In this essay, I utilize the intersections between disability theory and rhetorical theory to identify two key and interconnected stages of actor and activist Michael J. Fox's performativity of disabled identity: first, a rhetoric of passing and second, a rhetoric of masquerade. Ultimately, I claim that Fox as a visibly disabled rhetor speaks both as stigma—because his rhetoric issues from and through his body as he experiences Parkinson's disease—and of stigma—because he performs disability not just to provide an exigency for research into cures but also to challenge the cultural norms that dehumanize the disabled subject.

On Wednesday, October 18, 2006, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, actor and activist Michael J. Fox1 shot a television campaign advertisement on behalf of Missouri Senator (then candidate) Claire McCaskill, linking her support for stem cell research to the exigency for a cure for Parkinson's disease and urging the people of Missouri to vote for her in the November election ("Stand Up"). The ad is brief, only thirty-seven seconds in length, and it takes place in what appears to be a comfortable living room decorated in neutral colors, except for a single bright vase of yellow flowers set on a table beneath a window just behind Fox's left shoulder. Fox remains seated throughout the ad and speaks directly into the camera. He states:

As you might know, I care deeply about stem cell research. In Missouri you can elect Claire McCaskill, who shares my hope for cures. Unfortunately, Senator Jim Talent opposes expanding stem cell research. Senator Talent even wanted to criminalize the science that gives us the chance for hope. They say all politics is local, but that's not always the case. What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans. Americans like me. ("Stand Up")

Throughout the ad, Fox's body appears visibly disabled. At times he seems to be striving to stay seated in his chair, and his head and shoulders rock from side to side with nearly every word he speaks.

On Friday, October 20, the ad was posted to Claire McCaskill's campaign website and uploaded to YouTube by McCaskill4Missouri. On Saturday, October 21, the ad aired nationally during Game One of the World Series as well as on local Missouri television stations. And on Monday, October 23, Rush Limbaugh, on Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show, told listeners he had seen Michael J. Fox's commercial for Claire McCaskill and remarked that Fox was "exaggerating the effects of the disease," and was "either off his medication or acting" when the ad was shot. In the meantime, as Limbaugh spoke, the in-studio camera captured him waving his arms, bobbing his head, and weaving his frame in imitation of Fox's movements ("Limbaugh on MJF").

For the next three days—Tuesday, October 24 to Thursday, October 26—a media frenzy ensued. Major television news outlets covered the story around the clock, and major newspapers weighed in on what came to be known as the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy." The first order of business was to investigate Limbaugh's claim: was Fox, when he appeared visibly disabled before the camera, acting? exaggerating? off his medication? On October 24, Fox's spokesperson released a statement and Fox himself went on record in an interview with MSNBC. Each explained that the physical symptoms Fox experienced taping the ad were due both to the disease itself and to side effects of the medication he was taking (Stone 10A; Serrano). However, it wasn't until October 25, when news outlets consulted physicians outside the controversy who verified Fox's story, that he was exonerated of Limbaugh's original accusations (Montgomery; Coyle).

Once it was established that Fox was indeed displaying symptoms of "classic severe Parkinson's," Limbaugh apologized, "bigly, hugely admit[ting] [he] was wrong for characterizing Fox's behavior… as 'an act,'" ("Limbaugh 'Apologized'"). However, he quickly followed his mea culpa with another attack on the ad, claiming that it revealed Fox "allowing his disease to be exploited and in the process schilling for a Democratic politician" (qtd. in Stanley, "Making"). With Limbaugh's second remark circulating the news cycle, commentators began to grasp for a meaning to give Fox's disabled embodiment in the ad in conjunction with his seemingly unilateral purpose: to get Claire McCaskill elected in order to advance research for cures. In other words, if Fox was not "acting," if his physical disability was "real," then what role could—and should—it play in his argument, and what effect could—and should—it have on his audience? Significant for both disability studies and rhetoric is the fact that the majority of the popular media interpreted Fox's visibly disabled body as (only) suffering and, in tandem, attributed the rhetorical power of the ad to (only) pathos. To be sure, those who believed in Fox's mission represented him as a valiant hero fighting for cures, while those who questioned Fox's goals constructed him as a hapless victim whose disease made him susceptible to predatory politicos all too eager to make him their "powerfully vulnerable pitchman" (Coyle). But hero or victim regardless, Fox's rhetoric became conscribed, in the days following Limbaugh's remarks, to his body and his body alone—absent history, absent complexity, absent agency—and the means of persuasion assumed to be available to him as a rhetor were reduced to one: the appeal to pity.

