- Civil Disabilities: Citizenship, Membership, and Belonging ed. by Nancy J. Hirschmann and Beth Linker
Civil Disabilities is a collection of eleven essays exploring the concept of citizenship for individuals with disabilities. Nancy J. Hirschmann and Beth Linker have brought together essays that examine the topic from a variety of perspectives including disability in cinema, disability and immigration history, disability and race, disability and disease, disability and music, parental rights and responsibilities regarding their children with disabilities, citizenship and cognitive disability, and invisible disability. These essays inquire into the ways in which disability complicates and often challenges ideas of citizenship. The authors find that citizenship can be both oppressive and exclusionary for people with disabilities, and they want to argue that disability can, in fact, be compatible with various notions of citizenship.
These authors take the social model of disability as a given. That is, disability is socially constructed and not simply a medical impairment. Most also take citizenship as socially constructed, and several of the authors seek to reconstruct ideas of citizenship so that individuals with disabilities can be full, participating citizens. The implication of this argument is that people with disabilities have rights and the right to decide what happens to them in various settings including medical care. [End Page 170]
While the articles range widely in their coverage, several of them deal specifically with notions of citizenship connected to health and medicine. Douglas Baynton examines the ways in which medical concepts of defects were used to keep undesirable immigrants out of the United States in order to preserve a nation of healthy citizens. Susan Burch and Hannah Joyner discuss the ways in which race and disability (deafness) conspired to condemn some individuals to long-term incarceration in institutions in order to protect an ideal citizenry. Beth Linker and Emily Abel use tuberculosis to analyze how those with the disease “made claims on the state and how the modern U.S. welfare system responded to those who manifested the disease after the germ theory had been established” (p. 84). Catherine Kudlick uses a French book published to illustrate architecture to the blind as a vehicle for understanding the social experience of blindness in late twentieth-century France. Alison Carey explores the tangled web of rights concerning the role of parents in making medical and other decisions for their children with disabilities who have rights of their own that need to be respected. Lorella Terzi develops an extended argument defending citizenship and rights for individuals with cognitive disabilities. And Nancy Hirschmann argues that “how the disabled are seen—and not seen- constructs the ontological status of disability and is structured by and through relations of power” (p. 205).
This anthology raises questions about how historians and others should approach the question of full citizenship for individuals with disabilities and what that implies for both medicine and the history of medicine. Several of the essays detail ways in which medical authorities have worked with political authorities and others in the past to deny the rights of men, women, and children with disabilities. These essays also make clear that the interests and rights of the disabled sometimes run counter to the interests of medical practitioners and civil authorities. The authors take a broad view of citizenship that goes beyond traditional markers of voting and jury duty to “examine what it means to ‘belong’ as a disabled person within a political society in the Western context” (p. 3). The editors argue that “the aspiration for an enlarged understanding of citizenship is central to the title of our book” (p. 10), and they move beyond history to advocacy when they express the hope that these essays “will spark ideas and suggestions in readers who will continue the project of fighting for a world in which disability is, after all, just another difference” (p. 21).
The authors’ studies of how medical conceptions of disability have in the past been used to deny the rights of citizenship and a voice to individuals...