Enabling disabled scholarship

A budding intellectual movement asks scholars to redefine normal. But who are these postmodern theories really helping?

By Norah Vincent

Published August 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Byron had a club foot, and Homer was blind." Northern Michigan University professor of English David Mitchell was lecturing me on the latest academic sub-discipline: disability studies. As president of the Society for Disability Studies, he is one of the world's reigning authorities on the social construction of disability and the prevalence of disabled writers in the literary canon. "Toulouse Lautrec was short statured," he went on, "a dwarfish figure. There's also Henry James, Stephen Crane, Hemingway. You can keep going down the line." And he did, but I was stuck on Hemingway. What was his disability, I wondered? Later, when asked to clarify, he paused. "Did I say he had one? I think I was talking about one of Hemingway's characters from 'The Sun Also Rises.' Jake Barnes. He's impotent and he has a war wound."

In May the SDS held its 12th annual conference in Washington. The vast majority of the 250 members are themselves disabled. I attended, hoping to witness this new brand of literary theory at work. Partly due to the flurry of judicial and legislative activity pursuant to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, disability studies, once an arcane field of literary theory, has begun to attract attention from both the media and the academy. Last year the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a congratulatory piece on the rise of the new field. Meanwhile, several well-respected university presses have begun cranking out the obligatory readers and monographs on the subject. Some schools have even launched DS graduate programs: Syracuse University offers a master's and the University of Illinois at Chicago has its own Ph.D. program.

Following the tradition of leftist identity politics, in which marginal or minority groups embody a surrogate proletariat and a potential instrument of cultural revolution, SDS envisions disabled people as an inherently subversive class. So, as Brown University professor of German Carol Poore asserted in her SDS conference lecture, "No Friend of the Third Reich," disability is actually preferable to ability in that able-bodiedness "is the precondition for being a tool of the ruling class." Disability is, therefore, seditious; and disabled bodies, as Poore put it, are "non-conforming bodies."

Poore drove her point home in her analysis of Arnold Zweig's novel "The Acts of Wandsbeck." In the book, Tom, a crippled man and a committed anti-fascist, helps to bring down a local shopkeeper who is determined to enforce Nazi race laws, which, as we know, subjected disabled people to the same brutal discrimination and genocide as Jews, homosexuals, communists and Gypsies. According to Poore, Tom's disability hard-wires him for political resistance, and thereby separates him organically from the run-of-the-mill German who is equally hard-wired to be fascistic, or to be what Daniel Goldhagen called one of "Hitler's willing executioners." So, like Goldhagen, Poore argued that "the defect is not Tom's, but the larger society's."

No one disputes that this was true in Nazi Germany, but Poore's conclusions didn't seem focused entirely on Germany circa 1945. In the context of a conference where many of the participants appeared to endorse the notion that we are living in what disability studies guru Lennard Davis calls "the United States of Ability," there also lurked the idea that Amerika is also filled with body-fascists, who, if given the chance, would happily exterminate their disabled population. Like the most radical race philosophies in America, according to which it is commonly understood that being white ipso facto makes you racist, the SDS philosophy seemed to endorse the idea that disabled people are martyred revolutionaries, and "normals" are really just Nazis in disguise.

In another panel discussion, "Why the Media Have No Understanding of Disability," David Pfeiffer of the University of Hawaii echoed Poore's Nazi analysis, applying it to contemporary America. Implying that society itself is hell-bent on subjecting disabled people to a final solution, Pfeiffer pointed out that all of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's "patients" have been severely disabled. This fact tars the ethics of assisted suicide. "It's not suicide," he asserted in conclusion. "It's genocide."

Throughout history disabled people have been subjected to isolation, ridicule, torture and endless fantasies about their moral monstrousness. Thus, disabled peoples' fears about fascist societies and eager doctors of death are profoundly understandable. But disability studies has gone a step further and questioned the very notion that society might want to avoid producing disabled individuals. "Many eras have tried to figure out how to get rid of their disabled people," David Mitchell explains, "not only in terms of eugenics and genocide, although that certainly happened, but also cultures fantasize about literally eliminating disability. Think of the Easter Seals slogan, 'Prevent birth defects.' That kind of thing. As if somehow if we were more attentive, we could get rid of disability."

Can Mitchell really mean that the medicines and technologies that help prevent and predict deformities are part of some insidious plot to exterminate disabled people? Is a woman who chooses to take a folic acid supplement during her pregnancy -- a vitamin known to reduce the incidence of birth defects -- embracing a polite modern manifestation of eugenics?

While scholars of disabled studies are appropriating the disabled body as the consummate anti-fascist signifier, they also warn against the "ableist" trap of making disabled people into overloaded symbols. In his lecture on Charles Dickens' "Barnaby Rudge," Patrick McDonagh of Concordia University argued that the intellectually disabled Barnaby Rudge, who leads his fellow citizens to riot against the British government, is used both to symbolize "the mob's moral idiocy" and to reinforce the value of paternal authority. Among SDSers the unspoken rule seems to be that it's kosher to assign symbolic import to disabled folk so long as it's done in the service of Marxist ideology.