Disability theorist Tobin Siebers defines ableism as, most simply, "the prejudicial reduction of a body to its disability" (81). When viewed from a disability studies perspective, the assessment of Fox's rhetoric in the McCaskill ad as one-dimensional is clearly connected with a naturalized narrative of disability fundamental to ableist ideology, wherein disability is synonymous with "tragedy, deficit, and loss" and people with disabilities signify for the nondisabled objects of pity and charity (Linton 5, 11). In this essay, I use the intersections between disability theory and rhetorical theory to replace the ableist lens through which Fox's McCaskill ad was initially interpreted (by Limbaugh and the popular media) to argue that Fox's rhetoric in relation to the 2006 "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy" cannot be reduced to one campaign advertisement involving one rhetorical methodology to effect one meaning. Instead, it must be examined in light of a series of rhetorical occasions involving Fox's multi-layered use of disabled subjectivity to convey multiple meanings to an audience unaccustomed to the presence of visibly disabled rhetors.

In essence, I seek to restore history, complexity, and agency to Fox's work through a thorough exploration of his rhetoric as it moves through what I identify as two key and interconnected stages—first, a rhetoric of passing and second, a rhetoric of masquerade. Each rhetoric offers multiple meaning-making opportunities for his audience by simultaneously creating space for the social acceptance of people with visible physical disabilities while also highlighting the exigency for those with chronic and degenerative diseases to be able to choose to seek medical intervention that might alleviate pain and suffering. To do so, I broaden the scope of my inquiry to look beyond Limbaugh's knee-jerk responses to the McCaskill ad and the quick conclusions drawn by pundits caught up in the resulting furor (though these are the rhetorical occasions that garnered the most sensational publicity). In order to demonstrate Fox's transition from a rhetoric of passing to a rhetoric of masquerade, I locate each in examples drawn from Fox's memoirs. In the first section of my analysis, I apply Simi Linton's and Tobin Siebers' theories of passing to Fox's 2002 memoir Lucky Man so as to reveal Fox's early rhetoric of passing as a major influence on his later rhetorical performances in relation to the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy." In the second section of my analysis, I use Siebers' notion of the masquerade and Rosemarie Garland Thomson's study of staring to characterize Fox's rhetoric throughout the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy"—in the McCaskill ad, in his related televised appearances, and in his 2009 memoir Always Looking Up—as a rhetoric of masquerade.

Ultimately I claim that in each of these stages of rhetoric, Fox's embodied performance of disability allows him to speak both as stigma—because his rhetoric issues from and through his body as he experiences Parkinson's disease—and of stigma—because he performs disability not just to provide an exigency for research into cures but also to challenge the cultural norms that dehumanize the disabled subject. In this sense, I argue that Fox's multi-dimensional rhetoric serves as a case study of the performative power of visible disability—what disability and rhetoric scholar Jay Dolmage would call "the body of rhetoric" —at a time when, in the collective imagination and in our own rhetorical histories, physical difference connotes a lack of agency and disability serves as a "master trope of disqualification" from speaking and being heard (1, 5).2

Stigma and Performativity at the Intersection of Disability Studies and Rhetoric

My analysis of Michael J. Fox's performative power as a visibly disabled rhetor depends upon my linkage of a long-standing concept in disability studies—stigma—with a fairly recent one—performativity—and positing them together as crucial to our understanding of how the visibly disabled body functions in the delivery and reception of rhetoric. In his sociological study Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity, first published in 1963, Erving Goffman defines "stigma" as an "attribute" a person "possesses that makes him different from others in the category of persons available for him to be," a person who is thus "reduced from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one" (3). In Goffman's initial list of "attributes" that are stigmas, visible disability ranks first as an "abomination of the body" (4). At the same time, Goffman defines people without stigmas, "those who do not depart negatively from the expectations at issue," as "normals," and he characterizes the relationship between "normals" and people with stigmas as laden with inequity: "normals…exercise varieties of discrimination" against the stigmatized by "construct[ing] a stigma-theory…to explain the [stigmatized person's] inferiority and the danger he represents" (5). In the meantime, stigmatized persons begin developing a range of tactics designed, in Goffman's words, to "manage" their "spoiled identities" so as to navigate a world that has, through the social construction of "stigma-theory," "reduced [their] life chances" (42).

