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  • Narrative Empowerment through Comics Storytelling:Facilitating the Life Stories of the Intellectually Disabled
  • Howard Sklar (bio)

In this essay I elaborate an approach to helping the intellectually disabled construct their own life narratives.1 The study brings together insights from several areas of research: autobiographical works that have been produced by intellectually disabled individuals, including life histories that have been generated through ethnographic approaches developed by anthropologists and sociologists; research on life stories, with particular attention to the ethical implications of collaborative "autobiography"; disability studies, with special emphasis on its applications to the intellectually disabled; and narrative theory, particularly recent work that has attempted to bring narratological concepts into dialogue with graphic narratives—that is, narratives that, assuming the form of comics or more extended graphic novels, are told via sequences of word-image combinations. [End Page 123]

I explore two interrelated questions: how do the intellectually disabled construct stories about their lives, and how can we discover more about this process of story-construction, given the problem of gaining access to the life narratives produced by this population? As Robert D. Whittemore, L. L. Langness, and Paul Koegel (1986: 1-2) and G. Thomas Couser (2001: 218-19) have noted, the life stories of the intellectually disabled frequently are conveyed through the accounts of parents, with the emphasis typically placed either on the parents' difficulties in coming to terms with the child's needs or on the child's struggles to succeed in spite of his or her disability. One fundamental difficulty with this approach, as C. F. Goodey (2003) remarks, is that neither the parents of intellectually disabled individuals nor researchers who investigate their lives "have . . . [ever] been intellectually disabled (in the sense that they and most of us construct the term), so this is not something they can know by empathy" (551, quoted in Carlson 2010: 178). Thus, Whittemore and his colleagues observed already in 1986 that "the lack of anything approximating an emic, or insider's view, is perhaps the most striking common feature" of these narratives (1). Although some scholars in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and special education have attempted to remedy this absence through the production of autobiographical materials based on interviews with intellectually disabled individuals and the inclusion of such persons in conducting research, the "insider's view" of these lives remains the exception.2 Add to this the claim by some scholars that cognitive impairment generally has been relatively neglected in disability studies (see Prendergast 2001: 46; Burke 2008: i-ii, and we can only conclude that, on the whole, the voices of the intellectually disabled remain largely unheard, even among the people who ostensibly have the greatest motivation to facilitate their self-expression.

This neglect seems particularly unfortunate when I consider, on a personal level, my own eighteen-year-old daughter's interest in, and need for, ways of apprehending her own life story and its implications for her social, emotional, and psychological life. While her disability involves a relatively moderate impairment—what used to be called mild mental retardation3—she nonetheless struggles to grasp the significance of particular events that have occurred in her life, and often asks questions about those events as a way of coming to terms with them.

In this connection I have become convinced that encouraging the [End Page 124] intellectually disabled to use the format of comics storytelling to narrate their lives—that is, to create "panels" like those found in comics and graphic novels—might help some of those persons structure and comprehend their experiences. In this essay, I introduce this approach by examining some techniques that have been used to construct intellectually disabled life histories, while also considering the obstacles that make the production of such narratives practically challenging and potentially problematic from an ethical standpoint. I also reassess assumptions about how such autobiographical narratives capture the "truth" of their tellers' experiences, and I suggest why such claims are both useful and misleading. After reviewing some examples of intellectually disabled life stories and their bearing on the assumptions just mentioned, I then show how a storytelling method based on the construction of graphic narratives might be productive for some intellectually disabled persons, outlining...


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