- Introduction: The Art of Our Art, the Quirkiness of Our Forms
I want to begin this special volume, Disabilities and Children’s Literature, with a tailored thumbnail history.
Disability Studies is an interdisciplinary field that began in the social sciences in the 1960s and solidified as a discipline with the founding of the Society for Disability Studies in 1982. The humanities came into the field in the 1990s, most notably with the 1992 conference, Discourses of Disability in the Humanities, held at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. The Modern Language Association formed its Committee on Disability Issues in the Profession in 1995 and hosted the groundbreaking conference Disability Studies in the University in 2004; papers from that conference were published in PMLA 120.2 (March 2005). In 2000, Disability Studies Quarterly began its life as an interdisciplinary journal, including humanities scholarship and creative works. Its 2004 themed issue, Disability Studies in Children’s Literature, featured articles from a variety of disciplines and cross-disciplines. Now, nine years later, ChLAQ has dedicated this volume specifically to literary approaches to representations of disabilities in children’s literature.
In the last twenty years, disability studies has quickly established itself as a potent force in literary and theoretical scholarship. Scholars like Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Lennard Davis, Thomas Couser, Michael Bérubé, Simi Linton, and Tobin Siebers (most of whom are referenced in this volume’s essays) are developing a complex theoretical and aesthetic lexicon for the study of disability in literature. This lexicon goes beyond simply offering a means of categorizing the representations of disability, inserting itself into the very concept of representation—not only to challenge ableist hegemony but, more importantly, to cripple representation and the perceptions and normative ideologies that have shaped and limited it. Thus, to cripple is a means of liberation, a universal gesture meant to impact everyone and change the world. In her 2010 article, “Roosevelt’s Sister: Why We Need Disability Studies in the Humanities,” Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes, “it is literature . . . [that] uncovers the richest tradition of disability” (n. pag.). More radically, she states that “disability as both image and concept pervades [End Page 263] language and literature,” from which we might conclude, transposing a couple of words from the first quotation, that it is disability which uncovers the richest traditions of literature.
I need to begin, though, with a sketch of the challenging ground on which disabled literary analysis has grown. In the 2004 DSQ article, “An Examination into the Portrayal of Deaf Characters and Deaf Issues in Picture Books for Children,” Isabel Brittain lists “The Six Pitfalls of Disability Fiction”:
1. Portraying the character with an impairment as “other” than human: Otherwordly in a negative or positive sense—extremely “evil” or “good”; Likening the character to vegetable matter; Forging links between the character and animals.
2. Portraying the character with an impairment as “extra-ordinary”: The character’s ordinary humanity is not described but is represented either as a negative or positive stereotype.
3. The “second fiddle” phenomenon: The character with an impairment is neither the central character within the narrative nor fully developed, merely serving to bring the central character/s to a better understanding of themselves or disability.
4. Lack of realism and accuracy in the portrayal of the impairment: The author neglects to properly research a particular impairment resulting in inaccuracy of portrayal.
5. The outsider: The character with an impairment is portrayed as a figure of alienation and social isolation.
6. Happy endings?: The author fails to see a happy and fulfilled life being a possibility for a character with an impairment.
Having taught courses in the literature of disability, I react viscerally to the truth of this list, because it closely reflects my experiences teaching disability. The literature that I taught, both canonical and not, from Oedipus to Richard III to Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty, more often than not took me and my students back to the implacable inadequacies found in representing disabled characters, inadequacies caught between saccharine sentimentality and incarnate evil. In essence, disability is the lure of the ham-fisted evocative symbol—the high concept—severely limiting...