- Here There Be MonstersTeaching Disability Studies at CUNY’s Bronx Community College
As a scholar deeply invested in disability studies (ds) and as an educator just as deeply committed to serving students at the City University of New York’s Bronx Community College (bcc), where I teach, I frequently reflect on the way we welcome novices to the field of ds. In the twenty or so years since the publication of Lennard Davis’ ground-breaking Enforcing Normalcy (1995) and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s foundational Extraordinary Bodies (1997), ds in the humanities has moved from an emergent arena of inquiry to a burgeoning field with hundreds of active scholars and dozens of academic programs in the US alone. It has weathered criticism from those who have portrayed it as one of “so many other trendy ‘studies’” in departments “where standards are forgiving and arcane theories flourish” (Allen), or, who derided it as being chief among the “victim disciplines” (Schoenfeld), and ds is now widely recognized and respected in larger academic communities. A 2013 New York Times piece confirms the academic stature of the discipline: “Like black studies, women’s studies and other liberation-movement disciplines, ds teaches that it is an unaccepting society that needs normalizing, not the minority group” (Simon). By every measure—programs, courses offered, scholarly publication, the growth of learned journals and societies—ds is flourishing.
With this growth, the scholarly sophistication of ds has also developed. Though the field has always demonstrated substantial rigor, early work necessarily covered essential ground, pointing to the presence and role of disabled characters and authors in fiction, for example, or, reclaiming disability identity for historical figures like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This initial work has given rise to ever more nuanced scholarship. For instance, early theorists of disability identity favored “people-first” language (e.g., a person with autism), arguing that an individual’s personhood should be respected as the foremost aspect of identity, but as thinking has developed, disability is increasingly regarded as fundamental to the composition of self, and recent scholarly writing in the field is beginning to evidence more direct language, reflecting the integral place of disability in identity (i.e., “autistic person,” or, “autist”). (Jim Sinclair’s widely disseminated “Why I Dislike ‘Person First’ Language” serves as an early expression of such resistance, but recent writing indicates a growing trend in this direction [Collier; Chacala et al.].) Likewise, early DS urged interpretations forwarding disabled agency; disability had for so long (and so destructively) been construed [End Page 189] as passive, inert, and helpless, that scholars were eager for corrective discourse: disability pride, disability power, disability independence. As the discipline has matured, however, these ideas have shifted and communities have moved toward theorizing relationships of dependency and interdependency, seeing these as fundamentally human and humanizing aspects of culture and society. Similarly, from an initial focus on projects reclaiming disability from history, literature, music, and art, where it had typically been ignored, erased, or, interpreted figuratively, contemporary disability scholars more often explore targeted intersections of identity—race and disability, disability and motherhood, disability and queerness—creating scholarship that acknowledges disability identity as multivalent, diverse, and fluid.
Making DS Accessible
While I embrace the increasing complexity and nuance of ds, I also seek contexts for sharing these rich ideas with novices. Disability stigma is so deeply and thoroughly woven into the fabric of our culture that an elementary ds concept like “disability pride” may present a challenge for ordinary people, disabled and nondisabled, and for academic newcomers. Even experienced scholars devoted to the field make false assumptions, have lapses of judgment, and harbor uncorrected biases, sometimes leading to contentious debate about approaches, ideas, and terminology. Thoughtful colleagues outside ds still sometimes find the discipline difficult to fathom, unconsciously reproducing attitudes and arguments they would never bring to the categories of race-class-gender, using we-they rhetorics, for instance, when speaking of disability instead of assuming an inclusive audience, or, complaining about the disruption of having to accommodate a disabled student in class. Traditional undergraduate students, understandably less experienced than faculty in critical discourse analysis, are likewise prone to such fumbles.
Despite its growing academic stature...