It is this "management" of "stigma" that I link to "performativity" as recently discussed in disability studies scholarship. In their introduction to the 2006 collection Bodies in Commotion, Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander define performativity as the "dramaturlogical metaphor of identity construction" in postmodern and post-structuralist thought (2). They take as their objective to reveal that just as "gender, sex, sexuality, race, and ethnicity" are not "static facts of the body" but elements of embodied identity that are performed in relation to cultural expectations, so too is disability (2). In other words, Sandahl and Auslander argue that once we claim people with disabilities as part of a "minoritarian culture," as a group of people that has historically been socially constructed as stigmatized, then we must also acknowledge the concept of "performativity" as "lived experience" for people with disabilities—who often find themselves, in the face of stigma, "performing their identities in explicitly self-conscious and theatrical terms" —so that they might exercise control over their own representation (2, 9).

I argue that the concepts of "stigma" and "performativity," in disability studies scholarship as a whole and as manifested in my case study of Michael J. Fox, directly connect to rhetorical theory in relation to the concept of audience and the canons of invention and delivery. If we accept in disability studies that the stigmatization of disability is ubiquitous as part of ableist ideology, then a rhetor with a disability must "invent" or search for all available means of persuasion knowing first that "stigma" may be an integral part of her audience's conception of her and second that the presentation of stigma is to risk, in Goffman's words, being "tainted" or "discounted" as a speaker. For this reason, particularly in rhetorical situations that rely heavily on the canon of delivery (the use of the rhetor's body and its "effective gestures, …vocal modulation, and facial expressions"), the visibly disabled rhetor must prepare and enact what Sandahl and Auslander term "a performance of disabled identity" with a ceaseless yet flexible awareness of how best to continually present and represent her body, depending on the needs of the audience and the constraints of the occasion, so that she may meet her purposes and achieve her ends (Bizzell and Herzberg 4,7; Sandahl and Auslander 9).3

I have provided definitions of stigma and performativity as linked to rhetorical theory so as to introduce the primary theoretical frame through which I will view Michael J. Fox's work as a visibly disabled rhetor in relation to the 2006 "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy." In the sections that follow, I will introduce three more key terms, including passing, masquerade, and staring, in order to identify and characterize what I see as an unfolding of two distinct yet related stages of Fox's embodied rhetoric. Throughout my analysis I will take it as my primary purpose to uncover and theorize the machinations behind Michael J. Fox's performativity of disabled identity in the face of rhetorical situations fraught with the perils of stigma.

"Who's Going to Laugh at the Sick Guy?": A Rhetoric of Passing, 1991-2002

In the first section of my analysis of Michael J. Fox's rhetoric, I employ theories of passing from work by disability theorists Simi Linton and Tobin Siebers to characterize the first stage of Michael J. Fox's performativity of disabled identity as a rhetoric of passing, which is best illustrated in his 2002 memoir Lucky Man. In her groundbreaking book Claiming Disability, published in 1998, Linton begins her discussion of "passing" by tracing its roots in "African American [and] gay and lesbian cultures," claiming that "disabled people" also pass as nondisabled "to avoid discrimination or ostracism" (19). In order to pass, Linton explains, "disabled people conceal their impairments or confine their activities to those that do not reveal their disability" (19). When Linton's definition is considered in relation to Sandahl and Auslander's notions of disability and performativity, disabled people who attempt to pass do not embark on what Sandahl and Auslander would call the "self-conscious and theatrical performance of disabled identity" but rather a "self-conscious and theatrical performance of [non]disabled identity" (9, italics mine). Nonetheless, they do perform, and, according to Tobin Siebers (2008), who draws on Goffman's original theory of stigma to describe passing, they perform "ingenious[ly]," "playing roles" that reflect their "skillful interpretation of [a] human society" which equates disability with "stigma" and operates within an "ideology of ability [that]…at its most radical…defines the baseline by which humanness is determined" (97, 117, 8).

