Disability

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 …

Education

Scholars of disability studies (DS) who engage the topic of education tend to struggle with its chimerical nature: sometimes “schools” are abusive prisons, sometimes pathways toward greater social justice, and it is not always easy to tell the difference. While contemporary theories of DS education tend to point toward hopeful developments such as inclusivity and participatory design, scholars are also aware that certain features of asylums of the nineteenth century lingered in classrooms of the twentieth and even twenty-first centuries. This history and the wide variety of current educational theories lead DS scholars to conclude that “normality is a shifting social construction comprised of several competing interests” (Rogers and Mancini 2010, 100). Disability studies scholars and activists continue to debate just what those “competing interests” are, how they emerged historically, how their power should be addressed, and how positive change can be effected in educational settings.

In the …

Family

The word “family” is highly charged in disability studies. On the one hand, families are seen as the site of nurturance, narrative, and theory building for those with disabilities (Bérubé 1996; Davis 2000a; Grinker 2007; Kittay 1999). On the other, families are recognized as potential sites of repression, rejection, and infantilization. Whether seen positively or negatively, the term “family” is often taken for granted as a preordained, self-sufficient unit in discussions of family life influenced by disability. In the American context, the ideal of family generally involves parent-child relations in a classic heterosexual, nuclear, able-bodied household despite the coexistence of many other forms of family organization that incorporate members with disabilities: single parents, same-sex unions, extended family formations, and “families we choose.”

Some of the earliest and much ongoing work on disability and family life builds on this assumed heteronormative Euro-American nuclear form. This writing predominantly comes out …

Gender

Gender and disability, along with race, class, nationality, and sexuality, are constitutive features of the ways in which our fully integrated selves—what Margaret Price (2011) calls “bodyminds”—are lived and known. Gender has emerged as a key site of disability critique in four general areas: (1) sex, impairment, and the “realness” of the body; (2) the medicalization of gender; (3) the mutually reinforcing structures of gender and disability oppression; and (4) the reconfiguration of gender through disability experience. Thus, if disability theorists hope to understand and critique norms of bodily appearance and bodymind functioning, as well as offer meaningful alternative conceptions of the world and being, they must attend to how gender structures and is structured by those norms. Similarly, feminist and queer theorists cannot develop adequate accounts of gender without attending to the entanglement of the meaning and materialization of gender and disability.

Just as disability theorists have distinguished between …

Identity

Identity is the idea of the self understood within and against the social context, a means by which the individual is categorized and located as part of, or set apart from, recognized social, political, and cultural groups. As “the means by which the person comes to join a particular social body” (Siebers 2008b, 15), identity is a symbolic performance, an activity that names and aligns the self, by which the individual is composed as socially significant. It cannot exist, therefore, except in social relief—against a backdrop by which the self is made visible to both self and other. Disability identity has a complex and dynamic history. At its core is the disability rights movement, which for the first time asserted disability as a minority identity and as a platform for collective political action. In the entry on “Minority” in this volume, Jeffrey Brune indicates that Louis Anthony Dexter …

Queer

Historically, the term “queer” was a stigmatizing label that often included disabled people in its purview. A century ago, for instance, someone with a missing limb or a cognitive impairment might be called “queer.” In recent decades, sexual minorities have reclaimed “queer” as a badge of pride and a mark of resistance to regimes of the normal, mirroring the embrace of terms like “crip” and the capaciousness of the term “disability” itself. These are all political, highly contested terms that refuse essentializing meanings. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the activist group Queer Nation’s chant “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” was historically concurrent with the disability rights activist slogan “Not dead yet.”

What the field of queer studies shares most fundamentally with disability studies is a critique of the effects of normalization on embodiment, desire, and access. “Queer” opposes not heterosexuality but heteronormativity—the often unspoken …

Race

Race and disability, two significant categories of difference that shape the social, have often been conceptualized as analogous to each other. Disability has often been described as being “like race” and race as being “like disability” in attempts to shift the experience of disability from the debilitating conceptual space of individual pathology to a broader social recognition of disabled people as members of a political minority. Thus, for example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (1997) describes disability as a “form of ethnicity” (6), while Lennard Davis (1995) maps similarities between the disabled body and “the body marked as differently pigmented” (80). Foregrounding this analogous relationship between race and disability has helped propel the disability rights movement and disability studies scholarship forward into an alternative space of empowering possibility.

In the field of critical race studies, however, there are few echoes of a similar reciprocity with regard to disability. The …

Sexuality

The history of the keyword “sexuality” is inextricably interwoven with the history of a range of other disability keywords, including “freakish,” “innocent,” and—most important—“normal” and “abnormal.” As philosopher Michel Foucault has demonstrated, for the past few centuries, we have inhabited a culture of “normalization” that categorizes individuals and populations, marking certain bodies (for instance, those understood as disabled, ill, or lacking) and certain desires (for instance, those understood as perverse, queer, or mad) as “abnormal.” Systems of surveillance, control, intervention, incarceration, correction, or “cure”—what Foucault (2003) would describe as “technologies of normalization” administered by authorities assumed to possess “expert opinion”—emerged in the eighteenth century and intensified over the course of the nineteenth to facilitate this categorization. Sexuality was one of the most distinct areas of social life to succumb to these systems of control and cure.

In the first volume of his book The History of Sexuality (1978), Foucault …

Work

“Nor has any man who is crippled a right to be idle,” thundered social worker George Mangold at an industrial accident conference in 1922 (67). While he inaccurately characterized most cripples as idle, Mangold nevertheless captured the long-standing role of work and productivity in defining “disability.” In many cultures, disability has been characterized as the inability to do productive labor, a charge that has limited the citizenship and social standing of people with disabilities. Sailors on slave ships tossed disabled captives overboard; after the Civil War, impoverished Americans with visible impairments found themselves barred from begging in public and, in some cases, banned altogether from streets. But disability has also long been central to working life—a phenomenon that underscores the profound importance of incorporating class and economic perspectives more broadly into disability studies.

In many historical eras and regions, the threat and reality of disabling injuries have been …

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