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  • Disability Studies 2.0
  • Leonard Cassuto (bio)
Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body, Michael Davidson. University of Michigan Press, 2008.
Obsession: A History, Lennard Davis. University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Staring: How We Look, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Oxford University Press, 2009.

If disability studies is a form of cultural studies, then the study of disability studies might be a form of cultural studies in itself. The still-brief but continuing, welcome, and successful rise of disability studies in the humanities is an unusual case study in the maturation of a field. Two of the books I will discuss here are written by widely acknowledged founders of disability studies in the humanities. Following their field-defining books of the 1990s, Lennard Davis and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson now return in this decade with field-steering works. Michael Davidson meanwhile navigates a similar course in a book that illustrates some of the specifically literary implications of the latest turn in disability studies.

Disability studies pioneers originally aligned the emergent field with racial and ethnic studies. One such field pioneer, Simi Linton, declared in 1998 that more curricular attention needed to be paid to "the minority-group status of disabled people, and the cultural, social, and political meanings of that status" (148). Certainly there is a practical justification for constructing the field as identity-based, if for no other reason than that the unemployment rate among disabled people is shamefully high, and identity-based fields offer practical strategies for identifying oppression and ultimately creating employment opportunities.

But disability is no typical minority group, and the development of disability studies as an identity-based field has not been typical either. For one thing, disability is a minority group that anyone can join. "Everyone in this room hopes to be disabled," I tell the students in my disability studies seminar on the first day that I meet them. Still preening with youthful invulnerability, they mostly look at me as though I have lost my mind. Then I explain to them that old age brings disability—unless they would prefer the alternative. And then I inform them of the acronym that the [End Page 218] disability movement uses to describe them: TAB, or "temporarily able-bodied." I love teaching that class because it changes world-views; it generates more mail of the "I-know-it's-been-years-but-I-was-thinking-of-you" variety than all of my other teaching put together. But it does so partly because disability studies is a special case. Many of my students learn to envision themselves as members of the disabled minority because they understand that "we" will one day become "them." That rhetorical strategy won't work in, say, African-American studies.1

The permeable boundaries of disability have other significant effects, too. The definitions of "disability" and "disabled" carry great legal weight, but they are as unsettled as they are significant. Moreover, disability experience covers a wide range—a person with Down Syndrome requires different accommodations than an amputee, for example. The field of disability history—an important spoke in the disability studies umbrella—tells us that not until the 1960s and 1970s did disabled people claim a collective identity under a civil rights banner, with the field of disability studies forming soon afterwards. As a result, "disabled identity" is an ambiguous, unstable term in ways that "Latino/a" is not.

When fields of racial and ethnic studies have coalesced in the humanities in recent generations, the first item on the field agenda is typically to demarcate the literature that will make up the canon. This is a stepwise project that starts with the scholarship of recovery: identifying the texts and making the case for them as literature. After that comes a necessary reliance on the academic entrepreneurship necessary to get them into print. African-American studies is a case in point. With the advent of black studies programs during the 1960s, many long-lost texts were reprinted by the likes of Arno Press and Times Books in the years following, laying the foundation for future recovery efforts such as Oxford University Press's Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers, which was...


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