On Death, Disability, and The Promise of The Cure

I need to reiterate my concern for Daniella’s death being co-opted by cure rhetoric.  Daniella, type-1 diabetic, died in her sleep in November 2011 from low blood sugar.  From what I can tell, Daniella was a white, blond-haired seventeen-year-old born and raised in Australia.  I never met Daniella in real-life, only posthumously in cyber-life.  To rehearse from my previous post, many blogs and JDRF advocates clung to her story and death with rhetoric that emphasizes the dire need for a “cure.”  I am also an advocate for the cure.  But I am also very critical of it when socioeconomic intersections and historical contexts are taken for granted in such rhetoric.  Let’s consider “the cure” as an object, like something we could grab onto and hold and make all that is supposedly ill, sick, diseased, damaged and deformed about our bodies simply go away so we could ‘go back to normal’.

I want to think about this: what is the cure doing in its co-optation of death by diabetes in order to advocate for its own cause of longevity, strength, and so-called health?  Perhaps this is where we can see more clearly the ways in which the cure functions to cover over the “able-bodied” order as is, thus reproducing the narrative of Daniella-as-victim in need of saving by mainstream medicine and science (see previous post on passive victimhood).  This is a narrative script: cure rhetoric reproduces the notion of disability as individual tragedy to be overcome–thus justifying medical authority and its pervasive surveillance of our pathologizable bodies.  This narrative strips Daniella’s crip existence of agency, value, and respect.  This narrative perpetuates the lottery approach to life and the idea that the chance or hap of disability can be controlled if only we had more money for the cure.  By covering over the “able-bodied” order, the cure as a veil might depend on the failure to recognize the failure of coincidence, or rather, the failure to recognize the chance of disability: maybe some things just can’t be controlled (like “coincidence,” like unexpected encounters)—disease happens, illness happens, pain happens, accidents happen, and death is inevitable.  Yet cure rhetoric disavows this reality.  The cure promises containment of disability.  In the circulation of the cure’s promise, disability is implicitly rendered as individual tragedy rather than seen complexly as systematic inaccessibility and a complicated, intricate bodily experience that has a place in this world.  The cure ultimately hopes to rid the world of pathologized disability where it justly has a place.  Disability belongs like all other life forms.

The exclusionary nature of the cure as a promissory object is evident in a recent article titled “More Ways to Cope with Type 1 Diabetes” published in The New York Times just last October.  We might say that Daniella, and my sister Britt, are included in the cure’s circulation as a promise of longevity, strength, and health.  Brittany actually sent me this article originally and with much excitement towards the prospects at hand.  But as I read through, a slight if caught me off-guard and sent my critique spiraling.  This article features a seemingly all-American heteronormative family with two children who so happen to have juvenile diabetes.  However, this “so happens” is disavowed through the logic of a lottery approach to life and the authority of medical science.  Journalist Jane E. Brody writes, “Type 1 diabetes has long been known to have a genetic basis that somehow interacts with environmental factors” (emphasis added).  What I want to call attention to here is the normalization of medical authority: third-person scientific fact is taken as natural, objective truth.  The speculative “somehow” of Brody’s reporting nonetheless implies that diabetes is potentially controllable: if the epidemiology or cause of juvenile diabetes is known at a genetic level, there is more hope for cure.  For the record: there is no indisputable evidence that diabetes is pathologically genetic or hereditaryBased upon her tentative claim of type 1’s hereditary possibilities, Brody remarks that “when the Gustins’ daughter Fiona was also found, at age 9, to have the disease, her parents knew it was not a freak coincidence” (emphasis added).  Brody explicitly denies the coincidence of disability: in doing so, she reinstates the myth of control and relieves the reader of her fear of disability.

A rhetorical representation of the cure as object

The possibility of cure as promissory object for the Gustins family is evident through their access to healthcare: their son had “been enrolled at birth in a University of Colorado study looking for markers for Type 1 diabetes in umbilical cord blood,” in addition to affording the costs of insurance, and “substantial co-pays for the insulin pumps both children use, pump supplies, test strips for blood sugar and, of course, a steady insulin supply.”  However, the elusive exclusionary nature of the cure as promissory object is nearly indiscernible yet paramount to those for whom healthcare is systematically out of reach: Brody writes, “In the last 40 years, improvements in blood sugar control have resulted in an average increase of more than 15 years in life expectancy for people with Type 1 diabetes…Further improvements in life expectancy are possible if patients can afford good care and have access to it” (emphasis added).  Brody fails to mention that the costs of an insulin pump without healthcare insurance ranges from $7,000-10,000, and that does not include the regular cost of insulin.  Regardless, the costs of insulin pumps with health insurance are still heavy.  Without access to the technology of insulin pumps, management of stable blood sugar relies upon the “human error” of insulin injections via syringe needles.  Thus, access to “improvements in life expectancy”—or rather, reproductive futurity and longevity—via the cure, or even access to the hope of cure, systematically underlies the ascendancy of whiteness and its affirmation of the modern “Self” through virtues of health and longevity.  Meanwhile, the cure (and healthcare more broadly) remains systematically out of reach for racialized, impoverished others who are always already deemed excessive.  It is not the possibility of cure in and of itself that is in question, but rather the ways in which its circulation as promissory affective object is unevenly distributed, and how this uneven biopolitical incorporation through the cure as happy object veils the reproduction of the social order by failing to recognize the failure of coincidence.

So we have a predicament.  While we need to work relentlessly to situate Daniella’s life experience in a crip time and place so that her life may be understood and valued as such, we also need to be critical and cautious of such death-happenings as they are co-opted by cure rhetoric and its racist, classist ways.  Moreover, how do we justly and ethically fight for healthcare treatment and universal access to it without necessarily reproducing the victim-narrative and lottery approach to life?

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