Richard III meets Benjy at a cash bar

December 17, 1999

With the humanities just beginning to consider all of what makesus human, Michael Berube looks at the hopeful condition of disability studies and invites you to have a drink

The MLA affords, among its many trivial pleasures, distinctive ways of determining whether an academic subfield has achieved critical mass. Well-attended sessions, substantial presence in the book displays, that sort of thing. Also a cash bar. You cannot make the claim that your field counts, I'm afraid, unless you can back up those sessions and those book displays with a good cash bar.

I am kidding, of course, but then again I am not. Though I do not "identify as disabled", as the saying goes, I happen to sit on the MLA committee on disability issues, which is only a few years old, and one of our tasks this fall has been to publicise sessions related to disability studies - and our first cash bar.

So even as we call attention to papers such as James C. Wilson's "Mapping Disability: The Disabled Body as Genetic-Textual Irregularity" and Robert McRuer's "As Good as It Gets: Implementing Queer Theory and Disability Studies", the committee is also charged with asking all of its friends to visit the Columbian room of the Chicago Hyatt Regency between 5:15pm and 6:30pm on Wednesday December 29.

The MLA cash bar is one of those scholarly phenomena seemingly designed to provoke media derision of the cheap-shot variety, such as the observation that even the Marxist Literary Group cash bar charges you the standard $8 hotel rate for a Scotch. And if truth be told, the committee on disability issues had more important items on its agenda during its 14-hour organisational meeting in September. Physical access issues concerning convention hotels; intellectual access issues involving large-print editions, websites with audio, and the availability and training of sign-language interpreters for conference presentations (a routine matter - until you start asking yourself how many interpreters in Chicago are familiar with Walter Benjamin and Jacques Lacan); and sweeping social-access issues such as how to address the gap between the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 - which covers children aged 3-18 and focuses on education - and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 - which covers adults, but focuses mainly on employment discrimination, thus leaving out higher education and contributing to the disconnection between disability-studies students on one side of the campus and disability service-provision personnel on the other.

(Why is this last item important? Because, as Tammy Gravenhorst, a graduate student at the University of Indiana and a member of the committee on disability issues, pointed out, students with disabilities who graduate from college go on to perform as well as the able-bodied in the workplace, but the drop-out rate for students with disabilities is much higher than the rate for able-bodied students.) It was a dense, exhausting meeting, and the MLA cash bar was just one small item on the table. But who knows? Maybe if a few of our cash bars are successful, in a few years many more scholars in the humanities will know the implications of disability studies for literary criticism, theories of the body and equal-access education.

It is not quite true that disability studies are new. Medicine and psychiatry could plausibly be said to have "theorised" disability at every moment of their existence. What is new is the de-medicalisation of disability, the willingness to look at disability not as "abnormal psychology", but as "social construction". What is new is the willingness to read the function of disability in literature and the realisation that it is hard to find literary characters with disabilities - from William Shakespeare's Richard III to Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol to Benjy Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury - whose disabilities are not always metaphors for something else. What is new is the attempt to see disability as a category of identity, alongside race, class, sexual orientation and gender.

Here is where the critics of disability studies have tended to focus. One more category, one more identity politics? Isn't it already hard enough to think race and gender in the same thought, or to complicate one's psychoanalytic account of sexuality with a Marxist account of class? Now we have to think about multiple sclerosis, Down's syndrome, deafness, cerebral palsy, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Aids? We have to think about disabilities that are temporary and/or imperceptible, about congenital diseases and falling anvils, about sex-linked traits that show up in men and about the frailties to which all ageing flesh is heir?

The short answer is yes. But at the same time, disability is not necessarily an "identity". The term covers many conditions, some of which do not map onto identities; the range of states considered to be disabilities changes with every decade, as do therapies and treatments; no person has every disability; and no person who is "disabled" with regard to one task (changing light bulbs, speaking, manufacturing white blood cells) is necessarily disabled with regard to any other.

From the emerging perspectives of disability studies, theories of "social construction" seem as yet too coarse-grained and general to guide our understanding of how bodies, buildings, legal statutes and medical practices come together to produce a "disability". Epilepsy in France in 1300 is not the same thing as epilepsy in Canada in 2000, and medical advances are but a small part of the difference. This much is obvious. But what will disability come to mean in the next few centuries, in the incipient age of genetic therapy and bioengineering? And why should anyone try to de-medicalise disability at a time when our understanding of humans is more medicalised than ever?

Let me put it this way. If humanists are really, finally, going to be humanists in the sense that nothing human will be alien to them, then disability studies is merely the final instalment of a long overdue debt. The remarkable fact is that the humanities have only just begun to study all that makes us human, just in time to compete meaningfully with the medical profession for the task of forging the values that govern our definition of what it means to be human.

The field of disability studies has come latest to this enterprise, and it does not have as clear a constituency as do the humanities' other major identity-based fields of study regarding race, gender and sexual orientation.

My guess, however, is that the field's heterogeneity will be a strength, for the curious mix of scholars with and without disabilities will tend to discourage people from believing that disability studies is reducible to a handful of people with an assortment of disabilities and from believing that the field consists of able-bodied folk making academic capital and careers out of other people's "conditions".

And my hope is that the field's belatedness will help it avoid the reductiveness in which other identity-based fields indulged whenever they got the sense that their axes of identity-construction explained the world fully. As long as disability studies prevents us from thinking simplistically, or too medically, about the fungibility of the human constitution, it will be doing the work we humanists need it to do.

In the meantime, we hope to see you at the next MLA cash bar. This year my wife and I are bringing our two sons, the younger of whom has Down's syndrome. We are not doing this to make a point. We will just be looking to get the boys a couple of sodas after their long internment in daycare and to talk with a few of our friends about Lennard Davis's account of how the 19th-century sciences of population management bequeathed us the idea of a "normal" person. All in a day's work for a new committee at the MLA.

Michael Berube is director of the Illinois Programme for Research in the Humanities.

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