Disability Studies

Like feminist, critical race, and queer approaches to literature and culture, disability studies relates to a specific group: in this case, disabled people, who make up approximately 15 percent of the world population and are among the most poor and disempowered groups globally. Disability studies began to emerge in the West in the late twentieth century as a result of the success of the disability rights movement, the seminal work of a few scholars like Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault, and the flourishing of other interdisciplinary identity‐based approaches that revealed compelling new aspects of the humanities while emphasizing rights.

Starting in the late 1960s, disabled activists in the United States and the United Kingdom began to argue they were a group and denied basic rights. They consciously built on the civil rights movement. With protests, sit‐ins, marches, and demonstrations, people with a variety of impairments actively contested traditional negative perceptions of them as pitiable individuals with tragic medical problems. Instead, they presented themselves as a unified group facing widespread discrimination. (Previously, various kinds of disabled people, like blind citizens and disabled veterans, usually advocated separately for their own interests.) For example, in 1977 about 150 people with a range of impairments took over a floor of a federal building in San Francisco for 26 days to protest the government’s failure to implement Section  504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which was America’s first disability civil rights law. News organizations publicized the sit‐in and other groups offered their support. According to one organizer, a “high point” came when civil rights icon Julian Bond visited (Cone 1997). Throughout, the activists made themselves collectively visible to the public, revealing what had previously been largely hidden. Leader Ed Roberts called disabled people “one of the largest minority groups in the nation,” emphasizing their new feeling of a shared identity (Nielsen 2012: 168). Such activism not only contributed to a string of legislative victories that banned discrimination and improved access and inclusion (including the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), but also gave disabled people a sense of pride and community. By expressing a collective voice and turning attention away from the medicalization of individual bodies to the organization of society, such activism also led to the emergence of disability studies.

Several influential scholars working in the 1960s and 1970s provided intellectual groundwork for the field, even if they did not write solely about disability or offer a vision of liberation for disabled people. In his classic study Stigma (1963), the sociologist Erving Goffman analyzed social interactions around people, including those with “abominations of the body,” who differed from the expected norm (Goffman 1963: 4). In discussing passing and other strategies used by stigmatized people to win acceptance, he implicitly pointed out how the significance of disability is socially formed and can vary by time and place. He also demonstrated how easily stigmatized people can internalize rather than oppose dominant standards by which they are deemed inferior. The philosopher and critic Michel Foucault also wrote about bodies that differed from the norm in works like The History of Sexuality (1976). He described how, starting in the nineteenth century, bodies seen as problems were sequestered, controlled, diagnosed, and otherwise socially managed. Foucault’s insights about madness, docile bodies, and the clinical gaze also proved fertile for later disability scholars. For his part, in Freaks (1978) literary critic Leslie Fiedler explored the long history of people’s fascination with non‐normative human bodies and their display for profit. Together with disability activism, such work prepared the way for disability studies.

A final factor that shaped the emergence of the field was the rise of other identity‐based, rights‐influenced approaches, especially critical race, feminist, and queer theory, which yielded significant new insights in the humanities. These endeavors gave disability studies scholars models and parallels to use and helped the field to mature quickly. They occasionally applied to disability feminist debates about essentialism versus social constructivism, postcolonial and critical race scholars’ analysis of hybrid identities, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of how a dominant group often depends on a subordinated group for its status, Donna Haraway’s concept of the cyborg, extending the field’s insights, relevance, and legitimacy. Meanwhile, a disability lens often gave back by usefully revising or correcting previously accepted concepts.

Such intersectional approaches helped disability studies to emerge as a consequential, exciting intellectual pursuit with an activist orientation. To be sure, the field has had fractures, debates, and problems, but such controversies often add to its richness. Disability studies has given disabled people a voice in the academy that they previously did not have and enhanced our understanding not only of the humanities but also of social justice.