In his memoir Lucky Man, Fox chronicles his seven-year public performance of "passing" as nondisabled, citing precisely the motivations Linton and Siebers describe; he is driven to perform able-bodiedness in order to escape the sociocultural stigma of disability that would define him as essentially inhuman. However, I do not focus my analysis here on the fact that Fox actively passed as able-bodied from 1991, when he was first diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, to 1998, when he disclosed his diagnosis to the public. Rather, I take as the object of my analysis Fox's construction in his memoir of a rhetoric of passing, which utilizes his narrative of his embodied experience of passing to associate efforts to conceal disability, successfully or unsuccessfully, with fear of rejection, physical and mental labor, and psychic damage for both the person with the disability and the community of which he is a part. An analysis of Fox's rhetoric of passing in Lucky Man is critical to developing an understanding of his rhetorical performances in relation to the 2006 "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy" because, in this early stage of his work as a disabled rhetor, Fox begins to make use of his disabled subjectivity to challenge the existence of cultural stigma associated with disability and to ultimately claim the validity of disabled identity. In his later rhetoric, his purposes are the same, but his performance of disabled subjectivity and his mode of delivery are markedly different. In Lucky Man, Fox writes in retrospect of performing able-bodiedness; throughout the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy," he performs visible disability in televised appearances filmed and aired—in the space of a week—across the nation and over the world.

In the opening of Lucky Man, Fox traces the beginnings of his embodied performance of passing to the day he learned he had Parkinson's disease. He tells his readers that after being diagnosed in 1991 at age thirty with a "progressive, incurable, and degenerative neurological disorder," his first reaction was to have "his internist prescribe P.D. meds"—not for "therapeutic value, treatment, even comfort," but to "hide" (4, 25 emphasis mine). From the outset, Fox emphasizes that his primary fear regarding his medical condition is not the condition itself but what the condition will symbolize for others, and he is careful to note irony in the fact that he seeks medical treatment not to alleviate physical suffering but to obviate the dangers of disability stigma. He shares that the first concern regarding public opinion is "being considered bizarre, a freak, or an object of pity," thereby demonstrating how readily he summons what Johnson Cheu calls "the age old stereotypes of disability" as the only possible representations available for disabled embodiment (Fox 231; Cheu 35). With these as the only alternatives available, Fox recalls his immediate association of disability disclosure with "being misunderstood and marginalized" and the firm belief that this marginalization would mean the end of his career (230). Regarding this fear, Fox explains: "If a studio audience were to detect a tremoring of my arm, a slowing of my speech, or a rigidity of my movements, it would undoubtedly betray the fact that something was wrong, and that something would be decidedly unfunny" (222). Fox's conviction is understandable given the deeply entrenched cultural notion that disability and tragedy are synonymous; how can Fox continue to be an actor, and a comedic actor at that, if he represents for his audience the living embodiment of "personal tragedy?" (Linton 11).

Thus Fox is careful in his rhetoric of passing to link his "determination to remain closeted" as a person with a disability with a phenomenon Rosemarie Garland Thomson cites as inherent in ableist ideology: the normative assumption that "disability cancels out all other qualities, reducing the complex person to a single attribute" (Fox 213; Thomson, Extraordinary 12). In Fox's rhetoric of passing, when social stigma constructs disability as an "absolute, inferior state," able-bodiedness is indeed "compulsory," for in such a world he lives perpetually trapped in an impossible either/or construction—he can either be a visibly disabled freak or a nondisabled human; a visibly disabled object of pity or a nondisabled successful comedic actor; visibly disabled and on the margins of public life or nondisabled and at the center (Thomson Extraordinary 6; Siebers 102). Having detailed the confines of this binary and the fear he experiences within its confines, Fox lets his reader know it is the social construction of disability as stigma that leads him to "choose" to pass, stating in his memoir that "no one, outside of family and the very closest of friends, could know. And that is how matters stood for seven years" (29).

