Ability

Disability studies scholars recognize that the term “ability” shapes our understanding of what it means to have a livable life. Although it is often treated as the antithesis of “disability,” ability has been used as a conceptual sledgehammer to determine and shape social status and caste on both an individual and a collective level. In effect, “ability” employs a judgment that establishes standards of body and mind that are actionable in the present or in projected futures.

Today ability and disability are conjoined as a simple binary. In the past, the relationship was more fluid. Aristotle viewed “monstrous” bodies as natural anomalia (Greek for “irregularities” or “unevenness”), that represented different types of “ability.” Since the late 1300s, “ability” has signified a quality in a person that makes an action possible; in turn, someone who can execute an expected range of actions is able-bodied, a person who can lead a potentially …

Access

The noun form of the word “access”—meaning “the power, opportunity, permission, or right to come near or into contact with someone or something”—first appears in published texts in English as early as the 1300s. It has been used to characterize the relationship between the disabled body and the physical environment since the middle to late twentieth century. More specifically, it refers to efforts—most prominent in the United States—to reform architecture and technology to address diverse human abilities.

In its most literal form, “access” describes the ability to enter into, move about within, and operate the facilities of a site, and is associated with architectural features and technologies, including wheelchair ramps, widened toilet stalls, lever-shaped door-handles, Braille lettering, and closed-caption video. Figuratively, however, it can suggest a much broader set of meanings linked to a more inclusive society with greater opportunities for social and political participation. Given these technical and metaphoric …

Accident

“What happened to you?” The question from strangers to people with visible impairments suggests a popular fixation on accident as a cause of disability. It is as though the most important thing to know about disability is its genesis (Linton 2005)—perhaps due to anxiety about whether or not “it could happen to me.” This narrow meaning of accident as unforeseen bodily trauma (as compared with illness, congenital trait, or aging) highlights one axis of diversity that both enriches and complicates disability studies.

In a broader and more abstract sense, disability is often relegated to the category of accident: unintentional, undesirable, marginal deviations from idealized norms of fitness. It was not always so. Early conceptions of disability imbued certain bodily differences with religious meaning, as coded signs of divine intent or judgment. In step with the values of industrialization, nonconforming bodies later came to be equated with accident, much like …

Accommodation

“Accommodation” bears a more positive and powerful meaning in disability discourse than its roots in race and religion contexts would predict. In the history of U.S. racial politics, “accommodation” is a dirty word. Accounts of the early civil rights era used accommodation to refer to a brand of gradualism and compromise associated with Booker T. Washington—a position famously critiqued as “conciliation” by W. E. B. DuBois (1994; Myrdal 1944). But while racial accommodation evokes blacks accommodating the white majority, in the disability context accommodation means changing society in response to disability. The term has thus shifted radically in both sense and reference.

Accommodation gained prominence as a keyword in disability politics and theory through legal discourse. In the United States, which introduced the term into our legal vocabulary, accommodation began as a right of religious employees under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Almost immediately, however, courts emptied it of …

Activism

Activism is a practice of, or orientation toward, taking action, often implying the context of a social or political movement. Although activism emphasizes collective action, an individual and his or her actions may be considered “activist” depending on their relationship to larger struggles. Disability activism refers to “collective political action by and for people with disabilities” (Barnes and Mercer 2010, 176), which contributes to “the continuing struggle of disabled people to gain a voice and to shape our destinies” (Longmore 2003, 231). The word “advocacy” is sometimes used interchangeably with activism, since a person may advocate on behalf of others. But although some scholars and activists include advocacy by parents and other nondisabled allies under the category of disability activism, leadership by disabled people in activism is crucial to collective autonomy.

While recognizing a plurality of disability movements, and groups within disability movements, the late Paul Longmore argued that some …

Aesthetics

Whether addressing ideas of beauty in nature or works of art, aesthetic judgments implicate disability insofar as they presume a normative standard of perception and an ideal of bodily perfection as the object of affective response. Although theories of taste and beauty have been in existence since Plato and Aristotle, the term “aesthetics” emerges centrally in the eighteenth century as a discourse about perception and feeling. For Immanuel Kant, for instance, an aesthetic judgment is distinct from one involving deductive reasoning or conceptual information concerning the object. He distinguishes between teleological and aesthetic judgments, the former of which concern objects, purposes, and intentions; the latter are disinterested, based on subjective apprehension. Kant implies that disinterested pleasure is distinct from the self-interested pleasure we obtain from satisfying a drive or solving a problem. In a paradoxical move, however, he also claims that my feeling of pleasure is validated by my presumption …

Affect

“Affect,” a term understood by some to be synonymous with “feelings” and “emotion,” is associated with a set of theories that are useful for understanding somatic experiences that generate meaning outside the limits of signification and critical interpretation. The turn to theories of affect among writers including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (1995b) and Brian Massumi (1995) was provoked by a sense that cultural theory had not adequately come to terms with forms of embodied feeling experienced outside the registers of speech, signification, communication, and meaning. A major catalyst of the “affective turn” (Clough 2007) was the publication, in 1995, of two essays: Sedgwick and Frank’s “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” a work that introduced the writings of American experimental psychologist Silvan Tomkins to readers in literary, feminist, and queer theory; and “The Autonomy of Affect,” an essay in which Massumi expanded upon French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix …

Aging

The biological process of growing older, human aging is almost always accompanied by limitations in physical capacities and, in many cases, diminution of mental acuity. In addition, aging is, like disability, both a biological and a cultural phenomenon that is inflected decisively by the social, legal, medical, statistical, and experiential meanings given to it. For example, old age may be defined by a society in chronological terms (in the United States, ages sixty-two and sixty-five mark eligibility for Social Security) and individually in psychological terms (someone may be seventy-five years old and “feel” fifty). In the United States and many other industrialized nations, aging, as Susan Wendell (1999, 133) has written, is disabling. Aging is invoked rhetorically—at times ominously—as a pressing reason why disability should be of crucial interest to all of us (we are all getting older, we will all be disabled eventually), thereby inadvertently reinforcing the damaging and …

Blindness

Blindness is a condition of the flesh as well as a signifying operation. William R. Paulson maintains that blindness “means very different things, and moreover it is very different things, at different times, different places, and in different kinds of writing” (1987, 4). Such a critical stance can lead the field of disability studies to analyze disability in a manner that reckons with both the ways that bodies are made accessible through language and the ways that bodies exceed language. The state of visual impairment long ago assumed a metaphoric plasticity, making literal blindness serve as a figurative marker for other diminished capacities. This interplay permeates, for example, one of the West’s foundational texts, Sophocles’s version of the story of Oedipus. It is evident in the confrontation between Tiresias, the blind prophet, and the figuratively blind Oedipus, as well as in the ghastly scene where Oedipus literally blinds himself upon …

Citizenship

Although the disability rights movement (DRM) and the field of disability studies (DS) have emerged and blossomed together, the two have developed along slightly different trajectories. While the DRM has demanded the establishment of laws and policies that treat people with disabilities as equal and valued citizens, DS has created the intellectual and creative groundwork to reimagine disability not as a biological defect but as a valued form of human variation that exists within and is deeply affected by its social context. Because the DRM uses rights as its organizing framework, it is not surprising that citizenship and rights are central intellectual concepts in DS as well. For example, the DRM slogan “nothing about us without us” encapsulates an ideology of valued and equal citizenship. Disability studies has taken up this call by examining the meaning, content, and impact of citizenship as well as the ways in which disability is …

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