Disability as an Identity

Perhaps the most distinguishing, even radical, feature of disability studies is that it has approached disability primarily as a social and political phenomenon. To people accustomed to thinking of disability as a medical problem located in an individual’s body (the overwhelmingly dominant view of disability since the nineteenth century), such an approach may come as a surprise. However, as scholars in disability studies have pointed out, the “medical model” imbues disability with negative meaning by stigmatizing disabled people as damaged, inferior, and in need of rehabilitation or a cure. While medicine has helped disabled people, the medical model misses the whole picture. Instead, they argued that disability is produced as much by cultural and environmental factors as by bodily conditions, and have focused mainly on the former. Pioneering scholars in the field embraced a “social model” that directs attention away from the body to how society treats disabled people. Such a strategy has parallels in other rights‐based identity fields. For example, in 1952 feminist Simone de Beauvoir famously wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” that is, that culture and not biology determines what it means to be a woman (Beauvoir 1952: 247). To advocate for themselves, disempowered groups have repeatedly steered attention away from material bodies to unjust ways that society treats them. Still, the relationship between biology and culture, between essentialism and cultural constructivism, has some unique complications in the case of disability and has been an area of debate.

In her 1998 manifesto for the field, Claiming Disability, Simi Linton summed up the most important benefits of using the social model. First, it allowed disabled people to find a group identity, despite many differences among them. What do people as disparate as visually impaired people, those with cognitive disabilities, and those who use wheelchairs have in common? By “refusing the medicalization of disability,” Linton wrote, disability activism and later disability studies emphasized how disabled people are connected, not by personal symptoms, but by “social and political circumstances that have forged us as a group” (Linton 1998: 2, 4). The social model not only made a collective identity possible, joining together people with a wide range of bodily conditions, but also presented disabled citizens as holders of rights. Linton reminded readers that the social model created the broad alliance that helped disabled people to achieve important legislative victories that changed for better access, inclusion, and protections from discrimination. Finally, she pointed out that while the medical model typically consigned disabled people to the care of health professionals and other specialists, the social model turned attention outward, making disability a fruitful topic of inquiry for a range of academic disciplines that in the past have had little to say about the subject.

While the social model has served as a core principle of the field, as disability studies matured, leading theorists have called for a more nuanced approach. In 2002 Lennard J.  Davis argued that an insistence on social construction alone was intellectually unsatisfactory. Tom Shakespeare, while saying the social model was crucial, called for more sophisticated methods that recognize disability as a phenomenon “requiring different levels of analysis and intervention, ranging from the medical to the socio‐political” (Shakespeare 2006: 204). Similarly, Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell (2006) advocated for a “cultural model” of disability that explores disabled people’s bodies interacting with the societies around them, while Tobin Siebers, with his theory of complex embodiment, positioned disability as a product of both the environment and bodily factors as “chronic pain, secondary health effects, and aging” (Siebers 2008: 25). Although in practice scholars in disability studies still mostly emphasized the cultural aspects of disability, the field and policymakers largely embraced an understanding that encompasses both biology and culture.

Tellingly, major disability civil rights laws and initiatives used this distinction. The Americans’ Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), for instance, defines disability not just as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” or “a record of such impairment,” but also as “being regarded as having such an impairment.” The last part of the definition acknowledges the importance of social attitudes and perspectives in forming disability. Even more explicitly, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ratified in 2008) says that “disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.” Such examples show that the conception of disability as the product of both the social environment and the body has gained traction on a national and global level.

Along the way, activists and scholars have contended with other challenges to creating a united disability identity. Because the stigma surrounding disability is still quite pervasive (cultures everywhere still often equate disability with being broken or disqualified), some people who are legally considered disabled have been uncomfortable with accepting the disability label. For example, some culturally Deaf people who use sign language see themselves as members of a proud linguistic minority and not in any way disabled (other Deaf signers, acknowledging the obstacles they typically face in a hearing society, consider themselves both). Similarly, some little people in the dwarf community have resisted being called disabled, while those who have recently become disabled are often uneasy with the affiliation.

