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Reading: Assemblage Theory and Its Potentialities for Dis/ability Research in the Global South


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Assemblage Theory and Its Potentialities for Dis/ability Research in the Global South


Carlos Araneda-Urrutia,

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, CL
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Marta Infante

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, CL
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In this article, we present some potentialities of researching dis/ability in the global South from a new materialist and posthuman approach. We recognize that Southern disabled bodies are constituted in much more complex ways than those represented by globalized models of disability. Deleuze and Guattari’s assemblage theory can be a powerful tool to both demodel dis/ability and map the geopolitical and biosocial forces that produce it. With this theory, we map the production of dis/ability in neoliberal Chile, connecting the 2019 Chilean protests, the sex education policies for children and youth with disabilities, and the neocolonial intensities of neoliberal-ableism. Through this analysis, we show how discursive-material practices of ablement and disablement are legitimized as civilizing technologies by global discourses of inclusion and economic productivity. The return to ontological questions is presented as an opportunity for Disability Studies in the global South to move towards decolonization.
How to Cite: Araneda-Urrutia, C. and Infante, M., 2020. Assemblage Theory and Its Potentialities for Dis/ability Research in the Global South. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 22(1), pp.340–350. DOI:
  Published on 19 Nov 2020
 Accepted on 30 Oct 2020            Submitted on 30 Dec 2019


During the last decade, voices that call for the decolonization and rethinking of Disability Studies in the global South have started to emerge (for example, Grech 2012; Hollingsworth 2013; Meekosha 2011; Watermeter, McKenzie & Swartz 2019). One of the key assumptions behind this trend is that traditional ways of thinking of disability, generally created by North-based academia and supranational organizations, neocolonize Southern intellectual projects. From this perspective, medical and social models have become the only legitimate ontological and epistemological substrates for researching disability, forcing Southern researchers to adopt one of them so that their conclusions gain trustworthiness. At the same time, rethinking the conditions that render the specific events in which disability is produced seems to have been normalized as an excessive and even unthinkable possibility. For us, any intellectual project aimed at decolonizing Disability Studies has to begin by abandoning the belief that Northern models of disability are mandatory and inescapable. We advocate mapping how power relations intertwine biosocial and geopolitical realms and make disability a specific, contingent, and unmodelable event. This cartographic endeavor supposes that modeling cannot precede inquiry, because rigid epistemological frameworks like conventional models of disability create their own essentializing micropolitics: an irresistible desire for universalization. On the contrary, avoiding top-down modeling would provide the opportunity to theorize the profoundly diverse processes through which dis/abled bodies are imagined, materialized, and politically controlled. We call this strategy demodeling.

In this article, we propose demodeling as a collection of theoretical, methodological, and political gestures aimed at guaranteeing new ways of problematization of the ontological questions that hegemonic models of disability take for granted. The demodeling approach assumes that the uncritical use of global models of disability neocolonizes Southern bodies, universalizing representations that entrap them as dehistoricized, uncivilized, and defective (Grech 2015). Such entrapment would promote not only the vanishing of historical and geopolitical forces as research objects but also the narrowing of opportunities to think of non-normative bodies differently. Demodeling expresses an attitude of permanent suspicion regarding the modes in which dis/ability is semiotically and materially constituted, as a political problem, research object, biosocial event, and possible way of inhabiting the world. It implies a radical openness to uncertainty and fluidity, assuming dis/ability as a biosocial assemblage that emerges contingently (Feely 2016; Goodley 2014). It does not suppose the creation of new, culturally situated models of disability, authorized only for Southern research. On the contrary, demodeling postulates that emergent complexity and elusiveness are inexhaustible properties of (Southern) disabled bodies, making models dangerous essentializations. Instead of starting from models, we advocate for retheorizing dis/ability without returning to them.

In order to illustrate how demodeling can be used in disability research, we work from a new materialist ontology, specifically assemblage theory (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). We use a set of apparently disconnected events in which disabled bodies are produced in contemporary Chile, a context that intertwines recent memory about Pinochet’s military dictatorship, the violent imposition of neoliberal social reforms, and a present of political crisis. Our cartography (Braidotti 2019) begins with the militarization of the political response to the 2019 Chilean protests and its role in the maiming of dozens of protesters by police forces. Then, we contextualize the modes of political representation of disability in neoliberal Chile. Next, we delve into demodeling and how assemblage theory can be useful in the task of decolonizing disability research in the global South. We explore an example of inclusive sex education, its civilizing tendencies, and the role of desire commodification in the production of both disability and able-bodiedness. Finally, we retell how neoliberal-ableism works on people with disabilities, the rhizomatic potential of non-normative corporalities, and the possibilities opened by demodeling as a political, philosophical, and methodological step towards a decolonized disability research in Southern contexts.

