Defining a Body As ‘Worthy’

Alma Silver

It cannot be denied that 2020 has ushered in an awakening. If we look at the devastating toll of the pandemic, the economic collapse of a country unprepared for a healthcare crisis, and the cathartic outcries for racial justice in the wake of heinous murders, we can no longer content ourselves with myths and look away from who we are as a country. We need to look inward before we can move forward.

I graduated amidst a resilient and visionary community of scholars at St. Catherine University this spring, during a time of unprecedented turmoil, upheaval, and heartbreak. The words of author and activist Audre Lorde often came to mind during these challenging times. In her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” — which was among the reading assignments that we received as first-years — Lorde asks readers: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” 

My years at college guided me to realize that we cannot authentically move forward as conscientious and global citizens without breaking our silences, telling our stories, speaking our truths, and listening to the voices of all those around us. 

The process of engaging in dialogue is not simply about being physically together. It is not merely about ensuring the presence of different voices at the table. True conversation stirs something deep inside us, and leads to a new way of seeing, understanding, thinking, being, or doing. 

We cannot silence ourselves with the comfortable belief that our society cares equally for all people. As a disabled woman, I followed the news in April as the U.S. Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services opened lawsuits against states with “crisis of care” guidelines. These policies, to my horror, explicitly stated that people with significant physical and intellectual disabilities will receive lower priority access to ventilators in the event of medical shortages caused by the pandemic. 

Minnesota’s health department guidelines prohibit rationing based on judgements that some people have a lower quality of life or less “social value.” Yet it is devastating to learn that policies enacted by many state health departments grant medical professionals the authority to decide that a disabled life is less worthy than a non-disabled life. 

It is exhausting to know that within our nation’s healthcare system, which thrives off profits, people in my community are treated as burdens. 

My disabled body — a body that encompasses my holistic identity, a body I have claimed loudly and boldly as I navigate through spaces — can still be perceived by others as inferior and disposable. 

I also know that as a white woman, I am protected by privileges. Native, Latinx, Hispanic, Asian, and Black people have higher rates of hospitalization and death from the coronavirus. A devastating number of lives are not considered worthy merely because of the pigmentation on their body.

I believe the beacon of hope lies in the power we hold to break our silences, express our outrage, and share our visions for change. Hope lies in the conversations that embolden our collective spirit. Hope lies in the moments in which our silences blaze into action. 

Action = Change

  1. VOTE!  So many of the deeply rooted disparities in healthcare access and medical rationing procedures stem from our system of for-profit healthcare, which is tied to employment and private insurance.  America remains to be the only industrialized nation on the planet that does not have any form of universal healthcare.  We as citizens carry the power and the responsibility to elect officials on all levels of government who will advocate for the comprehensive healthcare system reform necessary to promote equal access to care for all citizens.  Research your local candidates’ positions on healthcare as a critical step in your voting decision.
  2. Be aware of your state’s subtle guidelines and policies that allow for discrimination against people with disabilities.  Although Minnesota may prohibit medical rationing on the basis of perceived quality of life, Statutes 177.28 authorize the Department of Labor and Industry to pay disabled workers (“performance-limited employees”) less than minimal wage if the lowered wage is “commensurate with his or her ability.”  This stands as one example within the broad array of inequities and social justice issues, including police brutality, barriers to higher education, and shortages in personal care services, that remain collectively experienced by diverse members of the disability community.  Education surrounding disability identity, history, and policies is a crucial catalyst for progressive change.
  3. Call out the everyday language that reflects the ableist assumption that people with disabilities experience a lesser quality of life.  Because of the power granted to non-disabled voices and perspectives within our society, people with disabilities continue to be pitied and labeled as “inspirations” simply for existing.  This dominant narratives flattens our complex humanity and creates a dangerous trajectory that leads to us being tokenized and perceived as inherently less than non-disabled people.  We need to stop arbitrarily raising disabled people on pedestals and instead focus on dismantling the systemic barriers that create divides in the first place.

Alma Silver (she/her) is a contributing writer to Minnesota Women’s Press and a recent graduate of St. Catherine University.
1 reply
  1. Tim King
    Tim King says:

    What a great essay Alma. Thanks for bringing Audre Lorde’s essay to my attention. I look forward to reading “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”

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