A second barrier to a unified identity is that sometimes an unfortunate hierarchy has been evident in both the disability community and in disability studies, where white disabled people get more attention than ethnic minorities with disabilities and where wheelchair users receive more consideration than those with cognitive disabilities. As we will see, the field has made some progress in these areas, but more work remains to be done. A final challenge to achieving a cohesive disability identity relates to its instability as a category. The borders of disability can be ambiguous, especially when it comes to conditions that are temporary, invisible, or treatable with medication (Davidson 2016: 434). Furthermore, as Irving Zola pointed out, disability is a nearly universal experience (Shakespeare 2006: 204), because unless we die suddenly we will be disabled at some point in our lives. Indeed, the disability movement sometimes humorously uses “TAB” (for “temporarily able‐bodied”) to describe non‐disabled people. Disability studies thus reminds us that everyone has a stake in how disabled people are treated.

The potential universality of disability has sometimes divided scholars. Since disability crosses every identity formation, Lennard J. Davis (2002) provocatively argued that disability serves as a sort of master identity that links all other identity categories like gender, race, class, and sexuality (which are themselves unstable). Others have resisted such a formulation. Linton (1998) insisted that “I am not willing or interested in erasing the line between disabled and nondisabled people, as long as disabled people are devalued and discriminated against, and as long as naming the category serves to call attention to that treatment” (1998: 13). While acknowledging the instability of disability, Siebers agreed, arguing that a clearly defined disability community and minority identity are necessary for political gains.

These matters showed up in disability scholars’ literary and cultural analysis. While in the 1980s disability studies was dominated by social science approaches, in the 1990s literary and cultural criticism took on a prominent and leading role. Literary scholars made the field more visible and invigorated thinking not only about identity and aesthetics, but also about social attitudes toward disability, ethics, and human rights (Hall 2016: 53). In the process, they revealed that disability is a central, illuminating critical category.

Early Literary Disability Studies and Normalcy

When literary scholars turned their attention to disability, they discovered it, like gender and race, all around them (Garland‐Thomson 2013: 916). With no acknowledged corpus of disability literature, they began mostly to explore the numerous ways that disability operates in canonical works and in culture, often in their scholarship deftly moving between the two. One of the first topics they took on was not disability per se but its seeming opposite, normalcy, which they revealed often to be socially formed and to have enormous influence.

In Enforcing Normalcy (1995), Lennard J. Davis put normalcy on the table for critical investigation, much as scholars in critical race studies had begun studying whiteness, a previously invisible, unremarked concept. Although normalcy might seem something constant and neutral, Davis showed that the word norm with its present meaning arose only in the mid‐nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution and the advent of statistics (before then, he maintained, the concept of the ideal was paramount). He went on to connect the ideology of normalcy with notions of progress and with eugenics, the late‐nineteenth/early‐twentieth‐century movement that attempted to decrease the number of “unfit” people (including the “feebleminded,” those with congenital disabilities, certain ethnic minorities, and even impoverished groups) in the population. To help advance Darwinian principles of natural selection, eugenicists targeted disempowered groups. Only with the rise of Nazi concentration camps during World War II did eugenics become discredited, although normalcy continues to have powerful sway. Davis suggested that nineteenth‐century novels often reinforce this idea of the norm by featuring protagonists who are ordinary, non‐heroic citizens, while disabled characters, like Hippolyte in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) or Tiny Tim in Dickens’s The Christmas Carol (1843), typically have marginal roles. In this way, the very structure of the nineteenth‐century novel upholds normalcy. He developed this point further in 2002, arguing that a binary distinction between normal and abnormal underpins the rise of the novel.