At the core of disability studies is a question that has of late occupied many an academic discipline. What is normal? Since Michel Foucault theorized that societies -- not natural laws -- invent the "normal," normalcy has been the focus of fierce debates in women's studies, queer theory and ethnic studies, as well as in more traditional fields like history, political science, literature, sociology and anthropology. Yet in an academic petri dish teeming with peculiar intellectual hybrids, disability studies must be one of the most bizarre creatures the ivory tower has ever spawned.

The ostensible goal of SDS has been to spread acceptance of the disabled into "ableist" culture. But like their queer studies/gay rights counterparts -- who shifted focus from acceptance of gay culture to a more chauvinistic gay pride -- disability mavens are advocating a surreal ideology one might call "disability pride." Not only do SDSers want to declare that disability is normal, they insist that disability should not be associated with disease, and therefore doesn't need curing.

Having taken disability pride to its logical extreme, many SDSers view Western medicine much the same way most homosexuals view reparative psychotherapy. Just as homosexuality was removed from the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual, and is no longer widely accepted as a disorder, the hope seems to be that society will come to understand disability as a kind of alternative lifestyle, or body-style. SDSers refer disparagingly to such remedial approaches as the "medical model," in contrast to the "empowerment model," which locates disabled people on a "continuum of normalcy." In this vein, one conference attendee announced proudly that she had "given up on being fixed," adding with a smile, "It feels good."

But this is not group therapy. It's a budding intellectual movement -- struggling to redefine a portion of our society that has been grossly misrepresented and misunderstood. Does the empowerment model enlighten us about disability's real role in the lives of individuals and society? Or does it simply obfuscate an unpleasant truth with feel-good oxymorons?

In their interrogation of conventional sexual, racial and social categories, postmodern theories have successfully revealed the limitations of much conventional wisdom. Even so, it's hard to deny that something called normalcy exists. The human body is a machine, after all -- one that has evolved functional parts: lungs for breathing, legs for walking, eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, a tongue for speaking and most crucially for all the academics concerned, a brain for thinking. This is science, not culture. How then can we make the case that blind eyes, or deaf ears, or mute tongues are serving the purpose for which they evolved? They are, in purely ergonomic terms, broken, dysfunctional and -- contrary to what SDSers might maintain -- in need of repair, if repair is feasible. When one is dealing with severe physical disabilities, it's difficult to accept that anti-medical definitions of disabilities do anyone any good. As SDSers themselves admit, such disabilities quite often entail a great deal of discomfort and pain, not to mention infuriating inconvenience.

"It takes much longer for a disabled person to relax and be comfortable than a non-disabled person," SDS board member Phyllis Rubenfeld a professor of social work and special education at Hunter College, told me. "There are people at this conference who are exhausting themselves out of their minds, who are ruining their bodies because they don't want to use a chair or a scooter, because then they would feel more disabled."

But some SDSers maintain that, even if they were presented with a cure for their disabilities, they wouldn't take it. Such rejections of medical and therapeutic interventions are most well known in the deaf community -- a group that has created a rich culture based on sign language. But while sign language can work as a viable substitute for spoken language, it's more difficult to understand how quadriplegic culture might evolve a movement form that would render the ability to walk truly undesirable. This is perhaps the biggest self-delusion at the heart of SDS -- one that you can't entirely begrudge disabled people from indulging. We all lie to ourselves about unpleasant realities, if only just to get through the day.

When asked about this casting-off of cures, Phyllis Rubenfeld said: "You don't really think they believe that, do you? They think it's cool to say that. To some degree you do have to come to terms with your disability, because if you didn't you'd be on so many antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs that it wouldn't be funny. We all engage in denial."

Much like its cousins -- queer studies, women's studies and African-American studies -- disability studies already has a rigid methodology in place, from which few if any of its practitioners stray. In an essay in the Disability Studies Quarterly, Lennard Davis outlined this methodology of "emerging disciplines" into three basic tasks. The first is to expose negative stereotypes of disabled people throughout history and culture. McDonagh is a typical practitioner of this method. Oft-repeated examples of such negative stereotypes include Shakespeare's Richard III and Melville's Captain Ahab.

The second task in SDS is to unearth more positive examples of the disabled. This aims to show us that Western culture is, in fact, chock-full of disabled geniuses. Alexander Pope is one canonical literato that SDSers are fond of calling their own. As David Mitchell says:

Pope was a hunchback with severe scoliosis. Yet, he's famous for creating this perfectly symmetrical poetic style. His poems, for instance, use poetic couplets. It's interesting to see how Pope's experience of his own body influenced his belief in this kind of poetry that was a counterbalance to his own physical life. Pope has had many biographers, including Maynard Mack, who have completely discounted the role of his disability in his work.

