by Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren
As a keyword in American studies and cultural studies, the site of a political movement, and the name of an interdisciplinary field, “disability” makes manifest vital connections across the many communities of people with disabilities, their histories, and a range of cultural theories and practices. People with disabilities have too often been rendered invisible and powerless because of a mainstream tendency to valorize the normal body. Disability activism first emerged during the civil rights movement and resulted in legal reforms that framed disability as a social construction rather than as a medical term. By the 1980s, disability activists had begun to move into the academy and to formulate a wide range of scholarship around the keyword. In the first phase, their work centered largely on the analysis and reform of public policy. By the early 1990s, a second phase in the humanities began to analyze the implications of representation on how people think about disability. In more recent years, disability scholarship has expanded its focus on theories of intersectionality (the ways in which disability interacts with other modes of power and privilege), particularly in the context of education and incarceration; transnationality (the ways in which nation-based frames of analysis misrecognize networks of affiliation that cross national borders); environmental and architectural justice (the ways in which urban and design histories and practices underengage with disability); and the development of approaches to disability theories, histories, and practices that seek to expand what the archives, practices, and methodologies of disability can become.