Disability studies: A movement within literary criticism and the humanities more generally that focuses on and critiques disability as it is commonly conceived, applying cultural, historical, social, and other sociohumanistic approaches to the study of disability in society. Many people associate disability with inability — with physical or mental defects that abnormally define and limit — and with personal misfortune. Proponents of disability studies seek to transform these commonly held perceptions, to show that disability is a matter of identity, an ordinary human variation like race or gender.
Disability studies, which emerged in the latter half of the 1990s, builds upon a cultural-studies approach that examines the nature of stigma and draws heavily on disciplines involving other types of identity studies, such as women’s studies and African American studies. The movement also benefited from the work of Michel Foucault, a French philosophical historian whose recognition of the power dynamics implicit in medicine and a medicalized approach to people laid the groundwork for body criticism, which identifies and analyzes the imposition of cultural messages regarding the human body.
Disability studies seeks to overturn the medicalized understanding of disability and to replace it with a social model. Its proponents define disability not as a physical, mental, or developmental defect — a medical perspective they believe has had the effect of segregating people with disabilities — but, rather, as a social construct, a way of interpreting human differences.
Disability studies examines the historical formation of the social identity “disabled,” pointing out that it covers a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional variations such that it encompasses a large and diverse group of people who actually have little in common. Disability studies also considers the history of how disability influences and is influenced by power, status, and distribution of resources; changes in the way disability has been interpreted over time and within varying cultural contexts; the impact of institutionalizing disabled persons versus integrating them into the community; the political and material implications for all people of the practice of assigning value to bodies; and how disability affects artistic production.
In assessing sites where a given culture defines and interprets disability, disability studies ranges across art and literature, religion and philosophy, history and politics, linking these fields with others as diverse as aesthetics, epistemology, and ethnic studies. Its practitioners have shown that representations of disability abound in the seminal texts of Western culture, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 430 B.C.) to the Human Genome Project and beyond. These representations provide a narrative about human differences, an interpretation of physiological and mental traits that can be critically examined and charted over time. Countering false constructs of disability — “disability fictions,” as it were — is important because these narratives shape the material world, inform human relations, and mold our sense of who we and our fellow human beings are.
Literary analyses of disability often focus on how disability influenced the author and operates thematically in the text. Proponents of disability studies have examined the role of disability in works ranging from those of the ancient Greeks, who made lame Hephaestus the butt of jokes, to the eighteenth-century English writers Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope, to the twentieth-century American writers Audre Lorde and William Styron. Practitioners have focused repeatedly on the works of canonical European writers such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Gustave Flaubert. They have also pointed out the pervasiveness of disability in classic American literature: in “The Author to Her Book” (1678), Anne Bradstreet imagined her book of poetry as a deformed child; Nathaniel Hawthorne symbolized human imperfections through the marked bodies of the wife in the short story “The Birthmark” (1843) and of Roger Chillingworth in the novel The Scarlet Letter (1850); Ralph Waldo Emerson elaborated the ideal of the American individual in opposition to the figure of the “invalid” in his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841); Herman Melville figured human excess as disability through characters such as the one-legged Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick (1851); Mark Twain used deafness for humorous effect; and Toni Morrison constructed female characters whose disabilities ultimately enable them to avoid the subservient roles women often play in society and to find other, more independent paths. Likewise, disabled figures and the concept of disability are central to American sentimental literature; abolitionist discourse; religious devotional literature; writings about philanthropy; and the modernist Southern literature of the grotesque as developed by writers such as William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor.
A number of seminal texts and collections theorizing disability were published in the 1990s: Lennard J. Davis’s Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body (1995); The Disability Studies Reader (1997), edited by Davis; Thomas Couser’s Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability and Life Writing (1997); Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (1997); Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998); Brenda Jo Brueggemann’s Lend Me Your Ear: Rhetorical Constructions of Deafness (1999); and David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2000). Snyder, Brueggemann, and Garland-Thomson subsequently published a collection of critical essays conducting literary analyses entitled Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (2002). Disability studies is also proliferating in the form of special issues of journals such as Hypatia, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and The National Women’s Studies Association Journal. In 2014, the Disability Studies Quarterly published a special edition examining the present state and possible futures of the field, titled Growing Disability Studies: Politics of Access, Politics of Collaboration.
Theorizing disability responds not only to the recent emphasis on discourse analysis, social constructionism, and the politics of inclusion but also to an increasing scholarly interest in representations of the body and the relationship of those representations to subjectivity and identity. Efforts to recover the history of disabled people are part of the shift in the practice of social history from studying the powerful and the elite to focusing on the previously marginalized.