After identifying fear of stigma as the central factor in his decision to pass, Fox continues his rhetoric of passing to chronicle the arduous physical and mental labor involved in concealing his Parkinson's disease from the public. Fox's description of this seven-year performance of able-bodiedness recalls Judith Butler's discussion of gender in Gender Trouble (1999) as a "performance manufactured through a sustained set of acts" (xv). Fox painstakingly details the process of daily inventing and refining what he terms his "repertoire of little tricks and distracting maneuvers" designed to "hide symptoms," from physical ploys such as "manipulating [objects], leaning against walls and furniture, and jamming [his] hands into [his] pockets," to mental calculations such as "titrating his medication…to reach an asymptomatic peak at exactly the right time and place" (Fox 217, 222). Important for Fox's rhetoric of passing is his characterization in his memoir of the methods he employs to pass successfully as a "repertoire of tricks." This "repertoire" becomes his "available means of persuasion" given the constraints of his rhetorical situation, and it is his sustained and successful execution of these tricks—manifested through his body—that become, in his own analysis, his rhetorical delivery of able-bodiedness.

Significant in light of Limbaugh's claims regarding the McCaskill ad, Fox also reveals that in his seven years of passing as nondisabled, "[his] greatest acting challenge was always acting like [he] didn't have Parkinson's" (Always 10, italics mine). Fox is careful here to make a clear distinction between the performance involved in playing a character without Parkinson's disease and the performance involved in ceaselessly monitoring and controlling his body so as to hide his Parkinson's in his day-to-day life. Fox's description of the techniques he uses to play a character without Parkinson's reveals the process to be fairly straightforward and relatively painless. He explains that on a film set he capitalizes on "breaks…minutes, [even] hours;" during that time, he "retreat[s] into his trailor and let[s] his symptoms run riot." Then, once he receives a "heads-up on when [he's needed next], [he] time[s] [his] PD meds accordingly" (Lucky 169).

However, in illustrating what Erving Goffman would call "the performance of everyday life," Fox's rhetoric of passing emphasizes the hypervigilance involved in performing ability as physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting and painful. Tobin Siebers states that "the essential character" of "disability passing" is "less a matter of deception than of intimate knowledge of human ability and its everyday definition" (117). In order to mimic "human ability" at times when his symptoms arise unexpectedly, Fox describes "manipulat[ing] his body" until it "ache[s]" while secretly "dry-swallow[ing] a Sinemet [levodopa, or synthetic dopamine]" in the hopes that it will "kick in" before his Parkinson's becomes visible (169, 187). He recalls the torturous process of "contorting [his body] into intensely uncomfortable positions to mask the tics and tremors" as a time of "no respite," and he recollects returning home after days filled with such contortions to "sink into the bathtub" to relieve the pain of his strained muscles, feeling as "naked" as he had throughout the day, "but safer" (169). Here Fox highlights not only the relentless physical labor that goes into his performance of passing but also the ceaseless mental and emotional labor he experiences; though he is able to perform ability successfully, he continually feels "naked" and "unsafe" because he knows that any miscalculation, any failure to respond to his embodied condition with the "correct" maneuver to hide it, will leave him bare to stigma. Fox characterizes this feeling of dread of being found out as "waiting for the other shoe to drop" (223), and it is omnipresent throughout his narrative of performing ability.

Thus, in Fox's rhetoric of passing, the performance of ability is constructed not as one of ease, simplicity, or escape, but rather as one of an embodied submersion in fear, pain, and psychic damage with far-reaching consequences. In the seven years that he passes as nondisabled, Fox states that he had "never been so miserable in his life," and that his "self-esteem" had never been so "low" (168-9). Simi Linton, in her theory of disability passing, states that "the loss of community, the anxiety, and the self-doubt that inevitably accompany this ambiguous social condition and ambivalent personal state are the enormous cost of declaring disability unacceptable," while Tobin Siebers claims that "attempts to pass create temporary or compromised identities costly to individual happiness and safety" (Linton 21; Siebers 104). Fox goes even further, describing the psychic toll passing takes as being overwhelming for him, devastating for his family, destructive to his colleagues, and damaging for others with Parkinson's disease. He agonizes over the many nights throughout his seven years of passing that he turned to alcohol to numb physical and emotional pain, and the subsequent mornings he woke up too hungover to "look [his wife] in the face" or take care of his toddler son (159). He winces to remember his professional behavior as, in his attempts to pass, he began to "cancel appointments," "miss rehearsals," and "delay production," all "with no explanation," setting an example for his colleagues that was "flakey at best, and at worst arrogant and disrespectful" (219). And, when he logs on anonymously to a Parkinson's disease Internet chat room, he finds himself in the company of many others with the disease who are speaking "from the well-guarded security of their own private closets," constantly inundated with cultural messages that to be "chronically ill," especially when one appears young, "is [to be] freakish" (231).4