Dis/entangling Disability in Neoliberal Chile

The degree of civil unrest witnessed at the beginning of the ‘Chile Awoke’ social movement of 2019 had not been felt since Chile’s return to democratic rule in March 1990. What initiated as a protest towards a public transportation fare hike evolved into widespread acts of civil disobedience, street fights, looting, and arson. The Chilean government’s initial response was the establishment of a constitutional state of emergency as well as the use of military troops in addition to police forces. According to both Human Rights Watch and the United Nations, during both the period of militarization and after the total restoration of civil rights, extensive human rights violations occurred. With regard to state violence, during the first month of protests, reports estimate 20 people had lost their lives, thousands were injured, dozens suffered torture and rape, and more than 200 people suffered ocular injuries leading to either partial or total vision loss (NIHR 2019). The use of concepts such as ‘epidemic’ and ‘health emergency’ was activated in Chilean and international media (for example, McDonald 2019) to represent the unusual pattern of injuries among protesters. Paradoxically, although those cases generated significant public attention, the concept of disability was chronically absent in the media coverage and earlier academic analysis of the crisis.

The latter omission should not come as a surprise. In Chile, public appearance of people with disabilities is limited to telethons aimed at raising funds to finance the construction and running of private rehabilitation centers for children with physical disabilities. Created in 1978, the televised fund-raiser Teletón Chile has played a crucial role in legitimizing a kind of political response to disability that normalizes the privatization of rehabilitation services, the celebration of autonomy and self-improvement, and corporate greed (Ferrante 2017). In fact, the first telethon coincided with the most intense period of neoliberal reforms during Chilean dictatorship, characterized by the rapid liberalization, privatization, and deregulation of the economy. Likewise, the cultural institutionalization of telethons seems to have served to crystallize the idea that the private sector can take more efficient responsibility of public tasks than the State itself (Humeres 2019), a key narrative for presenting the neoliberal era as better than the previous period of planned economy. Even more, this idea appears to have coalesced with the narrative of the ‘Chilean economic miracle’ created by Pinochet’s dictatorship to depict the early outcomes of the new neoliberal economic model (Antebi and Jörgensen 2016). The metaphor of the ‘miracle’ has served to connect and identify the idea of disabled children’s self-improvement with the entrepreneurial mindset needed to transform the Chilean economy and overcome the crisis provoked by its reshaping. The socially inscribed message is that disability and the misery of being disabled can be overcome through practices of individualized charity and shared pity.

The essentializing cultural processes operating on the lives of people with disabilities co-occurs with the fast legislative assimilation of ideals and obligations imposed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). In 2010, Chile promulgated the Equal Opportunities and Social Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities Act (MoSD 2010). This law adheres to the transnational mandate set out by UNCRPD and, as such, fixes its core purpose on guaranteeing the human rights of any person labeled as disabled. Although this law has pushed for a socially inclusive agenda directed towards promoting educational, labor, and economic participation, the regulatory function it depicts is different. Regarding the law’s regulatory interest, it is mainly manifested through the standardization of disability certification procedures and a call for policies to prevent the appearance of disabilities within the general population. While the spirit of the aforementioned law is the promotion and protection of human rights, practical access to them depends on a complex network of practices of pathologization and medicalization of disability. The orientation imposed by this legislative piece requires people with disabilities to first recognize themselves as such, and then to expose their bodies to biomedical scrutiny and ‘fixing’. It is only by following the previously laid out path that people with disabilities can be entitled to receive the austere financial benefits set forth by law.

In a 2016 report, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities presented to the Chilean government a set of observations and recommendations. Among the observations, the report shows an intense persistence of the medical model as the hegemonic scientific rationality ordering Chilean disability policies, as well as an entrenched culture of assistance concerning the relationship between the State and their disabled citizens (UNCRPD 2016). Regarding the recommendations, the report asks for a reorientation of political responses to give recognition to existing social barriers experienced by people with disabilities. However, the report does not mention or question the underlying conditions that make both biomedical representations and assistance culture seem fair. The absence of such political problematization, which could provide insights and thusly offer strategies to engage with structural causes of the exclusion experienced by disabled people, is transversal to the Chilean policy landscape. As an example, within the context of Chile’s 2019 uprising and social unrest, the National Disability Service published a statement regarding the cases of eye trauma: ‘although, as a service, we are available to provide support to the people who acquire a visual disability, this will be a later step, because the person must first be recognized as a person with a disability’ (NDS 2019). The apparent impossibility of escaping the medical model of disability is evident in the Chilean State’s inability to reason eye injuries as something different than a public health problem.

