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  • Disability Narratives of the Law:Narratives and Counter-Narratives
  • Ellen Barton (bio)


The field of disability studies works actively to present counter-narratives to dominant biomedical, sociocultural, and political narratives of disability (Couser),2 criticizing biomedical narratives of deviance and cure (Mitchell and Snyder); critiquing historical and contemporary narratives of difference and transcendence, both in popular media as well as academic scholarship (Davis; Berubé; Snyder, Brueggemann; Garland-Thomson); and resisting neoconservative narratives against civil rights established and (supposedly) enforced by laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990/1975), and the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) (O'Brien). One of the key themes of these counter-narratives is the achievement and/or action of a disability identity—a fused personal and political awareness that Simi Linton characterizes in the titles of her two books as Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity and My Body Politic. With respect to the law, a number of counter-narratives in disability studies construct the identity of individuals becoming aware of and acting upon the basis of their civil rights within the complexities of this lived experience. Cheryl Wade, for instance, a long-time poet and essayist of the disability rights movement, projects this identity to Helen Keller, not in the familiar narrative of transcendence from The Miracle Worker, but in a more politically charged counter-narrative of Helen Keller as one of the "ancestors [and] heroes" of disability [End Page 95] culture who "used her celebrity to tell the truth of disability: that it has far more to do with poverty, oppression and the restriction of choices than it has to do with wilted muscles or milky eyes" (14–15). Here Wade constructs a disability identity that rests upon the crux of rejecting the personal identity stereotypically constructed by society and becoming aware of the political conditions that call for advocacy and activism. The law, specifically civil rights law, could not figure in the historical counter-narrative of Helen Keller, but many other disability narratives elaborate that connection more explicitly. In Voices from the Edge, Ruth O'Brien presents creative fictional and nonfictional counter-narratives that tell "what happens when the protagonists seek their rights" (25), and authors focus on the complexities of identity and disclosure, access and accessibility, and the frustrating narrowing and absence of enforcement of the ADA and other disability laws. These counter-narratives also rest upon the fused personal and political identity of disability studies. As Leonard Kriegel tells in his account of everyday life in urban America, "The barriers it chooses to place before me are the barriers it chooses to place before all cripples trying to live as normal a life as the streets will allow" (122), where barriers also represent the lack of enforcement of disability law since "my right of access was a distinctly minor priority to the city" (130).

With respect to the law, the particular identity forwarded in these counter-narratives—the protagonist aware of and acting upon lawful rights—is strongly preferred in the contexts of disability studies and disability rights movements. One of the interesting problematics of disability culture in these contexts, however, is that this preferred counter-narrative is not always the narrative told by many individuals with disabilities. In fact, as Mary Jane Owen observes in an essay entitled "Like Squabbling Cubs," "Like other minorities we struggle with the pain and humiliation of overt prejudice and subtle discrimination. Why has our struggle not brought us the same sense of group identity?" (7). In her talk at the Disability, Narrative, and the Law Conference, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson similarly notes that individuals with disabilities "don't all necessarily […] ally with the group […] work[ing] together toward the goal of making the world a more receptive and equitable place for people with disabilities." The struggle here seeks to make the preferred counter-narrative based on a fused personal and political identity the dominant narrative, first for persons with disabilities themselves and then for society. This is a struggle that takes place not only in disability studies scholarship or disability rights publications but also in sites of everyday life, where the...


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pp. 95-112
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