Other scholars in literary disability studies further developed these ideas about the formation of the norm. Drawing on Erving Goffman’s insights, in Extraordinary Bodies (1997) Rosemarie Garland‐Thomson coined the term “normate” to describe an idealized position that has dominance and authority in society (Garland‐Thomson 1997: 8). The normate is formed through contact with unconventional bodies of all types. For instance, people with severe congenital disabilities have served as “icons upon whom people discharge their anxieties, convictions, and fantasies” and reify their own sense of ordinariness (1997: 56). In one chapter, Garland‐Thomson, building on sociologist Robert Bogdan’s 1988 analysis of freak shows, demonstrated how they aided the development of normate‐ based thinking. Between 1835 and 1940, such shows were especially popular in Europe and the United States They displayed exceptional bodies to the public for profit. Exhibited figures included Saartjie Baartman, the so‐called Hottentot Venus with the large breasts and buttocks typical of her African tribe, brought from South Africa to England and France in the early 1810s, and the microcephalic black man of P. T. Barnum’s “What Is It?” exhibit displayed in the United States starting in 1860. Such shows helped spectators to confirm their own sense of normalcy and normate‐based privilege.

Extending Davis’s and Garland‐Thomson’s ideas, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder argued in Narrative Prosthesis (2000) that canonical authors frequently rely on disability as a narrative device both to give their fictions energy and ultimately to reaffirm normalcy in their works. They outlined several stages of this process. First, in such literature disability calls for an explanation, inaugurating the narrative act: “the unknowability” of disability “consolidates the need to tell a story about it,” they observed (Mitchell and Snyder 2000: 6). Next, narratives offer an account of the causes and consequences of the disability; they bring the disability from the margin into the center of the story; and finally, they cure, rehabilitate, or eliminate the deviance in some way, restoring a sense of order. Calling their theory “narrative prosthesis” because such narratives employ disability as a sort of crutch, they showed how it functions in works as disparate as Melville’s Moby‐Dick (1851) and Dunn’s Geek Love (1989). Like Lennard J. Davis, Mitchell and Snyder contended that narratives often buttress the norm. These foundational works in literary disability studies argued that literature and culture in the West often upheld normalcy and consigned disabled people to the margins, a dynamic that had real‐world consequences for disabled people.

Subsequently, some disability studies critics extended normalcy more explicitly to ability and able‐bodiedness. Drawing on queer theory and Adrienne Rich’s notion of “compulsory heterosexuality,” in 2002 Robert McRuer identified a “compulsory able‐bodiedness,” where “being able‐bodied means being capable of the normal physical exertions required in a particular system of labor” (McRuer 2002: 91). He showed how both ableism (discrimination or prejudice against disabled people in favor of able‐bodied people) and heteronormativity support each other, pressuring people to behave in socially acceptable ways. Similarly, a few years later Tobin Siebers identified a powerful but largely invisible “ideology of ability” that permeates society, which he said is often a “baseline by which humanness is determined. The lesser the ability, the lesser the human being” (Siebers 2008: 10).

In another area, many critics have followed Garland‐Thomson by publishing multidisciplinary studies of freakery and its afterlives. For example, in her 2001 Sideshow U.S.A., Rachel Adams not only explored the historical freak show, but also its appearance in twentieth‐century film, photography, and literature by authors such as McCullers and Morrison. Benjamin Reiss investigated P. T. Barnum’s career and its relationship to national anxieties about race, gender, and the body, while Cynthia Wu considered the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, and their impact in American literature and culture. In a parallel vein, in The Ugly Laws, Susan Schweik investigated laws that sprang up against the “unsightly beggar” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bringing together disability, race, gender, and poverty, and adding another layer to our understanding of the social enforcement of normalcy during this period (Schweik 2010: vii).

Taken together, such work in disability studies revealed that what people conceive as normal is not unchanging but varies with time and place. It also demonstrated how ableism overlaps with racism, sexism, and “other forms of human diminishment that position some humans on the edges of belonging” (Titchkosky 2015: 131). In these ways, a major contribution of disability studies has been to make the dominant ideology of normalcy visible.