The complexity of the processes in which disability is produced in the global South is usually made invisible in its scientific problematization and political translation to policy and action. We believe that, in part, this problem is rooted in limitations imposed by the neocolonization of Disability Studies in the global South by explanatory models of disability born in Northern socio-political contexts, which by ‘nature’ are different and are applied indiscriminately to imagine and regulate Southern spaces. We see in the decolonial approach an opportunity to rethink disability; however, we also consider that the conflict that fuels the intellectual crisis of Disability Studies needs a fast withdrawal that, avoiding essentialisms, allows the ontological to thrive as a valid research interest. In this sense, we believe that the effects of neocolonization by hegemonic models of disability cannot be overcome only through an epistemological struggle. On the contrary, for us, it is imperative to revive questions that the North answered before the South was even aware of its unique existence, questions that can open new understandings about the material and semiotic emergence of dis/ability and the civilizing forces involved in its framing. In the next section of this article, we present our reflections concerning modeling and its limitations, as well as a theoretical/methodological proposal to demodel disability research, based on the Deleuzoguattarian theory of assemblages, designed to overcome the contemporary configuration of Disability Studies in the global South and open it to new intellectual projects.

Demodeling and Rethinking Dis/ability with New Materialist Assemblage Theory

Both the universalization of norms of biological functioning and the sedimentation of hegemonic rationalities to think embodied difference seem to have narrowed the spaces in which disability can be lived and politically problematized (Goodley 2014). Despite the latter, the becomings of those lives are not homogeneous. The intensity of scientific knowledge and its taxonomical strategies co-occurs with other disparate forces, expressing radically complex geopolitical and biosocial dynamics. The global South itself has been rendered by historical and geopolitical forces almost nonexistent in the developed North, which are ignored by current globalized models of disability (Grech 2015; Meekosha 2011). Neo/colonial violence, cultural imperialism, settler-colonialism, economic dependence, extractivist capitalism, or neoliberal deregulation and destatization are geopolitical forces inscribed into Southern bodies (Chen 2015; Connell 2011; Erevelles 2011; Jaffee 2016; Puar 2017), potentially differentiating them from Northern ones into unexpected modes of embodiment and living. When that complexity is centralized as an open ontological question, the shortcomings of hegemonic models of disability become more evident, exposing how limited their universalizing epistemologies—and the kind of research and policymaking that they influence—can be. However, the lives of people with disabilities remain known through concepts and transnational policies created mainly by Northern intellectuals and North-based supranational organizations. In our view, this entrapment is a continuation of neo/colonial violence.

We think that any attempt to decolonize Disability Studies in the global South should begin with a radical demodeling of research. We propose demodeling as a theoretical, methodological, and political approach to disability research, aimed at destabilizing the ontological certainties that hegemonic models of disability make them look inescapable. This strategy comprises three gestures. First, it implies the abandonment of the hegemonic models of disability as incontrovertible and mandatory frameworks for research, recognizing them instead as both framing and intervening forces. Second, demodeling assumes that non-normative bodies cannot be simplified to discrete and static entities, either to a defective, uncivilized, and suffering biological body or to a tragic mismatch between impairment and socio-material environment. Third, it acknowledges that bodies are fluid and ephemeral entities emerging contingently amid complex and changing semiotic-material arrangements. These three moves towards demodeling are directed at avoiding not only the colonizing power of models but also the capabilities of modeling to simplify and universalize conclusions about how disability is lived and must be faced politically. Instead of considering models as static and mandatory starting points for researching dis/ability, we advocate for a radical openness to ontological uncertainty, preferring multiplicity, heterogeneity, and instability. The desired effect of this strategy is to subject the essentializing power of modeling and its representations to scrutiny. Demodeling seeks to prevent that disability research can set the impaired body or the oppressive society as their unequivocal and exclusive objects of study, debilitating its power to frame with precision their eventual ontological status.

We propose two precautionary premises in order to strengthen demodeling. First, a philosophical rethinking of dis/ability should not end in a renewed standard model to depict and explain it. The rigid representational grids legitimized by hegemonic models of disability have already shown their essentializing power, and the reiteration of this trend may lead to a new phase of stagnation of Disability Studies. For instance, the medical model problematizes disability as a collection of biological abnormalities, which must be fixed (Davis 2013). Its preference for the biologization of difference opens bodies to pathologization, segregation, and corrective medicalization (Goodley 2014). Similarly, social models explain disability as the result of a quasi-accidental disagreement between functional impairments and socio-material barriers, representing the biological as neutral and natural and depoliticizing material production of impairments (Grech 2012; Hughes and Paterson 1997). Although both models differ in their political assessment of the supposed correlation between disability and suffering, they agree in their interpretation of bodies as politically neutral. For both models, the ‘abnormality’ carried by non-normative bodies is a given truth. Contrarily, we believe that decentering the correlation between abnormality, suffering, and labeling is crucial to sustaining demodeling as a permanently incomplete process, thereby preventing the sedimentation of a renewed essentializing model of disability.

