- Disability Studies: A Field Emerged
At the 2012 Modern Languages Association conference, President Michael Bérubé affirmed his chosen theme of “access” by announcing at the Presidential Forum that disability studies could no longer be described as an emerging field of study. It has, declared Bérubé, EMERGED! Publications over the last three years, such as those under review here, confirm Bérubé’s claim and mark the full emergence of a distinctive interdisciplinary field that has come to be called critical disability studies.
Disability has long been studied within the applied health sciences, where it is still largely framed as a medical problem needing a medical solution. The same framing of disability as a negative form of being also prevails in the sociological study of deviance, the anthropology of medicine, and abnormal psychology. Critical disability studies sought to both correct and expand the way that health sciences framed disability. The field emerged in the 1980s, part of a cluster of politicized identity-based interdisciplinary fields of study [End Page 915] that arose from rights-based, social-justice-influenced knowledge building and disseminating initiatives. Such fields theorized as well as actualized greater inclusion and equality in the academy.
In the spirit of the new social history and recuperative projects in the humanities, scholars and researchers began to think of disability as a social construction and a set of cultural products, and of disabled people as a group historically oppressed but politically recognized under the logic of civil rights. Primed by the turn toward inclusion that reshaped canons and curricula and strengthened identity studies, social scientists and humanists increasingly found disability a fruitful subject. As with gender and race, disability as a constructed cultural category and representational system was everywhere once we knew how to look for it.1 Scholarly production and pedagogy in the new disability studies flourished through the 1990s. Conference sessions, dedicated conferences, journal articles, special issues, critical collections, monographs, interest groups in professional organizations, and publication series emerged and began to coalesce into an institutionalized and recognizable field of study. Scholars of disability got jobs and tenure, and professional institutions such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the MLA incubated and incorporated disability studies.
Characteristic of bourgeoning identity studies fields, this first wave of disability studies focused on recuperation and revelation. Historians revealed that disabled people, a group newly constituted through disability rights, had a history; literary critics brought forward previously unrecognized patterns of representation; social scientists theorized the social constructions of ability and disability. In all this work, disability appeared as a concept, set of practices, and a material phenomena that shaped our shared world and understandings of ourselves. What is now recognized as a critical canon of pre-2001 scholarship advanced these fresh and often counterintuitive understandings of what had widely been taken as a negative cultural category.2
Much of the material in this first wave reflected the self-consciously political turn in criticism toward exposing the violence of representation, uncovering oppression and discrimination, appraising resistance and subversion, and hailing antinormativity. All of it struggled with how to most effectively evaluate the cultural work of disability. This early wave of critical disability studies in the 1980s and 1990s was followed by an extremely productive decade of work that further defined and expanded the interdisciplinary enterprise. Disability studies in the 2000s elaborated on the earlier groundbreaking work that first called attention to disability as a cultural phenomenon and repudiated medical...