Reading Disability

While one project of literary disability studies has revealed the formation and hegemony of normalcy, another has showed how both fiction and film, through disabled characters, disability metaphors, and even their underlying structure, use disability to address countless aspects of human thought and experience. They demonstrated that disability, which might initially seem marginal, is actually pervasive and does significant cultural work.

First, just as second‐wave feminist scholars explored representations of women in male‐ authored texts, or critical race and postcolonial specialists considered depictions of African Americans or colonized people in books written by American or European white writers, so critics in literary disability studies investigated disabled characters in canonical works by mostly non‐disabled authors. From Shakespeare’s limping Richard III to the blind inhabitants of Wells’s “The Country of the Blind” (1904), from the cognitively disabled Benjy Compson in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) to McCullers’s deaf John Singer in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), from Achebe’s stuttering Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart (1958) to Sinha’s physically deformed narrator in Animal’s People (2007), disability shows up in every period and literary tradition. Rather than trying to diagnose characters with disabilities, scholars in literary disability studies investigate the almost bewildering number of functions that the representations of disability perform. In addition, they sometimes investigated how depictions relate to their historical moment, showing how authors create, perpetuate, or contest the attitudes of their time.

In Aesthetic Nervousness (2007), Ato Quayson summarized nine functions of disability representation in literature and narrative film. In his provisional typology, disability can reveal the morality of other characters, as Tiny Tim does in A Christmas Carol (1843); or it can overlap with racial, sexual, economic, or social otherness, as with Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It can show the disjuncture between thematic and narrative trajectories, as in Sadhwa’s Cracking India (1991), where the disability of the child narrator seems more an analogy for the partition of India than a realistic feature of the narrative. It can represent moral deficit or evil, as in the case of Shakespeare’s Richard III (c.1592); or it can be part of a sudden epiphany, such as when Tom Robinson reveals his withered left arm during the trial in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). It can signify ritual insight, as in the blind prophet Tiresias in Greek myth. It can offer ineluctable and enigmatic tragic insight, as when the orphan Rebeca eats dirt in García Marquez’s ͗ One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). It can serve as hermeneutical impasse, as in Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992), where the man’s acute burns ensures he remains unknown throughout the story. Or it can be normality, as in Nancy Mairs’s Waist High in the World (1997) and other memoirs and autobiographies by disabled people whose disability is simply part of life. Such a catalogue, which Quayson readily admitted is not complete, suggests the broad range of disability representation, from abject to comic to threatening to pedestrian. Meanings of disability are not constant, but vary from work to work, just as in reality they vary with bodily condition, time, and place. Probing representations of such characters has become a staple of literary disability studies, revealing hidden patterns and expanding the way canonical narratives are read.

In addition to disabled characters, scholars have called attention to the frequent metaphorical use of disability, which adds to the meanings of disability in texts. Early literary disability studies critics sometimes expressed misgivings about figurative uses of disability, pointing out how such tropes frequently are quick ways vividly to depict something bad, broken, or wrong, even if that thing is unrelated to disability itself. Reading with the material lives of disabled people in mind, scholars like Davis (1995) and Mitchell and Snyder (2000) noted how such discourse increases the negative cultural meanings and the stigma of having a disability. More recently, however, some critics have revised this view of disability metaphor. For example, in 2005 Michael Bérubé acknowledged the value of objecting to representations that simply invoke pity or horror, but wrote that rejecting disability tropes because they are not realistic seems “incompatible with the enterprise of professional literary study” (Bérubé 2005: 570). Instead, he argued for an approach that raises awareness of how many familiar metaphors and narrative devices are “grounded in the underrecognized and undertheorized facts of bodily difference” (2005: 570). Along the same lines, Amy Vidali (2010) argued against simply policing harmful metaphors, urging artists and scholars instead to find ways to work “critically, ethically, transgressively, and creatively at the edges of disability metaphor” (Vidali 2010: 51). Scholars in the field seemed to move to become more open to rich varieties of disability metaphor in narratives.