The second precaution is related to the choice of the theoretical approach that will accompany disability research. Demodeling and decolonization of Disability Studies have to involve the rethinking of disabled bodies and the conditions of their discursive-material production. In this sense, we recognize programmatic coincidences with the posthumanist and new materialist approach of Critical Dis/ability Studies (see Goodley et al. 2019). From this intellectual project, we embrace two fundamental premises. First is the assumption that the Eurocentric humanist model of the human is at the base of the process of invention and legitimization of the divide between able-bodied and disabled bodies (Roets and Braidotti 2012). Such representation would be crystallized as the golden standard to which we should all aspire and address: ‘the unitary, rational, independent, dislocated, solitary, able-bodied human subject’ (Goodley, Lawthom & Runswick-Cole 2014: 344), which is a contingent and unstable cultural invention with semiotic and material consequences (Goodley, Liddiard & Runswick-Cole 2018). Second is the recognition of disability as an unstable category, emerging amid changing semiotic and material conditions. Depicting disability as an invented category, as well as a material reality, invites us to abandon both the idea of disability as only a natural, biological phenomenon or a mere social construction (Feely 2016). Both enunciation and materialization of Southern disabled bodies co-occur in the same interstitial space in which imperialism, neo/colonialism, neoliberal capitalism, and the agency of the material world intensify. Process and product coincide, making disability, disabled lives, and the intervening forces that render them at the biosocial, historical, and geopolitical level indistinguishable (Goodley and Roets 2008). The political consequence of this premise is that people with disabilities are not static research objects, quietly waiting to be revealed, explained, modeled, and freed from oppression through scientific knowledge.

Therefore, demodeling does not offer new models but rather opportunities to research differently the multiple configurations of what we understand/know by disability. It does not seek to oppose a bottom-up strategy of inquiry to models of disability, resisting the universalist micropolitics of models with a minority counterforce. Demodeling does not mean starting ‘from the bottom’ or ‘from the local’ to build new and better models. What we propose is that there are no good reasons to choose a specific starting point over other potentials because, ontologically, the emergence and configuration of disability depends on specific biosocial and geopolitical events. Demodeling the research involves transferring the interest of the research towards how these non-normative corporalities are known and materially actualized through non-local and much more complex processes than a model can account for. Those factors can be as ‘extensive’ and apparently immaterial as civilizing colonialism or ableist neoliberalism or as ‘intensive’ and apparently material as a metabolic pathway or an inclusive classroom. Then, in practical terms, demodeling offers opportunities to inquire less prejudicially into the ontogenesis of disabled bodies, allowing to listen carefully to what the conditions of an event say about its own specific configuration. While, at a theoretical level, it implies restoring the idea that the distinction between the natural and the cultural in the discussion about disability is an arbitrary fragmentation that is, fundamentally, a consequence of the models’ distinction mechanics.

The ontological conundrum exposed by the proposed demodeling of disability shows the need to create theoretical and methodological alternatives for research. If we accept that entangled forces are rendering the expression of lives of people with disabilities, then it is crucial to account for the micropolitical structure of the ‘immediate now’ in which disability emerges. Braidotti (2019) presents new materialist cartography as an alternative approach to fulfill that necessity and defines it as ‘a theoretically-based and politically-informed account of the present that aims at tracking the production of knowledge and subjectivity and to expose power both as entrapment (potestas) and as empowerment (potentia)’ (Braidotti 2019: 33). Applied to Disability Studies in the global South, doing cartographic work implies the interruption and destabilization of master narratives that recount stories about people with disabilities (Roets and Braidotti 2012). Also, it entails the problematization of the present (and futures) in which bodies are made real. Thereby, while recognizing the biopower relations that sediment bodies and subjectivities in regimes of compulsory able-bodiedness (McRuer 2006), neoliberal inclusionism (Mitchell and Snyder 2015), neocolonial body politics (Grech 2015), or ideological ableism (Campbell 2019), it is possible to account for the invention of different futures. Mapping involves retelling stories about disability, ability, human potential, abledment, or enhancement that restrict the creative deployment of Southern bodies and, at the same time, authorize such new stories to connect and expand, vitalizing their capability to reinvent the expressive force of disabled bodies.

