The Boiling Point: Disability in The Handmaid’s Tale

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Warning: spoilers for the book and first three episodes beyond this point!

After the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale aired on Hulu, folks were rightfully horrified by the scene where June (later known as Offred) and her fellow women coworkers were fired; the women in that fictional world also lost access to their bank accounts and credit cards, ushering in the Republic of Gilead, the authoritative regime that took over the country. While this scene was chilling, it didn’t impact or disturb me as much as intended. Why? Because this dystopian fiction is a reality for many disabled people, especially those who are multiply marginalized – like queer and trans disabled women of color. As a disabled latina, I’ve already lived through, and continue to live through, that scene in the show. Let me break down what I mean.

Disabled individuals receiving Medicaid and SSI for life-saving services are only allowed to have $2,000 to $4,000 at any given time, depending on where you live; and SSI/Medicaid only includes those who successfully navigated the system with access to a doctor and formal documentation. If we can work, our Medicaid is at risk – the Medicaid that gives us the help we need to get out of bed in the morning. Some states have work-incentive programs like NJ’s WorkAbility, but our salaries are capped; if we make over the limit, we can lose our Medicaid. If you get married, your spouse’s salary counts toward your income – so marriage equality is beyond our reach. Without family or loved ones able to step in as caretakers, many disabled people are institutionalized against their will, with little hope of getting out alive. These truths are not historical anecdotes or stories conjured up by a talented, fantastical writer – these injustices are happening now, in the United States and other countries.

A row of women looking off into the distance at the boss speaking. They are in casual office attire in an office building
A capture from the show, when Roger (their boss) lets the women in the office know they’re fired.

But there are changes happening now, too – changes that aim to right the wrongs. With the introduction of ABLE accounts, disabled people can open a tax-free savings account that can hold up to $500,000; this is touted by politicians as a significant step toward equality, but as with most things related to disability and government, there are caveats. To open an ABLE account, your disability must have developed before the age of 26; this rule excludes anyone disabled via injury or diagnosed later in life. You can only use money in the account for “Qualified Disability Expenses,” like doctor’s visits, housing, and transportation; if you withdraw funds for something unqualified, the IRS can come after you with a hefty tax penalty. Annual contributions to the account are capped at $14,000, and in the instance of your death, Medicaid can file a claim to steal money from your account to repay their expenses.

For disabled people, our money is not our money. The government punishes us for working, with the looming threat of losing our health care. And for those of us who can’t work, we live on an average of $700 per month from SSI; and with a system that is frustrating to navigate and sorely outdated, you are still penalized for sticking to the rules. I had to call Social Security over four times to declare my current job, giving my information over and over because they didn’t see me in their system. Then they sent me a bill to repay my SSI because I “never claimed” my job. They thought I was cheating them, yet it was the other way around; this is nothing new in the life of a crip.

Our government tells us we shouldn’t work, and disregards and vilifies those of us who can’t work. This is not hyperbole; it’s just part of our history as a nation, and it continues unrelentingly. The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning for us to keep fighting, to not get comfortable or used to the chiseling away of our rights. There’s a great quote from the book, which they repeat in the show: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” Atwood’s work is a cautionary tale about making the un-ordinary feel ordinary, but we are already at the boiling point.

More on Disability in The Handmaid’s Tale

A young woman with her hair messily pulled back and her mouth is covered with a metallic mask. She looks terrified.

Check out our roundtable discussion and my Geeky Gimp Riots segment from last week’s Geek Girl Riot.

Here is the transcript of my segment:

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Hello, everyone, Erin here with another The Geeky Gimp Riots segment; this time, I’m talking about disability in The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I read it for the first time a few weeks ago. I knew the general themes going in since the story is so well known, but I was excited to get through it – especially since my fellow Geek Girl Rioters are huge fans. And I ended up loving the book, and thought Atwood created a story that is timeless. The parallels between the world of The Handmaid’s Tale and the political climate today – well, terrifying is putting it mildly. But what I didn’t expect to get out of the book was disability content. And it was there – maybe not front and center, but Atwood gives us these little hints to let us know how that society views disabled people.

Babies born with disabilities are called “unbabies.” Atwood writes: “We didn’t know exactly what would happen to the babies that were declared unbabies. But we knew they were put somewhere, quickly, away.” This line made my stomach churn. Not because it’s unimaginable, but because it’s true to the history of disabled people. It’s true to RIGHT NOW. Globally, disabled people have been and continue to be shut away in institutions, segregated from society – and this includes babies and older children. Instead of receiving in-home care to live in the community, we are forced to depend on loved ones for help. And if you don’t have family, friends, or significant others to help out? We are sent to nursing homes, even though in-home care is cheaper. Now ask yourself this (as Margaret Atwood asks in the book) – who profits from segregation of disabled people? Who profits from dehumanizing marginalized people? The answer is the same for in the book and the real world – those in power – the white, wealthy patriarchy.

But we also see how disabled people are exploited for capital gain. In one chapter, Atwood talks about The Guardians, who are soldiers quote unquote “either stupid or old or disabled or very young” and therefore not real soldiers. The Guardians are used to fuel the system, but their lives are not respected. Similarly, in the real world, we have sheltered workshops where disabled adults are given repetitive tasks for companies and are legally paid sub-minimum wage. Yes, legally. And we’re talking way below minimum wage, some even less than a dollar an hour.

In the new Hulu show, The Handmaid’s Tale only tackles disability in an ableist way, meaning physical disability and mental illness are meant to scare the people watching the show. In one of the first episodes, we are shown someone with one eye, and the way the camera lingers with ominous music, it was apparent we were supposed to find the physical difference creepy. The book, on the other hand, shows how violence in the system leads to disability, and how that disability is then a justification of genocide. It’s meant to shock us by showing what’s wrong with the social and economic system, instead of shocking us by the disability itself. I’m curious to see how disability plays out in later episodes, if it does at all.

So on that cheerful note, I’m interested to hear what you think about disability in this book – send a tweet to us @geekgirlriot. Until next time, keep rioting.

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Let me know what you think in the comments, and share your experiences reading The Handmaid’s Tale, or watching the Hulu show.

Much thanks to Noemi Martinez for her help in editing and pre-reading this post. If you’re looking to support a queer woman of color, single mama, and a badass poet, check out her editorial/historical/writing services page.

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