Saturday, September 8, 2012

Toward some Disability Studies approaches to reading

By Therí A. Pickens

As I gear up to teach “Intro to Disability Studies," I find myself wanting to be prescriptive about how students should read a text in a disability-centered fashion. Now, this presents several challenges because disability is such a broad category that even the field of Disability Studies (DS) has few hard and set rules about how to do a disability-centered reading. Just look at the Society of Disability Studies (SDS) Conference program from this past June for the wide diversity of panels and papers.

In what follows, I want to work through some approaches and questions that are suggestive, but by no means exhaustive. I find that the valid contentions that arise with each of these approaches is perhaps more instructive than if I were to give a prescription for reading.

Disability and Impairment – My first thought is that the reading has to in some way focus on impairment and disability. That is, you may ask yourself where is impairment in this text? What creates or exacerbates impairment? How are people engaging with the social structures that create disability? How/when does disability intersect with other ontological categories?

Many times these readings work, but DS is also an analytic for how we view the world. So, readings can also interrogate ability more directly as well. What does it mean to be capable in this text? How does one navigate social structures generally? Do they construct disability regardless of the presence of impairment?

Normalcy – When we think of DS as an analytic, we come to the question of normalcy. At its core, disability asks us to reckon with the pleasant and obstructive ontological fiction of wholeness. DS questions the premise of normalcy with regard to the body, asking us to reckon with ageism, sizeism, and ableism among other categories. One could ask how a text defines/redefines/supports/constructs normalcy. When a text has a normal (as most any text does), how is that standard challenged? How do characters or consumers interact with that standard and the challenge?

Nomenclature – As you may have noticed from my other blog entries, I tend to make a distinction between impairment and disability. For DS scholars, they are two different concepts. Distinguishing between the two asks us to reconceptualize how we understand the material reality of the mind and body (impairment) and the social and institutional structures that ignore bodily reality and exclude people (disability). DS is fundamentally concerned with challenging concepts like these.

Often this challenging occurs in the realm of nomenclature: eschewing the saccharin content-free phrases like "able disabled," "handi-capable," "physically challenged;" exposing the shame embedded in euphemisms like "special" or "touched" or "needs help;" deliberately discomfiting people with putative bad words like cripple, crazy, and gimp; and changing the grammar to suit political needs by using people first language when appropriate (i.e. people with disabilities vs. disabled) or championing less used words (i.e. neuroatypical). I often ask how texts deploy certain words for philosophical, or emotive pay-offs. What does the text expect? What audience is reached for or alienated?

I do have a few colleagues who call some of this logophilic emphasis “the word police.” I see their point as sometimes this can devolve into discussions about what is PC and not. Even if we shift the focus from what to use and when, we still challenge the violence embedded in the language used to reference disability.

I am hoping that these issues related to disability, impairment, normalcy, and nomenclature generates discussion about approaches to the field and reading strategies. Make no mistake, DS does not happen upon new readings through vectors of personal angst and frustration. We have trained (and continue to train) ourselves to examine texts anew for what they offer us in the way of understanding our world – in all of its disabled variety.

Therí A. Pickens is an assistant professor of English at Bates College and a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE.


Josh said...

I'm sympathetic to Shelley's suggestion in her DSR piece that "impairment" can be problematic, even by the social model's own standards. Disability, I tell my students, is the interaction between a nonnormative bodymind and an inaccessible environment. Sure, it makes sense to say disability is the lack of an ability that is important for full participation in a given society, but what "lack" itself is and what gets characterized as lack is so contingent.

TAP said...

Josh, It is such an eye-opener for you to call this an interactive process. I think that really expands the notion of what I mean when I say social structures. It is so important to consistently trouble the stock phrases in our field. Honestly, I have been trying to avoid the term 'lack' for all the contingency issues, but there is no escaping it.... This gets us into stigma as well.