We propose that the theory of assemblages (Deleuze and Guattari 1987; Nail 2017) can be an adequate methodological tool to grant theoretical precision to cartographic work. An assemblage is a set or network of highly intertwined, non-hierarchical, and transhistorical discursive-material relations of power that desire and produce a specific situation in the present (Buchanan 2017). Assemblages are constituted by a heterogeneous constellation of components, such as ideas, representations, spaces, bodies, and things, which do not pre-exist to the intensities that render and materialize them (Youdell and McGimpsey 2015). Additionally, the material and immaterial components created by the assemblage can affect and be affected (Fox and Alldred 2018), displacing, merging, and differentiating themselves simultaneously (Feely 2016). This tendency towards dynamic changes of the relational components of assemblages opens them to destabilization and reinvention. Understanding social processes as the productive result of the functioning of assemblages implies recognizing that their material and semiotic components have agential capacities, a sort of vitalist capacity to transform the configuration of the present as well as of the future. That claim supposes that escape from signifying categories is not only possible but also a common characteristic to the composition of the actual. The concept of assemblage created by Deleuze and Guattari (1987) foregrounds multiplicity, heterogeneity, connectivity, mutability, and movement, making the exercise of mapping a radically vitalistic act of worlding, one that spotlights how subjectivities, affective technologies, regimes of governmentality, or potential lines of flight are invented in the present and how they could be reinvented in the future (Martin and Kamberelis 2013).

The exercise of mapping with assemblage theory the modes of production of dis/ability in the context of the global South requires certain clarifications. First, as Buchanan states, the question that guides research with assemblages always should be ‘given a specific situation, what kind of assemblage would be required to produce it?’ (2017: 473). If, for example, the cartographic question is related to the contingency in which disability is created within the global South, then the analysis has to be engaged through the exploration and theorization of the material and immaterial intensities involved both in its singular composition and in its political legitimacy. Second, political territories formed by assemblages are not fixed; rather, they are always generating co-occurrent spaces of extreme slowness—so much so that they may seem immutable—and sudden change and recapture—expressing themselves as ephemeral deterritorializations and reterritorializations (Feely 2017). It is because of the latter that forces such as colonialism can continue to engage in the production of disability, even if formally decolonization has been declared or components as new as neoliberal austerity or gene-editing technologies are suddenly materialized in the contemporary dis/ability assemblages. Finally, the components of an assemblage are fully agential (Fox and Alldred 2018). The crucial implication of recognizing animation in relational assemblages is hugely relevant: people with disabilities do things out of the expected. They are not inert bodies, lacking initiative, but they are always expressing the creative capabilities of the assemblage in which they are materialized and translating them in new ways of navigating the world.

In the next section of this paper, we present an example of the use of the cartographic approach within disability research, mapping two cases in which educational policies and neoliberal-able political problematizations assemble dis/ability and children and youth sexuality in Chile. Following Goodley (2014), we acknowledge that the expansion of neoliberalism as the dominant rationality for the deregulation of the economy and the debasing of state-sponsored welfare systems uses ableism as one of its preferred technologies for governing and orientating human populations. Neoliberal-ableism, as resultant force, seems to capture societies and normalize a specific kind of subjectivity as desirable, one represented by a ‘complete, civilized, responsible, able, normative, self-serving individual’ (Goodley 2014: 37), endowed with the ability for ‘making and repairing itself’ (Goodley 2014: 30). At the educational level, neoliberal-ableism would intensify the divide between able-bodied and disabled bodies, pushing schools to absorb a wide range of assessment tools to identify children who do not meet the standards for becoming a neoliberal, abled citizen. Furthermore, the effort put forth by schools to produce quantifiable spectra of able-bodiedness and to situate students into them not only would direct at inventing a taxonomy of children’s learning or social skills, but also at normalizing (neoliberal) ability as a natural, individual, and civilizable human trait. We mobilize neoliberal-ableism as a mapping tool, weaving the discursive-material production of children and youth with disabilities in the neoliberalized and neocolonized Chilean pedagogical spaces. The neoliberal-ableist assemblage that authorizes their stories materializes them first as uncivilized, feral bodies, and then as marketable self-regulated ones, sedimenting simultaneously corrective sex education and self-abledment.

Civilizing Disability in Neoliberal-able Times

During the last three decades, disability has been one of the most problematized identity markers in Chilean educational policies. There are two main components of these policies: School Integration Programs (SIP) (MoE 2009) and curriculum orientations for students with special educational needs (MoE 2015). SIP are educational programs intended to include students with disabilities—re-categorized as students with special educational needs—into regular schools. These programs are bestowed with a detection and diagnosis system for special educational needs. The expected outcomes of the aforementioned system are three: the categorization of students’ needs as being permanent or transitory, the design of an allegedly more appropriate educational correction regime, and the organization of a public financing scheme (Peña 2013). Moreover, educational policies also require standard criteria when adapting the national curriculum to students’ specific educational needs. Congruently with the former, policies promote the use of Universal Design for Learning as a strategy for approaching diversity within classrooms. Furthermore, they establish criteria for facilitating access to the compulsory curriculum and thusly allow the adaptation or elimination of learning goals. Despite the inclusive orientation that the Chilean education policy has recently undertaken, policies related to disability continue to represent students with special educational needs as deficient subjects. For these subjects, if their apparent abnormality is to be known and regulated, it must first be medically exposed and explained (Apablaza 2015; Infante and Matus 2009).