A third element of disability in literature is structural. Scholars have pointed out how disability can shape the very form of narratives. Lennard J. Davis (1995) and Mitchell and Snyder (2000) argued that authors sometimes organize narratives around normalcy. In addition, Davis (1995) equated the very act of reading, which is typically silent and visual, with deafness, arguing that writing and decoding texts is bound up in disability. Discussing The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Duncan Campbell (1720)—sometimes attributed to Defoe—and other examples, he explored how the rise of mass literacy and the advent of deaf education in eighteenth‐century Europe helped writing to serve as a meeting ground of sorts where deaf and hearing people could interact. More recently, in The Secret Life of Stories (2016), Bérubé connected intellectual disability with motive, temporality, and self‐ awareness in narratives from The Sound and the Fury to Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (1983) to the Harry Potter series (1997–2007). True to his 2005 advice to the field, Bérubé bypassed the question of realism to consider how, even in works ostensibly not “about” disability, disability shows up and structures narratives. Disability is, as he put it at the outset, “ubiquitous,” and he argued that ubiquity deserves greater recognition and exploration (Bérubé 2016: 1). In these ways, scholars working in literary disability studies have called attention to how disability works in literature, complicating texts, expanding their relevance, and changing the way we understand both popular and canonical narratives.

Recovering Disabled Writing

Along with the emergence of disability studies came increased attention to writing by disabled people themselves. Critics have examined such texts as The World I Live In (1908), by Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind; My Left Foot (1954) by Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy; and Face to Face (1957) by Ved Mehta, who is blind. In an effort to make out‐of‐print writing by deaf people more available, in the late 1990s Gallaudet University Press launched its “Gallaudet Classics in Deaf Studies” series, republishing work by such deaf authors as Laurent Clerc (1785–1869) and Laura Redden Searing (1840–1923). Such works offer glimpses into the past lives of disabled people and provide a valuable counterpoint to depictions by non‐disabled authors. However, such writing is in short supply, perhaps, as Leonard Cassuto surmises, because of the “wretched treatment of disabled people over history” and because those authors who did publish did not want the highly stigmatized label of “disabled” (Cassuto 2010: 219). In contrast to literary critics in feminist or critical race studies, those in disability studies thus have less opportunity to recapture past writers of their group.

Notably, some disability studies scholars have claimed certain canonical writers as disabled, even if the authors themselves did not view themselves in such terms during their lifetimes. Candidates here include Milton, who became blind, Alexander Pope, who had short stature and a spinal condition, Lord Byron, who was born with a deformed foot, Flannery O’Connor, who as adult contracted lupus and walked on crutches, Borges, who lost much of his sight, and many more. In 2002, Sharon Snyder called attention to how are such authors are typically seen as succeeding despite impairments. On the contrary, she argued that often disability is an integral part of their accomplishments: “Disability experiences led [them] to literary achievement, not as mere compensation for physical differences but as necessary re‐signification of their bodies in the social register of art” (Snyder 2002: 178). What is evidence of their bodies in their work? Again, disability studies opened fresh approaches to literary investigation.

As Alice Hall and others have pointed out, since 1990 there has been an outpouring of life writing by disabled authors. Perhaps because of new interest in disability, improved access, and/or easier paths to publication, a number of autobiographical works have appeared by writers across the disability spectrum including Nancy Mairs, Kenny Fries, Anne Finger, Georgina Kleege, and Stephen Kuusisto. Such work has given a direct written voice to disabled authors, who often testify to their journey from isolation to membership in a larger community. In Thomas Couser’s words: “autobiography warrants study not just as all too rare first‐person testimony about disabling conditions but also as potentially powerful counter discourse to the prevailing discourse of disability” (Couser 2002: 109). As in other identity‐based fields, life writing has an important place in disability studies because it gives individual real‐world perspectives from within the community.

