- Narrative, Disability, and Identity
The articles in this cluster demonstrate that narrative has many meanings and potential uses in the study of disability rights. Like the other contributors, we are strongly committed to scholarship that draws on narrative (Engel and Munger. Rights of Inclusion). We share the sense that narrative can help to breach the barriers of detachment, doctrinal technicality, skepticism, and even irony that often separate legal scholars from the actual life experiences on which they should draw when they write about disability—or other social issues. Yet, despite our attraction to the "authenticity" of narrative, we are equally impressed with the fact that narrative is essentially a fabrication. By this we do not mean that the stories we present are necessarily untrue but that they are put together, or spun out, by the narrators in particular ways as they draw on remembered experiences, perceptions, and feelings. In our research, we had the opportunity to witness the creative process of constructing [End Page 85] narratives and saw how the narrators continually revised and transformed their stories, even as our conversations with them proceeded. We concluded that it was worth trying to understand how and why these stories were told in different ways at different times by the individuals whose lives were literally at stake in the process.
In this essay, we will discuss a double process of fabrication in relation to the life-story narratives of individuals with disabilities. For it is not only the narrators—our interviewees—but also we the authors who attempt to make something of these stories. We want to explain first why our own presentation—which is also a type of fabrication—has drawn on disability narratives in this particular way.
As researchers, we are interested in why and how rights become active or fail to become active in the lives of their intended beneficiaries. Much of the scholarship on rights—including disability rights—assumes that they become active only when an individual makes a rights-based claim. Indeed, many researchers focus only on claims presented to an official legal institution (as opposed to a claim presented unofficially to, for example, an employer or the owner of a building), and a great deal of legal scholarship confines its analysis to the extremely rare cases that are litigated and appealed. Research on formal and explicit rights claims and appellate court decisions can tell us many things, but we do not think it can answer fully the question we want to ask: Why and when do rights actually make a difference in the everyday lives of the individuals for whom they were created?
In order to answer this question with particular reference to employment, we interviewed 60 men and women with disabilities—some were wheelchair users and others had learning disabilities.1 We did not select them on the basis of their activism or their heightened rights consciousness but because they represented a wide range of ordinary people. We originally intended to elicit narratives about particular employment conflicts, but we soon found that our interviewees wanted to offer "life-story narratives"—put-together accounts of their lives beginning in early childhood and continuing through their educational experiences to their involvement, or lack of involvement, with employment. These life-story narratives became the centerpiece of our efforts to analyze the role of rights in everyday life.
In our research, we draw on the work of Bruner, Goffman, and others2 in viewing life-story narratives as the device all humans use to make sense of their experiences, to assemble the pieces of their remembered past into a story that makes sense to them and explains who they are. Life-story narratives look forward as well as backward. By constructing the identity of the narrator in particular ways, the narratives position the protagonist for new possibilities in the future, for "new living action"3 consistent with the identities they have constructed. As individuals move forward into new experiences, these are absorbed into the life-story narratives and become part of the continual process of revision and transformation.
We viewed the fluidity and dynamism of the narratives as one...