Academic journal article MELUS

Editors' Introduction: Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature: Intersections and Interventions

Academic journal article MELUS

Editors' Introduction: Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature: Intersections and Interventions

Article excerpt

Since the introduction of disability studies into the fields of the humanities and cultural studies in the early 1990s, the field has, to a large extent, concerned itself with the politics of representation, focusing on creating knowledge about the histories, activism, and cultures of a people who have been designated as "other." This centering of disability as a social and political issue wrests control of it from the realm of medical science, which has historically maintained control over the delineation, definition, and treatment of disabilities--often with the result that people with disabilities are summarily portrayed as medical specimens or problems to be fixed. Furthermore, the medicalization of disability defines disability merely as a physiological impairment--a source of individual misfortune or the unnatural product of a biological "accident"--and thus avoids considering the implications of "disability" as a discursively engineered social category. (1) What disability studies does, then, is call attention to how built and social environments disenable those with physical, sensory, or cognitive impairments and privilege those who are normatively constituted. (2)

Exposing the constructed aspects of disability partially entails demonstrating that the goals of medical rehabilitation and other curative measures often have been driven by ideological objectives that have little to do with the needs of disabled individuals; indeed, the disabled might not deem intervention necessary. In A History of Disability. Henri-Jacques Stiker contends that Western societies' rush to "fix" bodies labeled "disabled" steins from a growing unwillingness to acknowledge circumstances--for example, poverty, war, or unsafe industries--that continue to create environmentally instigated forms of disability (see 121 - 189). None of this is meant to suggest that "disability" is merely a cultural fiction or that any of the attendant challenges the disabled may face are wholly preventable. However, unpacking the portrayal of disability in medical science and its deployment in socio-political spheres shifts our attention from disability as a medical problem located in the individual to disability as a label that generates institutionalized exclusion.

Ethnic studies has a long history of considering race in conjunction with gender, class, sexuality, immigrant and colonial subject status, and the scholarship on the intersectionality of these social identities is vast. However, there is very little work that addresses the ways in which the categories of race/ethnicity and disability are used to constitute one another or the ways that those social, political, and cultural practices have kept seemingly different groups of people in strikingly similar marginalized positions. Disability studies historian Douglas Baynton has suggested that the dominant culture's consistent conflation of these varied identities has served a political purpose: While "[d]isability has functioned historically to justify inequality for disabled people themselves, the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them ... non-white races were routinely connected to people with disabilities, both of whom were depicted as evolutionary laggards or throwbacks" (36).

In the medical fields, these "laggards" and "throwbacks" have been targeted for experimentation, isolation, and even extermination. Most famously perhaps, the early twentieth-century birth control advocate Margaret Sanger argued that sterilizing the mentally and physically disabled would be an effective means of ridding the world of "defectives." As she notoriously proclaimed in The Pivot of Civilization (1922): "Every single case of inherited defect, every malformed child, every congenitally tainted human being brought into this world is of infinite importance to that poor individual; but it is of scarcely less important to the rest of us . …

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