Regurgitating a bit of dubious scholarship, Mitchell has also managed to add the Bard himself to the list of luminaries. "New research on the Earl of Oxford, who was actually Shakespeare," says Mitchell, "shows that he had a severe disability. He walked with a cane." (This, incidentally, undermines the idea that Shakespeare's Richard III was the brainchild of an evil normal).

The third and final task in SDS is to create a theory or philosophy of disability that will entirely recast the way our culture has conceptualized disability. This encompasses the so-called "empowerment model" and the drive toward "reforming normalcy."

But, as Phyllis Rubenfeld pointed out, all of this SDS theory isn't really helping anyone except the academic careerists who espouse it: "What bothers me about the theoretical stuff is that that's just being a snob. People would rather teach than work and get their hands dirty in the ditches."

The ditches, of course, are the depressing economic realities that many disabled people face -- most of which disability studies scholars largely ignore. According to Rubenfeld, a distressing number of relatively able-bodied disabled people have been collecting Social Security Disability Insurance since they were 18. Many of them live in government-subsidized (Section 8) housing. Though for the severely disabled who can't work, this kind of government aid is a life-saver, it often condemns them to lifelong poverty and desuetude. For those who could work but don't, SSDI, like welfare, can act as a disincentive to getting a job and finding a place in the real world.

But, aside from being useless to disabled people, SDS theory is also self-contradictory. Take steps one and two above: How can we say that Western culture has demonized, oppressed or ignored the disabled, and then turn around and claim that many of the great works of Western culture were created by illustrious disabled people whose disabilities deeply influenced their work? In this scenario, your Dead White Male hegemony turns out to be Dead, White, Male and Disabled. Now who's oppressing whom?

In his lecture on "Disability Studies in Theory," University of Michigan professor of English Tobin Siebers fell into this trap. After quoting Foucault and postmodern gender theoretician Judith Butler to bolster his assertion that all bodies are socially constructed, he made one exception: "Disabled bodies are a speck of reality beyond the constructed world, the badly turned ankle under society's skirts." He then argued that disability, not ability, might be a better measurement for what is normal since everyone is, at one time or another, disabled. In the womb, he claimed, we are disabled, as we are in the increasing decrepitude of old age. Life, Siebers maintained, is really just a brief window of ability between the natural states of disability. Thus, he concluded, "the able body [not the disabled body] is the true image of the other." The redefinition is complete: disability is normal, and ability is abnormal.

Today, such inversions are typical in scholarly circles. Disability studies is just another example of what has gone so disastrously wrong with leftist identity politics in the academy and with its overarching schema, postmodern theory. Its adherents see all available evidence through the warped lens of their foregone conclusions, rather than deriving those conclusions from an unbiased examination of the evidence. This is scholarship in reverse, and it is profoundly anti-intellectual. Because if you know the answer you're looking for in advance, and if there are no accepted facts in your discipline by which to measure truth and falsehood, then you'll always be able to massage the available evidence to support your conclusions.

Having fallen prey to the same fatuous thinking that once made scholars of racist, sexist and homophobic philosophies academically acceptable, these contemporary scholars glorify those without power instead of those with it. Nietzsche once called this the tyranny of the weak. Scholars are being trained to see hegemony under every bed and so, of course, they do. But in trying to construct a more humane intellectual legacy, they sometimes do damage to the very people they are professing to protect. Ensconced in their increasingly specialized worlds, such scholars have raised theoretical political empowerment over both real political empowerment and the pursuit of truth.

The scholarly world has become a theory factory where Ph.D.s are not considered professionals, much less intellectuals, until 1) they embark on their research with unerring faith in a rote yet radical theoretical paradigm; 2) they apply that paradigm blindly and methodically to every possible victimized subset of humanity; and 3) they neatly invert received bourgeois prejudices on each of those subsets.

So what is to be done? Perhaps the best that real scholars can do is expose the failings of this academic methodology to the students under its influence -- students whose chance at a real education in literature, culture and history is so imperiled.

The only hope may be to realize that trendy secondary sources are vastly overrated, and to return to primary sources, facts and the works of art themselves, not some pre-programmed ideologue's jerry-built interpretation of them. One of the biggest obstacles facing the disabled is that they can't get jobs because, as spokespeople like Phyllis Rubenfeld pointed out, they lack basic math and reading skills. Perhaps the money that's going into disability studies departments should really be going into job training programs. Unfortunately, disability studies graduates won't have much firsthand experience with the ABCs of their chosen disciplines -- they'll be convinced that the Earl of Oxford "was actually" Shakespeare, and they won't have learned how to think for themselves. But at least they'll avoid insidious doctors who wish to treat them, they'll understand their innate role as revolutionaries and, by God, they'll know they're normal.

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent is a New York journalist.

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