- Teaching Crip; or, What We Talk about When We Talk about Disability Pedagogy
This year disability activists and scholars have been commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ada), the most sweeping piece of legislation dealing with issues of disability in US history. Although laws mandating accommodation for people with disabilities were not new–most notably, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, or idea, was initially passed in 1975 and significantly updated in 2004–the ada had a kind of glamour to it.
That glamour came in part from the fact that the ada’s organizing principles were rooted in the language of the disability rights movement. As Martin Gould has observed, the power of the ada is in large part due to “the conceptual framework and language of ada [to] emphasize empowerment, independence, and inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all aspects of community life.” Eschewing the medical model of disability, in which doctors defined people through their various impairments, the ada seemed to embrace the social, cultural, and political model promoted by the movement: the assertion that people were disabled by inadequate resources, inaccessible spaces, and the assumption that disability meant helplessness.
As Ruth Colker shows in her 2005 book The Disability Pendulum: The First Decade of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though, the story of the ada has been as much about the many challenges to the Act and the “massive disappointment” of disability rights activists as the courts, all the way to the Supreme Court, have whittled away at what the central term of the act–“accommodation”–actually means. Moreover, often implementation of the ada has followed the same logic as public assistance of all kinds from the Poor Laws of 19th century England to the “welfare to work” policies of the Clinton administration in the 1990s to current denial of food-stamp benefits to poor working people.1 That is, it has been used to attempt to weed out suspected malingerers, cheats, and those not “disabled enough” to be covered by the act’s purview, rather than focusing on the needs of people with disabilities for comprehensive access and accommodation.
Robert McRuer argues, as well, that the logic of accommodation is not so far removed from that of neoliberal “flexibility,” in which able-bodiedness is implicitly understood as the desirable norm, and disability as an identity that can be inhabited but always recognized as something “we” would never want to be or have. That is, “the dutiful (or docile) [End Page 15] able-bodied subject now recognizes that some groups of people have chosen to adjust to or even take pride in their ‘condition,’ but that recognition, and the tolerance that undergirds it, covers over the compulsory nature of the able-bodied subject’s own identity” (303). In this model, disability is a mode of “multiculturalism” or “diversity,” allowed its support groups and parades and even visibility in advertising and popular culture more generally, but emphatically not a mode of reimagining the world, our bodies, power, or the terms of access.
Nonetheless, I think it is true that the ada caused a kind of cultural shift and, equally importantly for the purposes of this issue of Transformations, made increased space for Disability Studies as a discipline. While not all the articles in this issue explicitly locate themselves within ds, all of them share its intellectual and political investments in rethinking disability and education: decentering normativity; acknowledging and amplifying spaces in which disabled people can represent themselves and define disability from their own perspective; focusing on accommodation rather than impairment. Looking over past issues of DSQ and other journals that produced issues on disability and education, it’s clear that the conversation has changed (even if many of the obstacles–access, resources, ignorance–remain). First of all, Disability Studies has expanded as a field of inquiry not just for scholars but for our students. Joanne Woiak and Dennis Lang provide a detailed chronicle of their experiences of teaching an Introduction to Disability Studies course at a large public university, and the challenges to student assumptions about authority, selfhood, and knowledge that such a course presents. Integrating...