Disability And The Utopia

This week, Errol explores our Utopias exhibition through the lens of disability.

In spite of lockdown leaving the gallery closed to the public, our Utopias exhibition has had a profound effect on me throughout this period. The space explores how English society has historically viewed itself as a haven of reason – a hypocrisy, considering our Imperial history – and explores how modern politics has twisted the meaning of utopia across the whole political spectrum. The works explore what utopia has been and could be. It’s a fascinating space, with the Whitworth Young Contemporaries making their voices heard in their own personal exploration of what their utopia would look like.

The idea of “utopia” is rooted in nonsense, of course – a utopian space is theoretical and cannot truly exist. Ideals differ amongst individuals, even those with the same political leanings, and its etymological roots are in Greek, as “ou topos” translates into “no place”. Thomas More’s work itself was a critique of this idea of trying to reach a “perfect world”. And yet, many of us still strive to reach a different kind of utopia – described as a “eutopia”, derived from “eu topos”, or “good place”. These imagined “perfect societies”, this image that the UK strives to push itself toward, are aspiring to this kind of world.

Detail from Thomas More’s Utopia, First Edition (1516) on loan from the John Ryland’s Library , University of Manchester.

While the gallery has spent much of 2020 closed, much of this knowledge on utopian ideals is pretty well-known. I used to love utopian literature while studying at university, and this space was somewhere I loved to explore while we were open to the public. However, I’ve come back to these stories and these works of art with a new lens – the lens of disability. I should establish that in this situation I’m talking about disability with a rather large umbrella, including long term mental and physical health difficulties, as well as other significant long term illnesses. 

With this lens, I thought I’d take a look at utopia with disabled people in the centre. When people think of a perfect society, they often just forget we’re there, or come up with awkward solutions for where to put us. If utopian ideas are the same, well, it’s just not utopian, is it?

This is important for one key reason. Like any society, if a utopian world wants to reform and change society for the best, how that society treats those who cannot contribute physically, or economically – how it treats its most vulnerable – is a central part of the ideal. If you can’t look after those who may require support, it’s hard to call yourself utopian, after all. 

William Booth (1829 – 1912) ‘In Darkest England and the Way Out’ (1890) Map, on loan from the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester.

Several different explorations of a better world within the space have some interesting explorations of illness and disability. Within the exhibition, the Glasgow Toile wallpaper by Timorous Beasties depicts addiction, and a Salvation Army poster by William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out, discusses alcoholism, suicide, and what they describe as “misery” as pillars of despair, destitution, but most importantly, shame, and that these must all be tackled in order to make England a greater country, ensuring that there is “work for all”. The idea that mentally and physically ill people are shameful to their country and require “fixing” through providing them work is unfortunately an idea that has carried on in pushing disabled people into work, and the slow but steady cutting of welfare. 

Detail from Timorous Beasties (Design and Manufacturer) ‘The Glasgow Toile’ (2004) Hand screen-printed linen

For a long time, visions of utopia have been spaces in which everyone is able to access a well-paid job and are able to thrive in society. Many socialist utopias rely on this idea, too. Ideas such as the living wage are one idea of a utopian workspace, to the point where other ideas, such as universal basic income, have mostly been ignored by governments. In spite of most “living wages” being so incremental they’re pretty much nonexistent, they’re favoured over any form of welfare in most western countries. Of course, not everyone can work. Many literary depictions of utopia, for example Gulliver’s Travels’ exploration of Houyhnhnmland, describe care for the disabled, chronically ill and elderly as support in recognition for their work in society before this point. Of course, not all disabled people can work, and does this make them less deserving of care? 

Often, when people consider a utopia, they think of a world where science has erased disability. We are already seeing that now, and disabled people are terrified. Funnily enough, the “eutopia” I discussed before, this good place or perfect world, has the same linguistic roots as another popular term describing “good genes” – eugenics. In an odd reflection of More’s original Utopia, state sanctioned euthanasia and “kind” removal of those who are unable to support themselves has become a controversial staple in modern society, and it only really gets worse from there. 

Many countries now have prenatal screening specifically for conditions like Down syndrome. In Denmark, for example, nearly all expecting parents take the test, and of those whose children receive a Down syndrome diagnosis, around 95% choose to have an abortion. Hostility towards disabled people begins early, and rather than considering their entitlement to the same education and healthcare that others would receive, now, children with Down syndrome are, in essence, being wiped away, and all of their stories and history with them.

It’s morally concerning, considering that it’s very compatible with a long, happy, safe life. With genetic testing only getting more and more accurate, what conditions will societies choose to wipe out through selective reproduction next? 

It’s rare to see a vision of a better world that actually includes disabled people without erasing them, shaming them or requiring them to go above and beyond what they’re actually able to do in order to survive. Whether the pastoral dreams of the English countryside, the early socialist utopias of work for all, the science-fiction perfection we see in TV shows like Star Trek, or even in this world where science and technology are ever advancing, it would be a pleasure to see more people like me simply get to exist. 

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