One of the fields that best expresses the idea that children and young people with disabilities need a special curricular regime is sex education. Enclosed by Chilean health policies, sex education is regulated by the Information, Guidance, and Benefits for Fertility Regulation Law (MoH 2010). According to this document, everyone has the right to receive education concerning ‘fertility regulation methods and, especially, to prevent teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and sexual violence and its consequences’ (MoH 2010: 1). At the school level, this topic is included in the Chilean mandatory curriculum through transversal learning objectives for promoting self-care practices, and by standards for educational measurement. Students’ attitudes towards sexual life, their hygiene practices, and their use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs are considered indicators of educational quality. From this perspective, sexuality is mostly restricted to its manifestation as a public health problem, problematizing sexual practices as risk behaviors or reproductive work. This approach towards sex education is intensified when it comes to students with intellectual disabilities, for whom, it is assumed, precautions must be taken against the potential risk embodied in the active exercise of their sexuality.

In 2006, the Chilean Ministry of Education published the first study aimed at identifying the educational needs of students with learning disabilities regarding sexuality, affectivity, and gender. The study pointed out that, within Chilean educational communities, ‘there are certain images that have been installed with great force and that have been built on the presumption that this aspect of their development does not exist or is inhibited due to the lack of discernment that is associated with intellectual disability’ (MoE 2006: 31). Accordingly, this report emphasizes that the most widespread representation, concerning the sexuality of people with learning disabilities, is that of asexual corporalities, whose ‘cognitive defects’ can be more properly codified and reasoned as innocence. The reinforcement of these disablist and ableist common senses in schools evinces that the risk codified in sexual behaviors can also be expanded to a conception of disabled bodies as lacking agency (Chappell 2019). Therefore, while the Chilean government seems to recognize the sexual and reproductive rights of children with disabilities, it also suggests that because of students’ unique biology they would need a different type of sex education. The former ideas are clearly expressed by the official document titled Sex Education of Children and Young People with Intellectual Disability (MoE 2007). It indicates that people with learning disabilities tend to be more uninhibited in the way of initiating and carrying out the exploration of their bodies and that ‘the codes with which they face their erotic or love experience occur more from the naturalness of the episodes, than from categories that qualify them as good or bad behaviors’ (MoE 2007: 24). Therefore, the tendency towards spontaneity in sexual behavior is opposed to the moralized codification of civilized sex to which the Chilean sex education aspires.

Sexed bodies of children and youth with learning disabilities are being assembled in the midst of multiple intensities, human and non-human. Its materialization occurs in a regime of neoliberal compulsory able-bodiedness (Mitchell and Snyder 2015), which establishes the orientation that the educational process should take, directing its development towards specific and desirable ways of living the able-bodiedness, rationality, and heteronormativity. Neoliberal-ableism supposes a body that, having overcome the wild spontaneity of its sexual instincts, regulates itself and, henceforth, limits the personal and social impact of its ‘feral sexuality’. The manifestation of this self-regulation would result in the effective prevention of teenage pregnancy, body diseases, and sexual violence. Thusly, the potential success of a sex education policy is contingent on the modulation between two opposing forces: the allegedly uncivilized biology of students with learning disabilities and the apparent civilizing strength of the policy text. The efficiency of this modulation would be expressed as the cognitive and moral abledment of those students and, thusly, the recovery of rationality as a reliable democratic resource (Simplican 2015). The idea of moral education as a civilizing enterprise has strong footings in the colonial history of the global South (Grech 2015). Furthermore, it multiplies the effect of traditional dis/ableism of neoliberal inclusionism. Within the former context, the Southern intellectually disabled body must be doubly civilized; firstly because of its racialized primordial savagery, and then because it is a risk to public health and democratic stability.