In essence, Fox's narrative of his embodied experience performing ability as written in Lucky Man provides his audience with a rhetoric of passing that speaks of—and as—stigma because the central conflict of his story is not his struggle with the progression of his Parkinson's (as might be the case in a narrative based in the philosophy of the medical model of disability) but his struggle with a society that "locates disability in bodies imagined as flawed rather than social systems in need of fixing" (Thomson, "Integrating" 264). In Fox's rhetoric of passing, disabled identity is never once constructed as a tragedy; instead, Fox locates the tragedy in the social pressure to pass. In this sense, Fox's rhetoric of passing reverses audience expectations from beginning to end, from the moment he first chooses hiding as his solution to the "problem" of visible disability in 1991 to the moment he, at the conclusion of the memoir, describes his decision to disclose his Parkinson's disease in 1998 as the solution to the problem of hiding. The moment of relief, of resolution, that Fox's readers wait for does not come until he "claims" disability as a "positive identity," one that he explains allows him to feel "truly free" (Siebers 11, 104; Fox 223).

To end this section of my analysis and foreground the next, I wish to point out that when Fox's Lucky Man is read as an historical artifact and through the lens of Linton's and Siebers' incisive theories, it seems likely that Fox's lengthy lived, embodied experience of passing, as well as his careful crafting of a rhetoric of passing, eventually provided him the means to move to his next stage of embodied rhetoric as seen in the McCaskill ad, his televised responses to Limbaugh's accusations, and his second memoir, Always Looking Up. In this second stage, Fox draws upon the canons of invention and delivery to craft a rhetoric designed not to hide his disability but to expose it fully. Siebers argues that the public reclamation of disabled identity is a "significant political act," one that "improves quality of life" and serves as an impetus for people with disabilities "to develop new narratives of the self and new political forms" (104). Rejoicing in his experience of disabled identity as one that allows him to "integrate his Parkinson's disease into a rich and productive life" and identify as a member of a community of people with Parkinson's that he calls "his greatest collaborators and teachers," Fox finds himself seeking a way to "play an active role" as an advocate (230, 235). In the next section, I will show how Fox reinvents his "repertoire" of performative tactics in order to create for himself a new embodied rhetorical delivery, one almost exactly the opposite of the one he used to "pass": a delivery that is public, political, and designed to capitalize on his visible disability as a means of persuasion suited to his new positions, purposes, and goals.

Visible Disability as "Special Effect:" Staring and a Rhetoric of Masquerade, 2006-2009

In the second section of my analysis of Michael J. Fox's rhetoric, I use Tobin Siebers' notion of masquerade and Rosemarie Garland Thomson's theory of staring (as posited in her 2009 book, Staring: How We Look) to characterize the second stage of Michael J. Fox's performativity of disabled identity, exhibited throughout the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy," as a rhetoric of masquerade. In Disability Theory, Siebers draws on feminist and queer theory for his choice of the name "masquerade." For Siebers, the masquerade represents a system of behaviors that he describes as "structurally akin to passing, but not identical," wherein people with disabilities "manage social stigma through disguise, one relying not on an imitation of the dominant social role but on the assumption of an identity marked as stigmatized, marginal, or inferior" (101-102). In other words, instead of using passing to uphold the ideology of ability, the masquerade involves a performance of "abnormalcy" meant to "subvert existing social conventions" by "seizing control of stereotypes and resisting the pressure to embrace norms of behavior and appearance" (Siebers 118).

