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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 305-310

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The Empire of the "Normal":
A Forum on Disability and Self-Representation:

G. Thomas Couser, Guest Editor

It is generally agreed that people with disabilities have been misrepresented in most literary and mass media. Among literary genres, autobiography, which William Dean Howells referred to as the "most democratic province of the republic of letters," may be an exception. 1 Autobiography seems to require less in the way of literary expertise and experience than other, more exalted, genres; it seems to require only that one have a life--or at least, one considered worth narrating--and sufficient narrative skill to tell one's own story. (Collaborative autobiography is even more accessible, since it does not require even literacy.) In any case, I think that most literary scholars would agree that autobiography has served historically as a sort of threshold genre for other marginalized groups; it might do so for disabled people as well.

It is not just the apparent accessibility of autobiography--a kind of negative qualification--that recommends it but also something more positive: the notion that autobiography by definition involves self-representation; as such, autobiography offers an alternative to patronizing and marginalizing (mis)representation by others; it thus provides a medium for counterdiscourse that challenges stereotypes and misconceptions. An important aspect of its counterdiscursive potential is that in autobiography disability is likely to be represented as a fact not a [End Page 305] trope, a "living condition" not a metaphor for some undesirable moral status, which is too often the case in fiction, drama, and film. It may even be seen as a condition that is not only culturally constructed but constructive of distinctive culture.

The goal of this forum is to assess the accessibility and value of autobiography (and related genres) to people with disabilities. The questions before us, then, are:

  • How accessible has autobiography been to people with disabilities? Is autobiography, with its implicit endorsement of the myth of personal autonomy, hospitable or hostile to people with disabilities?
  • Are disabled people adequately represented in this genre?
  • Are other media better suited to representation of people with disabilities, individually or collectively?
  • What are the obstacles or impediments to self-representation by disabled people in autobiography, and how can these obstacles be removed or surmounted?
  • To put the issue more pointedly, can disability autobiography pose a significant challenge to the "empire of the normal" in what Lennard J. Davis has called "the United States of Ability"? 2

This introduction offers a quick survey of some advantages and disadvantages of autobiography as a genre in which to represent disability. I have already briefly characterized the positive potential of autobiography for the representation of a marginalized group; let me now acknowledge the negative, starting with ways in which autobiography may not be as accessible as it might initially appear. We can identify obstacles to the production of disability autobiography at three distinct junctures: having a life, writing a life, and publishing a life.

Although autobiography may be relatively accessible, compared to other literary genres, we should acknowledge at the outset that it has not been entirely accessible to disabled people any more than it has been to other marginalized groups--for some of the same reasons. Disability is of course highly variable in degree and kind, in the time and means of acquisition, so it is difficult--and perhaps unwise--to generalize about it as though disability were a single condition. But, like minority racial or class status, disability may exclude people from living the sorts of lives that have traditionally been considered worthy of autobiography; certainly, insofar as people with disabilities are excluded from educational institutions and thus from economic opportunity, [End Page 306] they will be less likely to qualify to write the success story, perhaps the favorite American autobiographical subgenre from Benjamin Franklin on. That their disqualification lies not in individual incapacity but in social and cultural barriers does not change the fact that people with disabilities are less likely to live the sorts of lives...


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