Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic

Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic

Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic

Reading Embodied Citizenship: Disability, Narrative, and the Body Politic

Synopsis

Liberal individualism, a foundational concept of American politics, assumes an essentially homogeneous population of independent citizens. When confronted with physical disability and the contradiction of seemingly unruly bodies, however, the public searches for a story that can make sense of the difference. The narrative that ensues makes "abnormality" an important part of the dialogue about what a genuine citizen is, though its role is concealed as an exception to the rule of individuality rather than a defining difference. Reading Embodied Citizenship brings disability to the forefront, illuminating its role in constituting what counts as U.S. citizenship.

Drawing from major figures in American literature, including Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and David Foster Wallace, as well as introducing texts from the emerging canon of disability studies, Emily Russell demonstrates the place of disability at the core of American ideals. The narratives prompted by the encounter between physical difference and the body politic require a new understanding of embodiment as a necessary conjunction of physical, textual, and social bodies. Russell examines literature to explore and unsettle long-held assumptions about American citizenship.

Excerpt

In the political history of disability in the United States, 1990 serves as a watershed moment. The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a broad legislative statement laid on the foundation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, affirmed the rights of disabled Americans in the last of that century’s civil rights laws. While each of the act’s five titles covers specific spheres such as employment, public services, and communications technology, the conceptual reach of the ADA goes beyond these aspects of policy to impact the most fundamental concepts in American citizenship, including independence, individualism, and public responsibility to citizens. Crucial to the passage of the ADA was the insistence that disabled Americans were not seeking so-called special treatment, but demanding foundational civil rights. The need for this legislation two centuries after the Bill of Rights was enacted, however, captures an equally fundamental truth about American citizenship: the concepts that are central to U.S. national identity are not timeless, but uneven, compromised, and contested. Reading Embodied Citizenship explores how confronting figures of physical difference throws central concepts of American identity into crisis and examines the narrative revisions that take place in the face of these public encounters.

Not only did the ADA hold together decades of disability legislation under one central act, it also reaffirmed a basic statement about how to define disability. According to Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer’s history of American disability policy, defining who would be covered by the . . .

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