by David Serlin

About David Serlin

David Serlin is Associate Professor of Communication and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author or editor of several books, including Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America (2004); Imagining Illness: Public Health and Visual Culture (2010); and Window Shopping with Helen Keller: Architecture and Disability in Modern Culture (forthcoming).


In the 2009 documentary film Monica and David, Monica, a woman with Down syndrome, is asked to define the word “handicap.” She responds, “When someone is in a wheelchair,” adding that the term may also apply to people who cannot hear or walk. “It’s a sickness,” she concludes. When presented with the same question, her husband, David (who also has Down syndrome), says he does not have a handicap. Asked if he has Down syndrome, he answers, “Sometimes.” In this brief exchange, Monica and David exemplify the challenges of defining disability as a coherent condition or category of identity. Yet David’s assertion that “sometimes” he has Down syndrome suggests that he understands a central tenet of disability studies: that disability is produced as much by environmental and social factors as it is by bodily conditions. While Down syndrome may prevent David from driving a car or managing his own finances, for example, his genetic condition is not a defining feature of his home and family life.


In 2005, Gallaudet University—the premier research and teaching institution for Deaf and hearing-impaired students in the world—began designing a new building, the James Lee Sorenson Sign Language and Communication Center. Instead of simply commissioning an architectural firm to do its work, administrators invited faculty and graduate students in the social sciences and humanities to help design the building, which was eventually completed in 2008. To this end, Dirksen Bauman, a Gallaudet faculty member who studies linguistics and critical theory, held a graduate seminar in 2006 entitled “Deaf Space.”

Note on Classroom Use

Keywords for Disability Studies is intended for use in a wide range of interdisciplinary teaching environments. The essays are written clearly with a minimum of specialized language, and they do not assume prior knowledge of the field, so they should be readily accessible to undergraduate readers. By defining terms and concepts in their historical contexts, they provide a foundation on which more topical course readings can be based. At the same time, the essays offer syntheses of previous scholarship and critical perspectives that will help guide graduate work on issues related to disability in humanities or social sciences courses, as well as professional fields such as law, business, social work, nursing, and medicine. We hope to make students and teachers in all of these fields more self-conscious about the language and concepts they use, and also to provide opportunities for dialogue across disciplines.

About this Site

Keywords for Disability Studies aims to broaden and define the conceptual framework of disability studies for readers and practitioners in the field and beyond. The volume engages some of the most pressing debates of our time, such as prenatal testing, euthanasia, accessibility in public transportation and the workplace, post-traumatic stress, and questions about the beginning and end of life.