Disability & Marginality in Highland Ecuador


A review of Embodied Marginalities: Disability, Citizenship, and Space in Highland Ecuador, by Nicholas Rattray.

Situated at the intersections of medical anthropology, the anthropology of Latin America, disability studies, and human geography, Nicholas Rattray’s important dissertation analyzes the emergence of the category of “person with disability” in a particular Latin American context and in relation to people with physical and visual disabilities. Rattray chooses to focus on Ecuador because it has an international reputation for being pro-active in the area of disability rights. In addition, the vice president of Ecuador during the time of Rattray’s dissertation fieldwork, Lenín Moreno (1953- ), was a wheelchair user, therefore (ostensibly) lending visibility to disability issues.

Rattray’s fieldwork is emplaced in both Ecuador’s capital Quito and in Cuenca, a city located in Ecuador’s highlands which has been the focus of much previous anthropological work on the making of hierarchies and marginalities along the lines of racial and ethnic differences. While Quito is the site of disability protests and marches, Rattray spends the bulk of his time (and this work) in Cuenca where he focuses on state interventions in the arena of disability, non-governmental organizations run by and for people with disabilities, and the on-the-ground social, political, and economic practices of people with disabilities themselves. In moving between the state and peoples’ subjective experiences, Rattray artfully navigates between political economic discussions about neoliberalism in Ecuador and phenomenological approaches that enable people with disabilities’ complicated negotiations around identity to come to the fore. In addition, Rattray’s approach allows us to both consider how people with disabilities are produced (and how they strategically produce themselves) as “abject” persons while also considering how disability can be a source of productive value for people in terms of identity-making, receiving state and other economic benefits, and creating new kinship networks. As Rattray suggests, disability “is at once a new form of collective identity, an emergent category of state governance, and increasingly a site of profit for health care and rehabilitation industries” (pp. 294-295).

Rattray’s dissertation is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 opens at a disability protest and march in Quito and provides us with a sense of the stakes of disability rights and politics in Ecuador. Rattray powerfully paints a picture of both urgency and complacency and potential and actual change and stasis. This chapter then gives us an overview of the theoretical approaches that are used in this work. As I noted above, Rattray blends a wide range of theoretical tools including theories of embodiment, theories about the production of space, theories about the social, political, and economic production of disability, and theories about shame, stigma, and contagion, to name a few. Chapter 2 introduces us to the stakes of studying disability in highland Ecuador and includes a discussion of the terminology used by interlocutors as well as a discussion of the ethics of working with people with disabilities. Chapter 3 provides us with a macro overview of Ecuador’s political economy and a discussion of the role of structural violence in the lives of people with disabilities. Rattray compellingly utilizes the life stories of several of his interlocutors to discuss mining accidents and other occupational hazards, the role of poverty and conversely remittances from the North in both producing and ameliorating disability, and the lack of structural access to education, healthcare, and livelihood.

Chapter 4 introduces us to people with disabilities’ experiences negotiating relationships with non-disabled people and how stigma, fear of contagion, and feelings of shame mark these experiences. Following in the footsteps of Veena Das and Renu Addlakha, Rattray compellingly shows us how disability is encountered in both public and private spaces. Chapter 5 foregrounds questions of space and Rattray examines the embodied practices of physically and visually disabled interlocutors as they move through Cuenca and negotiate (lack of) access to public space. We meet interlocutors such as Claudia, who crawls up stairs on her knees to a hilltop church and despite having to use a bathroom, she cannot access one. This chapter also includes a compelling story about a trip to the beach that Rattray embarks on with members of a disability organization, a trip that has both triumphant and discouraging under- and over-tones as those on the trip discover ingenious ways of swimming for the first time yet also encounter hostile non-disabled people. This chapter engages with work from human geography to analyze how spaces are produced for certain kinds of bodies and in the process excludes others.

Chapter 6 takes us to the realm of the state and its attempts to manage disability through a biomedical apparatus, disability identity cards, employment incentives, and NGOs. Rattray, following the footsteps of Matthew Kohrman, looks at the production of a certain kind of biopolitics around disability and he analyzes how NGOs internalize and reproduce this biopolitics. Rattray very convincingly questions the motives of the state in relation to disability — is the state attempting to create a new category of voters? Chapter 7 brings us the life stories of three key interlocutors as they negotiate disability identity with feelings of pride, ambivalence, defiance, and shame. Rattray beautifully illustrates that disability is not a stable category and that individuals’ experiences change over time and space depending on context. In this chapter, Rattray outlines the “cultural training” that people with disabilities engage in and he considers how wheelchair basketball is an important space for such training and “rehabituation.” Chapter 8 issues a powerful call for anthropologists and other social scientists to consider disability as a cogent form of difference and to analyze how it is socially, politically, and economically produced.

Nicholas Rattray’s dissertation makes at least four important contributions to the anthropology of disability. The first contribution is Rattray’s discussion of biopolitical fragmentation. Rattray convincingly illustrates that people with disabilities are not a homogenous group and that the category of disability is not a stable one. He shows us how hierarchies of disability emerge and how people with specific kinds of disabilities (in this case, blindness) see themselves as more fortunate than those with other kinds of disabilities. Rattray therefore complicates the currently existing seamless neoliberal category of “community” and departs from works on ideal type neoliberalism. The second contribution involves the delicate dance between abjection and new (neoliberal) forms of value. Rattray’s interlocutors are simultaneously beggars and fierce wheelchair basketball players, subjects of pity and productive workers at the local Burger King franchise; they are able to embody multiple subject positions often to their own advantage. As the state engages in neoliberal reforms, disability becomes a space from which to make demands of both public and private sectors and the “worker with disability” may soon become a valorized category.

Thirdly, Rattray’s treatment of assistive technology and exactly what constitutes such technology is novel. What does it mean to call a wheelchair a form of assistive technology and what does it mean to call a wheelchair user a cyborg? Rattray problematizes divisions between “low” and “high” assistive technology. And finally, Rattray’s work makes an important contribution to human geography by looking at the concrete processes by which disablement is produced and analyzing the on the ground practices such as riding the bus, negotiating a sandy path to the sea, and climbing one hundred steps to a church; Rattray injects materiality into theories of the production of space.

This dissertation is an important contribution to the nascent medical anthropology of disability and exists alongside and in relation to ethnographies by Julie Livingston, Matthew Kohrman, Veena Das and Reenu Addlakha, and the important edited volumes by Benedicte Ingstad and Susan Whyte. As Rattray notes, there is no existing work on the role of disability as it intersects with other kinds of differences in Ecuador and this dissertation helps to fill that gap. This work complicates existing categories of personhood and theories of marginality in highland Ecuador specifically and Latin America more generally. And, as Rattray notes, his dissertation marks an “early” period in Ecuador’s disability rights movement. How will things change in the future? What will be the effects and affects of international legislation such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and how will Rattray’s interlocutors’ hopeful comportments shift over the years?

Michele Friedner
Postdoctoral Fellow, Anthropology Program
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Primary Sources

Participant observation conducted with people with disabilities in their homes, in public spaces, on wheelchair basketball courts, and at non-governmental organizations
Newspaper articles from major newspapers
Literature disseminated by and websites of key disability-focused non-governmental organizations

Dissertation Information

University of Arizona. 2012. 337 pp. Primary Advisor: Susan Shaw.


Image: Photograph by Nicholas Rattray.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like