- Cripping Consensus:Disability Studies at the Intersection
Last year’s twenty-fifth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) offers an opportunity to reflect on its impact and legacy beyond public policy. One good indicator of its effect on cultural fields is the recent publication of Keywords in Disability Studies (2015), a multi-authored critical encyclopedia of major terms and issues. Modeled on Raymond Williams’s Keywords (1976), this volume provides short summaries of themes, terms, and concepts central to disability studies. A cursory look at entries in that volume reveals that, in addition to predictable terms like illness, prosthetics, madness, and genetics, keywords that might as easily be found in an equivalent cultural studies volume also appear: minority, reproduction, citizenship, modernity, space. What differentiates such terms in Keywords in Disability Studies from analogous entries in, say, Keywords in American Cultural Studies (2007) is how central embodiment and cognitive difference are to the major terms of cultural studies generally.
We could identify three major moments in the evolution of disability studies. The first coincides with an identity politics fueled by activism around the Independent Living movement of the 1960s, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the ADA, and the Deaf President Now (DPN) protests at Gallaudet University in 1988. The second stage is characterized by the institutional establishment of disability studies, inaugurated (at least in the US) by the first edition of The Disability Studies Reader (1997) and the 2002 MLA [End Page 433] volume, Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. This phase is dominated by a critique of the medical definition of disability (you are your impairment) and a renewed emphasis on social and cultural barriers preventing full access. We appear to be experiencing a third stage at present, one characterized by alliances and intersections across disciplines and methodologies. The books under review here represent this intersectional turn, drawing from fields within and beyond the humanities: cognitive science, queer theory, narrative medicine, animal studies, bioethics, queer of color critique, new materialisms, affect theory, and critical race studies. What these books demonstrate most centrally is that disability studies, far from being an add-on to these other discourses, is foundational to their development. But of course “foundations” implies a kind of causality that these books contest by looking across interlinking concerns and historical formations.
Activism has been a constant throughout all three stages, predating the ADA considerably but animating current debates over issues such as physician-assisted suicide, surrogacy, caregiving, healthcare provisions, genetic testing, and bioengineering. Each stage of disability awareness has broadened the base of a constituency formerly represented in the popular imagination by a child in a wheelchair at one of Jerry Lewis’s telethons. In my classes and seminars, students are already well informed about their own rights as students with disabilities even if disability has not been included in the larger diversity agenda on campus. But broadening the base has revealed rifts within the movement as individuals seek to retain political gains achieved through specific forms of struggle. Deaf activists often refuse the label “disabled” by thinking of themselves as a linguistic minority, and, until recently, persons with chronic diseases or developmental disabilities have not been included in disability discussions since these conditions may be transient, invisible, or treatable with medications. Despite these divisions, “disability” as a general term has merged into a much wider discourse about what constitutes a minority identity, what counts as a body, and indeed, what it means to be human.
One significant change in the field has been a reconsideration of the social model that galvanized second-stage disability studies. The argument that disability is not lodged in the individual but in social barriers to full inclusion now seems a rather blunt instrument for describing the wide spectrum of disability experiences. The absence of ramps, interpreters, and accessible transportation certainly helps...