The neoliberal biopolitical regulation of Southern disabled bodies and their simultaneous neo/colonization, due to pathological rationalities of body difference, is also imbricated with non-human materialities. The demand-side financing system that creates and legitimizes Chilean inclusive education has a crucial role in the materialization of segregated pedagogical spaces (Apablaza 2015). Chilean legislation recognizes that inclusive education practices can occur both inside and outside regular classrooms and that the depth of the students’ special educational needs will be the defining factor to design their learning trajectories (Infante 2010). Students with learning disabilities who manage to enter inclusive programs are provided with a reserved space where they receive specialized educational attention. Aforementioned spaces are labeled ‘resource classrooms’, which are aimed at ‘containing the implementation, accessories and teaching materials, or others, necessary to meet the individual or small group support requirements of the different students with special educational needs’ (MoE 2013: 13). What can be materialized within these spaces is dramatically limited by the particular financing scheme to which they must adhere to, their emphasis on hiring specialized professionals who hail from biomedical specialties, and the accountability structure with which spending is monitored (Apablaza 2015). The segregated space within the regular school acts, then, as material containment to the free transit of disabled bodies marked as, simultaneously, dangerous and at risk, while the educational materialities financed to support their training are exposed as civilizing technologies.

The dis/ability assemblage that conditions and legitimizes the existence of an allegedly inclusive sex education curriculum in regular schools materializes bodies with the capacity to affect schools and reorganizes their civilizing task. Congruently, bodies are represented as lacking self-control and amoral; thus, there is a newfound need to invent spaces that can adequately contain, design pedagogical technologies that facilitate segregation, and empower human actors capable of detecting, categorizing, and correcting disabled individuals’ sexual and affective behaviors. This dis/ability assemblage fantasizes and actualizes an inclusive school that desires civilization, rationality, homogeneity, and normalcy as substrates to carry out its traditional educational task (Allan 2010). This inclusive mission is best represented as a political project for citizenship production, oriented towards the normalization of neoliberal entrepreneurship, precarious working conditions, and compulsory self-regulation (Veiga-Neto and Lopes 2012). The constrained territory that this neoliberal assemblage produces not only represents people with learning disabilities as internal enemies of its civilizing dynamics, but also legitimizes the idea that it is impossible to know their bodies as something other than biological matter, waiting to be codified as risky (Puar 2009). However, the stability of this territory can be interrupted if the intensities entangled and inscribed in the bodies of people with disabilities change, deterritorializing them beyond the normalizing desire of neoliberal inclusive education.

A set of different political forces seems to be established in the document titled Sexuality and Inclusion of People with Disabilities (Besoaín et al. 2018). The aforementioned document was created jointly by the Chilean National Disability Service, NDS, and by professionals ascribed to the University of Chile. It was drafted for health and rehabilitation professionals and, being aligned with the UNCRPD guidelines, uses a human rights approach to instruct on critical concepts about gender, sexuality, affectivity, and sexual health of people with disabilities. One key element of this document is its recognition of the right that people with disabilities have of enjoying body pleasures, advocating practices of autoerotism, sexting, sexual assistance, and sex toys usage. The content of this government guide contrasts dramatically with the recommendations set out for education professionals. The dis/ability assemblage that legitimizes the existence of this document incorporates a different approach to human sexuality. Health risk loses its role as a central factor of political problematization, while the importance of pleasure and affectivity is enhanced. Similarly, materialities play a significant role in this guideline, returning genitality and pleasure to the political discussion about disability. In addition, they recreate already existent non-human materialities for people without disabilities through the power they express in their relationship with disabled bodies. Unlike schools, hospitals and rehabilitation spaces configured through this document are reinvented as places for body experimentation.

The production of these new experimentation spaces evinces how dis/ability assemblages can be unstable and open to new connections. Likewise, they reveal how dis/ability assemblages can deterritorialize the entrapments in which people with disabilities are defined as subjects that must be fixed. However, these displacements also open connections with forces that can reterritorialize the lives of people with disabilities in new configurations of injustice or inequality. An example of the latter would be the composition of the Chilean digital medium Inclusex (2018), which was created by medical professionals from the same university involved in the NDS sexuality and disability guidelines. Inclusex’s webpage announces the existence of an international market for sex toys and gives as an example the book titled ‘Silla Sutra’, which can be loosely translated from Spanish as a ‘Kama Sutra for wheelchair users’. It provides recommendations for improving sexual practices and is sold by the Mexican company Aktiva. On its homepage, Aktiva states that its mission towards disabled people is ‘to give alternative solutions to them, improve their life project, leaving aside disability, becoming active, productive and consuming people within society’ (Aktiva 2019). Their mission not only exposes the opportunity for new market openings, those targeted at people with disabilities, but also the affective economy that seeks to reposition disabled people within a normative framework that reifies autonomy and able-bodiedness as the only alternatives to become a productive individual (Titchkosky 2003). Neoliberal affections reterritorialize disabled bodies from an assemblage that wants sexual experimentation to one that desires consumerism and capital creation.

