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Critical Disability Studies
(1990s to Present)


This resource will help you begin the process of understanding literary theory and schools of criticism and how they are used in the academy.

Contributors:Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Libby Chernouski, Elizabeth Boyle
Last Edited: 2017-08-23 09:28:43

Disability studies considers disability in political, aesthetic, ethical, and cultural contexts, among others. In literature, many critics examine works to understand how representations of disability and “normal” bodies change throughout history, including the ways both are defined within the limits of historical or cultural situations. Disability studies also investigates images and descriptions of disability, prejudice against people with disabilities (ableism), and the ways narrative relates to disability (see “Narrative Prosthesis” below).

It’s important to understand disability as part of one’s identity, much like race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. Because of its concern with the body and embodiment, disability studies also intersects other critical schools like gender studies, queer studies, feminism, critical race studies, and more. In fact, many races, classes, ethnicities, and other parts of identity have been classified as or associated with disabilities in the past, emphasizing what feminist and disability theorist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes as the tendency of disability to be a “synecdoche for all forms that culture deems non-normative” (259). Put differently, disability frequently signifies things outside of the “normal” world, making it an important area to investigate critically.

The Social Model: Physical vs. Social

One approach to disability studies is the social model, a theory that distinguishes between impairment and disability. “Impairment” refers to a physical limitation, while “disability” refers to social exclusion. For instance, damage to the optic nerve resulting in limited vision may be an impairment. However, the inaccessibility of our society to those who are partially or fully blind is really based on assumptions about what a “normal” body is, not on some universal Truth or ideal. The social model stresses that we live in a disabling society—that the issue isn’t people with disabilities; rather, society has failed to account for the diversity of bodies that live in the world.

Sociologist Tom Shakespeare writes that the social model is useful for creating a group identity, spreading knowledge about disability, and promoting activism. However, the social model has been criticized in recent decades for too-easily making distinctions between physical impairment and social disability (Shakespeare 202). The way we understand the body is based on socially constructed terms, ideas, and narratives; therefore, the body is always already socially “coded” in one way or another. So, the clear dividing line between physical and social sometimes breaks down. Nevertheless, the social model is a good starting point for many when thinking about disability.

What Does It Mean to Be “Normal”?

Many literary critics in disability studies examine the ways novels and other public spaces reinforce concepts about “normal” individuals. For instance, Lennard Davis writes about the historical context of the term “normal,” noting that the word’s modern use came into being with the rise of statistics and eugenics in the nineteenth century. At this time, the idea of “the average man” became central to national discourses. For Davis, a normal body is actually a theory or idea based on “the average man,” a concept that ultimately disguises the drastic differences among individuals in a society.

In the context of literature, Davis writes, “the very structures on which the novel rests tend to be normative, ideologically emphasizing the universal quality of the central character whose normativity encourages us to identify with him or her” (11). Therefore, investigating normalcy in literary texts allows one to use a disability studies approach when reading almost any work.

In a similar vein, Garland-Thomson uses the term “normate” to describe those who are unmarked by the stigmas of disability, framing disability as a minority (rather than medical) discourse. The word “normate” highlights assumptions about the body in politics, rhetoric, literature, and other areas, including the erasure of cultural and bodily difference (compare “normate” to terms like “cisgender” or “cissexual,” for instance).

Narrative Prosthesis: The Story’s “Crutch”

Narrative is also intricately tied to disability. Theorists Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell write that disabled characters act as a “crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight” (49).

Unlike some marginalized groups, people with disabilities have frequently been at the foreground of representation, according to Snyder and Mitchell in Narrative Prosthesis. For example, a captain’s prosthetic leg may entail a story about his obsession with a whale, or characters like Tiny Tim may serve as wellsprings of pity and emotion. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the protagonist’s disfigured foot and eventual blindness metaphorize disability as destiny, and the hunchbacked protagonist of William Shakespeare’s Richard III has a complex performance history that blurs high- and low-art conventions. The list goes on.

“Narrative prosthesis” refers the ways narrative uses disability as a device of characterization or metaphor, but fails to further develop disability as a complex point of view. Disability is used to mark characters as “unique,” and it is sometimes what prompts a narrative in the first place; however, few works develop complex perspectives about disability (Mitchell and Snyder 10). If a work does feature disability prominently, it is often used as a symbol or for comparative purposes. For example, Benjy in The Sound and the Fury has a cognitive disability, but many critics argue he is sometimes reduced to a “moral arbiter for the rest of the characters” (Bérubé 575), a standard on which the reader’s judgements about morality might be based. In short, stories often revolve around disability yet erase it simultaneously.

Types of Questions

For Further Reading

Disability studies is a recent and developing area compared to other theories and schools of criticism in literature; nevertheless, there are some works that stand out in the field. The following list is in no way comprehensive; rather, it provides avenues for exploration in literary criticism, theory, and history.

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael. “Disability and Narrative.” PMLA, vol. 120, no. 2, Mar. 2005, pp. 568-76.

Davis, Lennard. “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century.” The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard Davis, Routledge, 2006, pp. 3-16.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard Davis, Routledge, 2006, pp. 257-73.

Mitchell, David and Sharon Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. U of Michigan P, 2000.

Shakespeare, Tom. “The Social Model of Disability.” The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard Davis, Routledge, 2006, pp. 197-204.

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