmas that those whom society does not privilege face.

Take clothing. In the original article, Christine describes how she has to choose her clothes carefully as it can exhaust her so much just to get dressed in the morning – for instance doing up buttons can be impossible depending on how her lupus is. That’s never a decision I’ve had to make, because clothing is designed with people like me as the default model. There are 7-10 buttons up the front of a shirt, which is an amount I might be expected to do up without it being a serious task. If there were 30 buttons on the back, some people would be able to manage, but I wouldn’t.

For me, thinking about spoons as a social model makes more sense than statements such as able bodied people have unlimited supplies. Because the latter just isn’t true, and the former shows me ways I can challenge the structural oppression that those with severely limited spoons face. Its not just that the latter can never participate in society, its that we should have a society that recognises and includes people based on their individual conditions and abilities. Why have a working week of 37.5 hours broken up into 8 hour days, when that puts it beyond so many people? Could we have more flexibility and understanding of those who do not have the default, majority number of spoons so that we do not have the same expectations and demands on everyone, but see that there is variety and diversity? We can and should judge societies by how everyone does within them.

  1. November 4, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    this makes a lot of sense and is clearly put. Thanks.

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