The tension between heteronormative expectations and disability
Professor Zoe Wool speaks about the impacts of heteronormativity and ableism on veteran and queer bodies.

In 2017, for her paper titled “In-durable Sociality: Precarious Life in Common and the Temporal Boundaries of the Social,” Professor Zoe H. Wool interviewed injured  US military soldiers who were cared for by one of their family members. Wool is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). She researches the anthropology of toxicity, gender, disability, as well as feminist science and technology studies. Her current work focuses on the effects of war and heteronormativity on veterans’ care experiences post 9/11. In her research, she has realized that what most fail to consider is that heteronormativity—the idealization of heterosexuality as the correct way of being—shapes our understanding of well-being. As such, the ableism that results from the romanticization of normative views about well-being affects disability and rehabilitation experiences of veteran and queer bodies.

During her interviews with veterans, Professor Wool found that “one of the things that were really central to them was reconfiguring or figuring out how to inhabit masculinity in these transformed bodies.” From this, one of her current projects, titled the “Socialities of Care + The Significance of Others,” began. In it, she explores the harms of heteronormativity in relation to caregiving, rehabilitation, intimacy, and the disability experiences of soldiers. 

Professor Wool shares that “there’s this pressure, and often this desire, to inhabit a normative body, a normative mind, and a normative set of intimacies that by definition [injured individuals are] excluded from because of their disabilities.” As Professor Wool points out, in many ways, the concept of masculinity itself assumes “able-bodiedness and able-mindedness.” Within the rehabilitation of US veterans, achieving heteronormative lifestyles seems to signal success, emphasizing the tension between normative ideas of masculinity and disability. “And so, one of the arguments that I make is that in this really normative context that is the US military, we see a clear example of how heteronormativity ends up becoming the opposite of disability,” explains Professor Wool. 

Professor Wool adds that the impacts of heteronormative expectations often regard intimacy. For example, she shares that one veteran she worked with is cared for by his mother who supports most of his daily activities. Though part of him is content with his life, he feels the need and desire to live alone, have a girlfriend, and children. “There’s this kind of disconnect between, on the one hand, him being quite satisfied with the way his life is, and on the other hand, him also expressing a sense that he’s missing out on something,” shares Professor Wool. “That’s an example of what I’m talking about, where his sense of himself as a complete person is undermined by expectations of heteronormativity,” she expands.

Professor Wool stresses that healthcare can emphasize heteronormative expectations. For example, primary caregivers are expected to be the individual’s partner or spouse. Yet, many rely on other intimate relationships, like parents or friends. This skewed understanding of caregiving can affect access to healthcare services. For instance, Professor Wool notes that in the US, the Veterans Administration launched the Family Caregiver Assistance Program to support caregivers, providing them with policies, resources, and even a stipend to enable them to leave their work to be full-time caregivers. Although the program’s objectives were noble, heteronormative expectations for spouses to be caregivers meant that spouses were predominantly the only ones admitted to the program. “It’s a very narrow imagery of what family looks like and it’s a very narrow imagery of what caregiving can be,” says Professor Wool. 

These expectations impede policy implementation. “One of the things that critical disability studies teaches us is that generations of disabled communities, including communities of queer, disabled people, have built up this wealth of knowledge and expertise around how to configure care over the long term, and often these lessons are not incorporated into policy,” Professor Wool continues. 

Stigmatization further inhibits progress. This is because we still don’t understand the human body outside of our understandings of gender—people are only starting to realize that a uterus isn’t always in a woman’s body. For example, Professor Wool recalls how people used to think of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) as the disease of gay men. However, this is untrue. Rather, AIDS is transmitted through physical contact and is simply more easily transmitted anally—but people failed to consider gay men aren’t the only ones to participate in anal intercourse. “We’re contributing to a particular kind of medical stigmatization of a group of people and we’re producing incorrect information about transmission. […] We could provide better and more accurate information about health and illness in this case, and we can avoid reproducing stigmatization,” stresses Professor Wool. 

One way of preventing stigmatization is to avoid focusing research on gender. “It’s great to say that trans people’s experiences of hormones over their life course are going to be different than cis-gendered people’s experiences of hormone changes over their life course. But […] we don’t need to make this about the ‘transgendered heart,’” maintains Professor Wool. She mentions a fellow researcher who focused her studies on cardiac health. Professor Wool’s colleague found that a tissue in the heart muscle responds to estrogen, noting its importance in the developing field of transgender medicine. But estrogen levels do not only impact transgendered bodies—cis-gendered women sometimes take hormone replacement therapy during menopause. As such, this research shouldn’t solely target transgender individuals—it should highlight gendered implications but focus on how fluctuations in estrogen levels impact the heart. 

Professor Wool argues that disability justice could help avoid prejudice and promote inclusivity. Disability justice is a framework that uses intersectional analyses to understand how disability is perceived as a problem. She explains that there is a difference between impairment and disability: impairment is the actual illness, like a lost limb, but disability is the result of our ableist society’s failure to accommodate for impairment. As such, the illness itself is not a problem. Rather, the issues are stigma and the lack of accommodation. She notes that although medicine doesn’t understand itself as mirroring eugenics (the inhumane practice that aims at removing people’s “undesirable characteristics”), it seeks to eliminate disability from the world, rather than accommodate for it. “And a correlate of that desire is to say that disability shouldn’t exist; disability is undesirable; disabled people are undesirable,” which is evidently wrong, explains Professor Wool. Disability justice then looks at the nature of those systemic problems, identifying their causes. This involves thinking about urban planning, policy, systemic discrimination, and even environmental sustainability. 

She adds that disability justice is an anti-capitalist movement that emphasizes how capitalism harms us. On this, Professor Wool states, “Capitalism produces an idea of productivity through which we value people as worthy or not. If you don’t measure up to those standards of productivity, then you’re understood to be unworthy as a person.” As such, Professor Wool points out that students feel pressured to come up with excuses to request extensions. She urges students to just ask for extensions, without excuses, because acknowledging that high-pressured expectations are overbearing is crucial. “When you come up with an excuse, you’re playing into the story that the conditions of life aren’t themselves reason to need a break,” she continues. Being overwhelmed, burnt out, or disabled is normal. What’s not, is society’s expectations that fail to recognize and accommodate for circumstances of life.

Features Editor (Volume 49) | —Maneka is a third year student completing a specialization in Philosophy with a minor in political science. Previously, she served as one of The Medium’s Staff Writer and Associate Features Editor. As this year’s Features Editor, Maneka hopes to raise awareness, shed light over current issues, and highlight student voices and organizations. When Maneka is not studying, writing, or working, you’ll probably find her binging on, or rather re-watching her favorite shows, listening to music, thinking about her dog, or likely taking a nap.


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