Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities

By White, Bruce A. | Sign Language Studies, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities


White, Bruce A., Sign Language Studies


Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (New York: Modern Language Association, 2002. xiii + 386 pp. $22 paper, $40 cloth)

ASSUMPTIONS CAN BE more disabling than disabilities. When I was a toddler, Eva and Charley lived in our apartment building. Eva had a low voice, which made it easier for me to understand her, and I spent many hours playing in her apartment. I knew that her leg braces and crutches were connected to polio but didn't know the details. A few years later, when visiting their new apartment, I was stunned when I saw a newly displayed wedding photo. The photo exploded my assumptions about Charley, his wife, and their relationship: Eva had had polio before they got married. What had trapped me into thinking that Charley was such a good husband for accepting his wife's condition after she got the disease? What had disabled me from considering the possibility that he had courted a woman with crutches?

Answers to such questions are easier to come by today, given the burgeoning wealth of resources related to disability studies. An internet search for that term returns approximately forty thousand hits; there is little doubt that in a few more years related fields such as Deaf studies will become subsets of disability studies. A valuable addition to this field is Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. The volume is modestly priced and comes with a compact disc containing XML and ASCII versions of the text. In her concluding essay, "An Enabling Pedagogy," Brenda Jo Brueggemann expresses the hope that the collection of pieces she has edited with Sharon L. Snyder and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson will "offer disability as insight" into language and literature for undergraduate and graduate students. Published by the Modern Language Association, this volume endeavors to "show how to integrate the concept and representation of disability" into teaching and scholarship and "offer strategies for integrating people with disabilities into the classroom and the profession." Integration into the profession is only tangentially addressed, but the volume richly delivers on the other stated objectives. The four headings for the twenty-four essays (plus an introduction and afterword) are "Enabling Theory," "Autobiographical Subjects," "Rehabilitating Representation," and "Enabling Pedagogy." (Disclosure note: I know several of the volume's contributors.)

In the leading essay, "Narrative Prosthesis and the Materiality of Metaphor," David T. Mitchell's central thesis is that disability "pervades literary narrative," both as a stock feature of characterization (thus serving as narrative prosthesis) and as a metaphoric device. He analyzes the children's book The Steadfast Tin Soldier to exemplify narrative prosthesis and discusses Sophocles' Oedipus the King to exemplify the metaphoric use of disability, which he terms the materiality of metaphor. Other essays in the "Enabling Theory" section include "The Visible Cripple (Scars and Other Disfiguring Displays Included)," by Mark Jeffreys; "Tender Organs, Narcissism, and Identity Politics," by Tobin Siebers; "The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography," by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson; "Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence," by Robert McRuer; and "Bodies of Difference: Politics, Disability, and Representation," by Lennard J. Davis.

The essay in this section that may be of most interest to readers of Sign Language Studies is Michael Davidson's "Hearing Things: The Scandal of Speech in Deaf Performance," in which he discusses the work of Deaf language artists "for whom the use of speech and vocalization is a kind of scandal." He focuses on two such artists, Peter Cook and Aaron Williamson. Peter Cook (who attended the Clarke School) and his hearing collaborator, Kenny Lerner, perform as the Flying Words Project; not only does Lerner occasionally speak over Cook's signs, Cook sometimes vocalizes as well, in what Davidson terms "an immanent critique of audist ideology. …

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