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American Quarterly 55.3 (2003) 489-497
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Rehabilitating the Academy
University of Kansas
LENNARD J. DAVIS'S INVALUABLE WORK IN THE DISABILITY STUDIES FIELD STARTED in 1995 with Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. The book spoke to the concerns of a decade that began with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and ended with the law under Supreme Court siege, while looking back to constructions of Deafness and disability in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe. 1 In subsequent works including a memoir on growing up as a hearing child of Deaf parents and editing The Disability Studies Reader, Davis built on the achievement of Enforcing Normalcy, joining Simi Linton, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Douglas C. Baynton, and a growing host of scholars across the disciplines and the world. 2 Their efforts have proved to be so exciting and effective in "moving disability from the margins to the center" of academia that it may no longer be accurate to call disability studies an emerging field. 3 Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism, and Other Difficult Positions, a collection of essays written over the past seven years, signals the arrival of the project Davis believes in and writes about passionately.
Although Davis and his peers have had much success in making disability and people with disabilities more visible in the humanities, he is neither content nor satisfied in Bending Over Backwards. The book's title resonates in several ways. First, it refers specifically to an [End Page 489] essay in which Davis enters the legal arena to rail against judicial opinions casting employers who comply with the ADA as victims straining to comply with a burdensome law. But this is not the only "difficult position" here: another belongs to the ADA itself. Davis immediately confronts readers with the news that disability's "fate as a legal category is profoundly in jeopardy" in the hands of the Supreme Court. 4 Davis is hardly more pleased with conditions in academic circles, where decision-makers presumably are far more progressive than Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas. "We have created a firewall between them and us" (3), Davis charges, writing as part of an able majority who nevertheless considers himself "culturally Deaf" (103) and is proud of his advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities (85). "While many white people have embraced the cause of people of color, and while many straight people have taken up the cause of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, few 'normals' have resonated with people with disabilities" (3-4). Clearly, Davis is unconcerned about making the temporarily able-bodied (to use a term from the disability rights movement) in his audience comfortable. He puts them in difficult positions throughout the book, making problematic cases that test his persuasive skills as well as his readers' goodwill.
Readers familiar with disability studies will find Davis adhering to what have become conventions in much of his peers' writing, and those who are new to the field should find Bending Over Backwards to be a useful, consistently challenging introduction. First, there is much self-reflexivity in the writing. Davis writes in the first person throughout, is candid about his subject position, and shares autobiographical details. In doing so, he reinforces the importance of life writing in disability studies, where the scholar is often a reflective narrator whose disability (or lack thereof) is part of her or his argument. Davis also takes time to define his terms, especially disability, and to explain the conceptual models on which they rely and those they challenge. Even if readers know disability studies only superficially, they will be aware of debates surrounding definitions of disability, impairment, and handicap and how those discussions illustrate conflict between the medical model of disability on one hand and the minority and social models on the other. 5
Davis's handling of this material in "Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies" is uneven. I was...