- Critical Disability Theory
Less than ten years ago, a mentor of mine who was chairing a major section of the American Political Science Association, cautioned me: "If you put 'disability' in the title of a paper, there is no way it will be accepted. She added: "The only way to slip something through is to pen it as a piece about 'identity' politics." In the intervening years, her sheer energy and intelligence have produced numerous articles and four books in the interim, most of which have focused on disability politics. Her advice echoed much of my own experience as a disabled graduate student in political theory. It seemed that any incursion into "disability studies" was perceived by peers as marginal and illegitimate. It stunned me that even those whose work focused on social justice movements largely paid lip service to the discrimination surrounding disability. When I attended academic and/or social justice meetings in my wheelchair, their locales were largely inaccessible. I inevitably had to be carried into sessions or, had to be re-routed through the conference centre's loading zone, picking my way through piled plastic bags of garbage and recycling. But during the past decade a sea-change has occurred; serious and talented scholars are producing work about disability and its resonance in the larger community. Thus, in the last year, it is with pleasure and relief that I have read three books that I believe make not only [End Page 145] an intelligent contribution to disability studies but also to discourses about political and legal identities as a whole.
The first of these was actually published by Routledge in 2005; Ruth O'Brien's Bodies in Revolt: Disability and Workplace Ethic of Care. In this slim but dense volume, O'Brien draws on a feminist ethic of care, Spinoza and Deleuze, to be critical of the liberal values of individual independence and competitiveness in the workplace. She theorizes that employers' accommodations for workers with disabilities can form the basis for making the whole working environment more sociable. She writes, "… a sociable workplace resembles a puzzle, with each person fitting in because of his or her unique curves and edges." (O'Brien; p. 141). She explains further: "This puzzle has the potential to work since employers and employees have the capacity to anticipate their needs and the needs of others, whether they have disabilities or not. Once employees understand that . . . [this] . . . promotes the notion of interdependence in the workplace, they might be more accommodating of each other." (O'Brien; p. 149) Coming from a background in American labour movements, O'Brien sees disability's revolutionary potential to disrupt, re-conceive and renovate the strained, liberal traditions of the workplace.
The second book impressed me so much that I assigned it as required reading in a research seminar this past year. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability by Robert McRuer was published by New York University Press in 2006. In much the same way that O'Brien uses the realm of workplace disability accommodations to try to introduce a "universal design" aspect to political theory, McRuer focuses on the intersection of disability and queer sexuality to profile the manner in which apparently politically-correct, cultural products, (e.g., television's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) promote heteronormativity and compulsory ablebodiedness. Perhaps the most memorable piece in this volume of essays is McRuer's introductory critique of the Hollywood hit film: As Good as It Gets—a film which I had uncritically enjoyed (even admired) until I read McRuer's rendering of it. He adeptly shows the manner in which the disabled characters in the film, Carol's son Spence (an asthmatic it seems) and Simon, a gay artist (who has been badly beaten) facilitate the heterosexual liaison between Melvin (the obsessive compulsive, bigoted author) and Carol (the care-providing waitress). Moreover, as the two become more entwined, Melvin's own mental illness and his rude prejudicial behaviours abate—as such, heterosexual love "normalizes" Melvin. In this and other essays, McRuer weaves his...