Concluding Discussion

In this article, we have emphasized the need for demodeling and rethinking dis/ability to decolonize Disability Studies in the global South. Assisted by assemblage theory, the demodeling process that we propose leads to two provocations for Disability Studies. First, Southern disabled bodies cannot be adequately represented and explained through Eurocentric models of disability. They are not the final and undisputable result of a set of biomedical diagnoses or unspecific sociocultural hostility. On the contrary, those representations are only the expression of the essentializing properties of modeling itself. By demodeling research, the epistemological artifacts imposed by hegemonic models of disability lose strength and resolution, leaving dis/ability and disabled bodies opened to new ways of theorization. Second, by theorizing Southern disabled bodies with assemblage theory, it becomes more evident that their materialization is contingent. It depends on specific conditions that coalesce in an eventual natureculture substrate in which both discursive and material forces are inextricable. Southern (disabled) bodies can be harshly entrapped by biopedagogical processes of neoliberal-ableist civilization and, simultaneously, escape from them to configure themselves in a way other than desirable. It is not the result of oppression or resistance as two immiscible processes but the reflection of one single neo/colonizing modulation mechanism.

Demodeling through assemblage theory shows that a better inquiry object concerning Disability Studies in the global South—and even Disability Studies in general—is the set of conditions that modulate the non-normative bodies’ expression. Mapping the forces that actualize the contingency in which dis/ability is simultaneously inscribed and unfolded becomes a powerful strategy to problematize the immediate now in which disability is invented and lived. Through cartographic work, we can identify and describe the material-semiotic continuum in which dissimilar forces converge. However, this methodological practice does not produce a fixed image of a seemingly stable present. Rather, it forces us to explore the material and discursive displacements inside these dis/ability assemblages, the dynamics of social transformation and resistance in which they are involved, and the consequences of the unstable equilibria of the territories they form. The conclusion of this analytic process implies the discovery of heterogeneous social formations that produce and legitimize the conditions of existence of bodies, materializing them and reinventing them in unpredictable trajectories. In this way, the seemingly passive neocolonized disabled corporalities described by Grech (2015) become vital relational networks that can escape categorization, express themselves otherwise, and transform into something else.

The production of both disabled bodies by political violence and abled bodies by inclusive sex education exposes the material power of neoliberal capture technologies. The totalitarian intensities of neoliberal-ableism operate through protesters and students, recruiting streets and classrooms and transforming them into biopedagogical sites designed for compulsory civilization. On the one hand, civil unrest is controlled by force, making maiming an institutionalized strategy to govern ‘rebellious’ populations and marking them for debilitation through material practices of disablement (Puar 2017). On the other, feral sexualities are regulated by educational means, making inclusive practices a legitimate political approach to frame desire and pleasure into a narrowed intimate citizenship, mostly directed at consolidating individual choosing subjects (Richardson 2017). Maiming and schooling are secreted by neoliberal metabolism as a fully integrated machine that reterritorializes feral insurgencies. From this approach, the material production of dis/ability can be described as a political contingency in which neoliberal capitalism seeks to generate bodies entitled with the specific ability to embrace and perform neoliberal normativity, securing its own continuation. Stray bullets, tear gas canisters, underfunded rehabilitation services, corrective sex education, and the sex toy market are assembled by neoliberal-ableism as a material flow that pushes bodies into self-control and civilization. Within the global South, dis/ability is not only a matter of diagnosis or barriers but also the material result of vibrant assemblages in which civilizational control and emancipation are made antagonistic possibilities.

However, feral insurgencies can fly too. Mapping with assemblage theory allowed us to expose dis/ability production as an ‘arms race’ between the technologies of capture developed by neoliberal-ableism and the stealthy rhizomatic capabilities of non-normative bodies. Although commodification of the specific individual needs of disabled people is an evidence of neoliberal capture, the legitimation of desire and pleasure has resulted from unexpected new coalitions, which defy conventional thinking about people with disabilities’ sexual lives. Similarly, institutionalized maiming has not wholly silenced anti-neoliberal action in Chile. The bandaged eye and the action of covering one eye with the hand were transformed into symbols of resistance by protesters, and new civic coalitions emerged to provide free rehabilitation services, on-site medical attention during protests, and community spaces for a more politicized awareness on visual impairment and disability. As important as the latter, when disability becomes visible by neoliberal-able intensities, difference is unhidden and made existent, endowing bodies with the ability to move away from narrow framings and conventions. This conceptualization of semiotic-material production of dis/ability as both entrapment and unexpected potentiation suggests that disabled bodies can deterritorialize themselves because they are agentive entities. To turn towards demodeling, relationality, and assembling, in our opinion, leads to a more provocative and generative approach to dis/ability research, putting Disability Studies in the global South on a potential path towards decolonization.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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