by Kathryn Linn Geurts
The “senses” often are treated by science, medicine, and humanistic scholarship as a phenomenon affecting distinct individual bodies, but much contemporary scholarship has revolutionized how we think about the senses. For the past few decades, at approximately the same time that disability studies has developed as an academic discipline and professional field, the “anthropology of the senses” has grown in importance and has contributed to the emergence of the interdisciplinary field known as sensory studies (Bull et al. 2006). New work in sensory anthropology challenges not only the five senses model but also the notion that the experience of sensing is individualized and distinct. For example, while the term “senses” typically connotes the five modalities of hearing, taste, touch, smell, and sight, our capacities for sensory experience are not confined to these discrete channels. Humans actually possess and rely on far more than five senses. This becomes more clear when we acknowledge both exteroreceptors and interoreceptors—the former being organs that process olfaction, gustation, aurality, tactility, and visuality, and the latter referring to processes such as the vestibular system, kinesthesia, and proprioception (Geurts 2002). In addition, human sensory experience is even more complex if we are willing to include phenomena such as pheromone receptivity or a biosonar capacity called “echolocation.” Any and all of these biological systems, however, can become impaired. For this reason, there is an obvious yet often neglected relationship between thinking about the senses and human experiences of disability (blindness and deafness being exceptions, since medicine has traditionally classified these conditions as “sensory impairments”).