Disability Theory

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Disability Theory

Christopher Krentz

Like feminist theory, race theory, and queer theory, disability theory calls attention to the ways that literature relates to a historically oppressed and marginalized group. The field of disability studies started to gain traction toward the end of the twentieth century, when people with bodily differences began to see themselves as an allied minority and lobbied for civil-rights legislation. It builds upon the work of earlier scholars of the body, including Erving Goffman on stigma (1963, Stigma), Leslie Fiedler on freaks (1978, Freaks), and Michel Foucault on disease, madness, and biopower. It also draws upon and complicates feminist, racial, marxist, queer, postcolonial, and postmodern approaches (see MODERNIS). Disability theory emphasizes a shift away from medical discourse to how the cultures around disabled people determine what physical differences mean; it particularly focuses on language and social values.

One aim of disability theory has been to explore the functions of the countless disabled figures in literature. From Mary Shelley's deformed creature in Frankenstein (1818) to Charles Dickens's blind Bertha Plummer, in The Cricket on the Hearth (1846); from the one-legged Ahab, in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), to the deaf John Singer, in Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940); from Okonkwo's stutter, in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958), to the shrinking Senator Trueba, in Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits (1985), disability appears in novels from every tradition. Critics have pointed out that disabled characters frequently have symbolic or metaphoric significance; they serve as figures of evil or innocence, function as empty receptacles for the human emotions of non-disabled characters, appear inscrutable or ineffable, or offer some kind of insight. However, they typically reveal little about the lived experience of disabled people.

Disability theory also illuminates how disabled characters contribute to the formation of normalcy. Lennard J. Davis asserts that nineteenth- and twentieth-century realist novels consistently uphold middle-class norms and use disabled figures or tropes to buttress this hegemonic ideology (1995). Adding to these ideas, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder point out that disabled characters in literature sometimes present a problem that both initiates the narrative and demands to be redressed, usually through a cure, rehabilitation, or extermination, so that normal order is restored (53—54).

In addition, disability theory seeks to encourage and retrieve disabled writing. For example, scholars have explored how the disabilities of canonical authors, like Flannery O'Connor (Mitchell and Snyder)and Samuel Beckett (Quayson), shaped their work. They also recover lesser-known disabled writers whose output provides a valuable counterpoint to dominant narratives (see, e.g., C. Krentz, 2007, Writing Deafness).

Disability theory addresses questions of how disability should be defined, sheds new light on the conflict between biological essentialism and social constructionism, and considers intriguing intersections between disability and race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality. As Ato Quayson notes, disability resonates on “a multiplicity of levels simultaneously” in novels (28). By revealing these levels, disability theory adds to the understanding of literature and literary theory, resists ableism, and promotes social equality.

SEE ALSO: Class, Melodrama, Realism, Sexuality.


1. Davis, L.J. (1995), Enforcing Normalcy.

2. Davis, L.J., ed. (2006), Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed.

3. Mitchell, D.T. and Snyder, S.L., eds. (2000), Narrative Prosthesis.

4. Quayson, A. (2007), Aesthetic Nervousness.

5. Snyder, S.L., B.J. Brueggemann, and R.G. Thomson, eds. (2002), Disability Studies.