I link Siebers' discussion of the masquerade with Thomson's consideration of staring because, as Thomson states, "the usually concealed sight of disability writ boldly on others…is compelling because it disorders expectations" (20, 37). Indeed, according to Thomson, "seeing startling, stareable people challenges our assumptions" (4). Thomson's description of the visibly disabled body as "stareable" and its effect on a nondisabled audience as one that "challenges" echoes Siebers' discussion of the masquerade as a means to flout convention and defy the expectations of the ideology of ability. It is at this intersection between Thomson's staring and Siebers' masquerade that I identify Michael J. Fox's performance of visible physical disability throughout the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy" as a rhetoric of masquerade, for, when Thomson's and Siebers' theories are combined, Fox's presentation of his visible disability, or his performance of "abnormalcy" in his televised appearances, serves to supply viewers with a "staring moment" that allows for multiple meaning-making opportunities to take place. First, the visibility of his disability functions as an act of resistance to, in Siebers' words, the "ideological impulse to erase from view any exception to ability," thereby challenging stigma (102). Second, his visibly disabled embodiment, "writ boldly" on the television screen, serves, in Thomson's words, to "interrupt complacent business as usual…offering an occasion to rethink the status quo," thereby providing Fox a means to ask his audience to challenge stigma along with him (4).

Just as Fox utilized his memoir Lucky Man to articulate a rhetoric of passing that highlighted the motivations for his embodied rhetorical choices in relation to his disabled subjectivity, Fox utilizes his 2009 memoir, Always Looking Up, in a similar fashion. However, in Always Looking Up, written three years after the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy" took place, Fox demonstrates a heightened awareness of the rhetorical situation in his descriptions of his motivations for revealing—rather than concealing—his physical disability. He discusses the McCaskill ad and the ensuing debate as a series of rhetorical occasions that demanded he as a speaker make careful and deliberate choices. In the opening of Always Looking Up, Fox summarizes his role in the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy" thusly: "I saw a need and I sought to address it in the most effective way I could, by whatever legitimate means necessary" (9). With this declaration, Fox defends his choice to reveal his physical disability as a "legitimate" strategy given his purpose and his audience's expectations. Fox's use of the phrase "legitimate means," then, is akin to "available means," and Fox as a rhetor is defending his persuasive tactics of invention and delivery both at the time of the controversy and in retrospect.

My primary reason for characterizing Fox's performativity of disabled identity in the McCaskill ad as a rhetoric of masquerade is based not on his embodied experience of Parkinson's symptoms as it was shot but on his conscious choice—described in detail in Always Looking Up—to release the ad to the public knowing with certainty just how visibly disabled he appeared. Fox explains that just before the ad was shot, his medication [levodopa] "brought on a torrent of dyskenias: uncontrollable movements like undulating, weaving, rocking, and bobbing" (9). In this sense, Fox seems to be cueing the reader to understand that he did not intend, before the ad was shot, for the material reality of his physical condition to be captured on camera. In fact, Fox tells his readers that he was unaware of how disabled he appeared during the shooting, and that it wasn't until he viewed the ad from his hotel room on the campaign trail that he realized the power of his performance. Afterwards, he spoke to a campaign staffer on the phone and found that "the McCaskill camp" was reporting that "the focus group numbers…[as a result of the ad] were through the roof" (119). It was upon hearing this news, he says, that he gave permission for the ad to air (79).

In Fox's own analysis of the McCaskill ad and its impact on the focus groups, he pays little attention to the ad's more commonplace particulars (recall from the introduction of this essay the conservatively appointed living room, the vase of yellow flowers, the 37-second speech). The text of Fox's speech is in fact fairly innocuous, especially in light of the controversial issue at hand: stem-cell research. The strongest negative word of the speech is "criminalize," which Fox uses to describe McCaskill's opponent's stance. Otherwise, Fox's speech focuses on the positive, deftly linking stem cell research to hope and hope for cures and emphasizing that the issue is important not only to himself but to innumerable other Americans. Fox's generally mild diction and overall gentle inflections as he speaks complement the serenity of the setting and the brevity of the ad; nearly every element of the piece, from the length to the setting to Fox's word choice and tone can be characterized as understated, even minimalist.

Thus, and not surprisingly, Fox's assessment of the ad and its reception concentrates on the visibility of his disability and its rhetorical effects. His analysis reveals him, at this stage of his embodied rhetoric, to revel in the power of his disabled physicality and the ways in which it serves as artistic proof of his message. Speaking in theatrical terms, he characterizes his disabled embodiment throughout the ad as a "special effect" that amplifies his work by reinforcing the text of the speech, stating: "it wasn't only what I was saying but what my body, my hands, my legs, my feet, and my eyes were doing as I said it" (120). The "legitimate means" of persuasion Fox earlier defends at the opening of Always Looking Up is celebrated here; Fox takes obvious pride in achieving, through the rhetorical presence of his disabled physicality, the successful enactment of an aspect of the masquerade as theorized by Siebers: the ability "to tell a story steeped in disability, often the very story society does not want to hear" (102). Fox's exultation at the visibility of his disability and its impact on his audience echoes the joyous tone of Lucky Man after his disclosure.

