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American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 737-754

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Disability in Theory: From Social Constructionism to the New Realism of the Body

Tobin Siebers

In the hall of mirrors that is world mythology, there are none more ghastly, more disturbing to the eye, than the three Graiae, sisters of Medusa—whose own ghastliness turns onlookers to stone. Possessed of a single eye and six empty eye sockets, the three hags pass their eyeball from greedy hand to greedy hand in order to catch a glimpse of the world around them. Is the lone eyeball of the Graiae blind while in transit from eye socket to eye socket? Or does it stare at the world as it moves from hand to hand? If so, the eye is more than a metaphor for the experience of the disabled body. It is its reality, and therefore should tell us something about the construction of reality. The hand is the socket of seeing for the Graiae, just as it is for every other blind person. The blind alone do not live this way. All disabled bodies create this confusion of tongues—and eyes and hands and other body parts. For the deaf, the hand is the mouth of speech, the eye, its ear. Deaf hands speak. Deaf eyes listen.

Disability offers a challenge to the representation of the body—this is often said. Usually, it means that the disabled body provides insight into the fact that all bodies are socially constructed—that social attitudes and institutions determine far greater than biological fact the representation of the body’s reality. This insight, for example, lies behind the recent speculation, especially in American studies, on the autobiography of people with disabilities. Autobiography, the June 2000 issue of American Quarterly implies, is always in part autoethnography.1 It opens focus beyond the individual life to examine the culture in which it is embedded, and in the case of disability especially, autobiography has the power to expose how dramatically social representations determine the nature of the disabled body and the forms of self-knowing attached to it, providing a convincing example of the explanatory power of the social construction model. The idea that representation governs the body, of course, has had enormous influence [End Page 737] on cultural and critical theory, especially in gender studies. The women’s movement radicalized interpretation theory to the point where repressive constructions of the female form are more universally recognized, and recent work by gay and lesbian activists has identified the ways that heterosexual models map the physique of the erotic body to the exclusion of nonnormative sexualities. Disability studies has embraced many of these theories because they provide a powerful alternative to the medical model of disability.2 The medical model situates disability exclusively in individual bodies and strives to cure them by particular treatment, isolating the patient as diseased or defective. Social constructionism makes it possible to see disability as the effect of an environment hostile to some bodies and not to others, requiring advances in social justice rather than medicine. Thanks to the insight that the body is socially constructed, it is now more difficult to justify prejudices based on physical appearance and ability, permitting a more flexible definition of human beings in general.

But what I have in mind—perhaps I should say in hand—is another kind of insight: the disabled body changes the process of representation itself. Blind hands envision the faces of old acquaintances. Deaf eyes listen to public television. Tongues touch-type letters home to Mom and Dad. Feet wash the breakfast dishes. Mouths sign autographs.3 Different bodies require and create new modes of representation. What would it mean for disability studies to take this insight seriously? Could it change body theory as usual if it did?

1. Social Constructionism

Let us step back from our places, as if we have put our hands on something prickly, and rearrange the objects of discourse on the usual table of thought. We have a theory of the body called social constructionism. It...


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