Invisibility is costly. Recognition, on the other hand, can inspire action.Nirmala Erevelles, "The Color of Violence"
This essay will not be an overview of all the exciting work going on in feminist disability studies, in part because such a review already exists (I highly recommend Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's excellent review essay in Signs ) and in part because there is now so much work in so many different fields that it might well be overwhelming to someone who wants to find an entry point into the discussions. Instead, this essay will be, in the words of Michael Davidson, who asked me to write it, a chance to "think about key works that have contributed to crossing the gender/disability divide." To that end, I plan here to talk about a few signal moments in the last fifteen years or so that have crossed, illuminated, and challenged that divide. I plan to discuss three works at length: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's now-classic 1997 Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature; Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Garland-Thomson's 2002 collection Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities; and Kim Hall's 2011 collection Feminist Disability Studies.1 I will close with a brief look at several important new books. While my choices leave a lot of really important work unacknowledged, I hope to entice readers to follow these leads into a vital field of inquiry.
To begin, I should clarify what I mean by "feminist disability studies." Disability rights are about recognizing the humanity and dignity of all people and organizing cultures in ways that allow them to live up to their full potential [End Page 187] without posing unnecessary barriers to their development; disability rights are about recognizing that humans vary a great deal, physically and mentally, and that people should not be forced to conform to some sort of idealized human form that has come to be taken as the norm. Feminist disability politics builds on disability politics to recognize the ways that gender can intersect with disability, from specific expectations about male and female bodies to expectations about gender norms regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, the right to engage in sexuality, and the roles that women are expected to fulfill in terms of caretaking.
Feminist disability studies is the academic field that works with and toward feminist disability rights politics. As with most feminist studies, the line between scholarship and activism is sometimes clear and sometimes quite murky, but for all feminist disability studies that I know of, the goal is to achieve an ideology of bodies and modalities that does not limit people's potential simply because they function differently than the so-called norm.
Literary feminist disability studies has much in common with feminist literary studies generally and with a broader feminist politics of bodies, but it focuses specifically on the ways that disability functions in literary texts and the ways that authors' own disabilities play a role in their works. Such studies also often turn to issues of ideology and public policy; as a crucial site for developing consciousness of difference, literature shapes how we think about and treat people with disabilities and impairments.
In what follows I am going to trace a trajectory of feminist disability studies that highlights four interrelated concepts: visibility, sympathy, identity, and recognition. Nirmala Erevelles's claim (in my epigraph) that "[r]ecognition . . . can inspire action" is crucial for feminist disability studies but leaves open questions about what we mean by "[r]ecognition" and what sort of "action" it inspires. Erevelles herself is suspicious of metaphor: "I argue that the effectiveness of much of feminist disability studies remains limited because of its overreliance on metaphor at the expense of materiality" (119). I will return to her important essay and its implications for literary study later. I want to turn first to Garland-Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies to argue for the importance of understanding metaphor in a cultural framework and to argue that it offers us a complex theory of recognition and sympathy that sets up much of the work of...