Going Forward: Disability and Intersectionality

As the field of literary disability studies quickly matured, some scholars pointed out that it was an overwhelmingly white and Euro‐American enterprise that needed to focus more on non‐Western literature and on writing by people of color. In 2002, Ato Quayson called for more attention to disability in postcolonial texts, noting that both disability studies and postcolonial studies had similar interests in power relations and identity. In Aesthetic Nervousness a few years later, he put his advice into practice, examining disability in works by African authors such as Coetzee and Soyinka. Literary critics in disability studies increasingly turned their attention to disability representations from the Global South. They noted that cultural meanings of normalcy and disability might differ from the West and cautioned against simply exporting Western disability theories. They also remarked on the effects of widespread poverty. When Clare Barker published Postcolonial Fiction and Disability (2011), it marked one of the first book‐length interventions focused on physical, sensory, and cognitive difference in postcolonial literature, advancing the work in this area.

Similarly, critics called for more work on disability in African‐American literature. Christopher Bell followed a 2006 exhortative essay with an edited collection, Blackness and Disability (2012), which sought to bring disability studies and African‐American studies more forcefully together. That same year, the journal MELUS published a special issue on “Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature,” and soon thereafter scholars such as Schweik and Ellen Samuels made race a prominent part of their monographs. Samuels, in Fantasies of Identification (2014), investigated how disadvantaged groups have subversively performed racial, gender, or disability passing to escape oppressive institutions such as slavery. For example, in a reading of William and Ellen Craft’s account of escaping slavery, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860), she noted not just Ellen Craft’s racial passing, but also her enacting masculinity and disability (she pretends to be deaf) to find liberty.

While much research remains to be done on disability in postcolonial and ethnic literature, such work shows the potential for new readings and knowledge. Samuels’s book is part of a pronounced trend in literary disability studies to bring disability together more forcefully with other established identity categories. While the field has always been interdisciplinary and cognizant of other identity‐based disciplines—for example, in using other identity theories, in advocating for rights, or in Garland‐Thomson’s effort to bring disability studies and feminism together back in 1997—recent works have shown a renewed commitment to exploring how disability intersects with other forms of identity. For example, Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013) clearly announced in the title the intersections she would explore. For her part, in Animacies (2012) Mel Chen brings together biopolitics, race, sexuality, and disability. As the field moves forward, scholars seem especially interested in how gender, sexuality, race, and class overlap, and in how social construction and chosen identities intersect.

At the same time, some scholars in literary disability studies have chosen to study literary representations of specific kinds of disability. In the early years of the field, disability studies scholars were sometimes faulted for overlooking cognitive disability. Now, through books like Stuart Murray’s Representing Autism (2008), that gap has begun to be addressed. Similarly, critics have focused exclusively on deafness, blindness, and madness in literature, drawing out how those specific disabilities have been represented across time, and sometimes offering useful cultural history of their disabled group as well.

While literary disability studies has focused the most on narrative fiction and autobiography, scholars in the field have also addressed film, drama, and poetry. Disability shows up in films from Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) to Disney’s Finding Nemo (2003) to Gattaca (1997) and numerous other science fiction pictures; in plays like Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God (1979); and in poetry from Milton’s “On His Blindness” (1655) to Dickinson’s works to poems by contemporary poets with disabilities like Lynn Manning, John Lee Clark, and Petra Kuppers. Anthologies such as Beauty is a Verb (2011) have brought contemporary disability poetry to a wider reading public. Disability is indeed ubiquitous in literature and film. An exciting aspect of literary disability studies is how it opens new opportunities for scholarship, knowledge‐building, and the advancement of human rights.


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Categories: Disability Studies, Literary Theory

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1 reply

  1. Well written, sir…
    What to do to get into your whatsapp group? I have known about you today only. I consider it as a great loss that I knew about you so lately…

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