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  • Cultural Disability Studies in Education: Interdisciplinary Navigations of the Normative Divide by David Bolt
  • Lauren Beard (bio)
David Bolt, Cultural Disability Studies in Education: Interdisciplinary Navigations of the Normative Divide. New York: Routledge, 2019. Paperback ISBN: 978-1-138-10327-6. $39.95. 120pp.

David Bolt argues that cripistemologies, or ways disabled bodies exist and make meaning in our world, are essential to creating more dynamic understandings of culture. However, as he further points out, current mainstream cultural discourse seldom regards cripistemologies as legitimate sites of critical inquiry and knowledge production. Normative representations of disability in culture more often appear as one-sided and superficial renderings, such as viewing an individual through their disability, and regarding said disability as an all-encompassing, always-disadvantageous identity (4). Bolt argues that scholars can locate cripistemologies virtually everywhere if they have the correct resources to perceive them. He also pushes for a wider acceptance of disabled bodies in academia, urging scholars to go beyond their traditional assumptions that disability in education must always fall under the umbrella of special needs education. To this end, he proposes a Cultural Disability Studies in Education (CDSE) approach to teaching cultural concepts. Bolt believes that when disability assumes a focal point in our cultural discourses, it can "[transform] aesthetics and pedagogics […] and [offer] true potential for community across the normative divide," this divide being the socially constructed partition between normate (able) bodies and nonnormate (disabled) ones (11). Ultimately, CDSE discourse encourages equitable, open learning communities, and helps students pursue more ethical lines of inquiry about disability's role in culture.

The critical framework Bolt suggests in order more accurately to locate these cripistemologies is the "tripartite model of disability" wherein disability representation exists on a continuum with three reference points. The first point is normative positivisms, or the affirmation of able bodies; secondly, non-normative negativisms, or the disablement of non-normate bodies; and finally, non-normative positivisms, or deviations that are celebrated or at least avoid social ableism or disablism (5). Bolt applies this tripartite model to every chapter of his book and combines cultural disability with a vast array of other discourses, including aestheticism, gender studies, Holocaust studies, and media studies, and even some lesser-known discourses, like happiness studies and humor studies. Thus, by showing how disability can enhance numerous areas of cultural discourse, Bolt challenges simplistic, one-dimensional [End Page 125] understandings of disability. For example, in Chapter 2, "From Sideshow to Cinema: Disability, Film, and Horrification," Bolt complicates traditional analyses of the 1932 film Freaks by arguing that while the film does in many ways exoticize disabled bodies, it also seeks to normalize the disabled actors by portraying their characters as nuanced people with hopes and fears, who fall in love and who exhibit bravery and resilience when faced with eugenic normalization (34). In short, the film "contributes to the cultural memory of disabled lives" during the time of freak shows (33). Thus, while Bolt does not discount criticisms of the film's disabling tendencies, he does encourage CDSE scholars to allow for a more complex approach to it.

Another compelling aspect of Bolt's work is that he writes his arguments as a fascinating yet pragmatic mosaic of genres. For instance, sometimes his chapters take on the appearance of analytical vignettes, then they turn into lesson plans or annotated bibliographies. His chapters assume a similar pattern of introduction, analysis, conclusion, and discussion questions, but each chapter is unique in that they all branch off into new tributaries of fruitful analytical inquiry. For instance, in Chapter 4, "In the Log House: Disability, Gender, and Resistance to Social Norms," Bolt discusses the interconnectedness of disability and gender studies, and uses this overlap to explore how cultural phenomena, like capitalistic expectations of employability, might inform eroticism, asexuality, and moments of infantilization in relationships where one or both persons are disabled. Also, in Chapter 6, "End of the Rock Star: Disability, Music, and the Passage of Time," Bolt discusses chronic illness and expectations of the rock star persona in music and pop culture studies by comparing Freddie Mercury and Johnny Cash, ultimately ending the chapter in a poetically philosophical meditation on love and...


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