Significant, too, for Fox's rhetorical performance of disabled subjectivity in the McCaskill ad and his own acknowledgement of its theatrical qualities is the fact that Siebers, in his theory of the masquerade, identifies as one of its central features the ability to "display [one's] disability by exaggerating it" (101). I argue that it is not a coincidence that both Siebers and Limbaugh use the word "exaggerate"—Siebers in describing the masquerade and Limbaugh in critiquing Fox's performativity of disabled identity. This is to say that to my surprise, Limbaugh seems to have been right about an aspect of Fox's rhetoric—though accidentally so, and for all the wrong reasons. In a sense, Fox did "exaggerate" in relationship to the McCaskill ad—not bodily, but rhetorically—by making the calculated choice to release the ad as it was rather than to reshoot it, as he does when he is, to use another accusatory term from Limbaugh, "acting."

Thus, Fox did not "exaggerate" in the sense Limbaugh means. He "exaggerated" through the rhetoric of masquerade, by "claiming disability" when he could have "concealed it," an essential feature of the masquerade that Siebers asserts "counteracts passing," Fox's former strategy in rhetorically performing disability. "Exaggerating or performing difference," Siebers explains, "when that difference is a stigma, marks one as a target, but it also exposes and resists the prejudices of society" (102). Therefore, in an oddly circular sense, Limbaugh's attack on Fox's ad confirms the efficacy of Fox's rhetoric of masquerade—in that as a result, Fox himself became a "target" for those who subscribe to the ableist ideology that "invisibility is mandatory" (102). In becoming that target, specifically Limbaugh's target, Fox, as he describes in Always Looking Up, was able to seize on the resulting boon of publicity to capture the "attention" of the nation (137).

Alessandra Stanley's New York Times article on Fox's McCaskill ad and the resulting media furor (published on October 25th, 2006, four days after the ad aired and two days after Limbaugh's response became public) confirms Fox's claim that the ad met his purposes by first and foremost gaining—and focusing—the public's attention. Stanley states that within days of its airing the ad became "one of the most powerful and talked about political advertisements in years" ("Making"). She contextualizes Fox's performance in the ad by explaining that Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, disclosed that he had the disease in 1998, and "founded the Michael J. Fox Foundation to advance stem cell research, lobbied Congress and made commercials to rally support for his cause." Thus, according to Stanley, it should come as no surprise to viewers that Fox has Parkinson's disease, that he is in favor of stem-cell research, and that he has been active in political campaigns (all of this information having been public knowledge for the past eight years). What Stanley states comes as a surprise—and thereby catapults the ad from the realm of the ordinary to the realm of the extraordinary—is, in her words, the "full and frightening extent of Fox's infirmity" made evident to viewers by the presence of his visible physical disability.

However, Stanley's evaluation of the ad and its efficacy does not allow for Fox's "infirmity" as revealed in the ad to exist for the audience as anything other than a fear-inducing spectacle. She likens Fox's movements as he speaks with those of a "sailor being tossed around in a full-force gale" and describes the experience of witnessing his embodied symptoms of Parkinson's as "arresting as [watching] a hostage video from Iraq." As someone who has viewed the ad multiple times, I can attest that Stanley's first analogy and second metaphor for Fox's disabled embodiment are, to use a favorite word of Limbaugh's, exaggerated. Though Fox's swaying movements are indeed rapid and erratic, he hardly spends the 37 seconds of the ad hurled about the room at the mercy of some sort of invisible Parkinsonian storm. And though he seems at times to struggle to maintain his center of gravity in his chair, he remains seated and squarely in the center of the camera's frame throughout the ad, speaking clearly and calmly. Stanley's evocation of a "hostage video" borders on the insensitive—both to hostages and to Fox—for the comparison in reality results in an understatement of hostages' devastation as they face death and torture by an enemy and an overstatement of Fox's dilemma, which, during the shooting of the ad, is simply how best to speak through his symptoms, an embodied performance with which he is thoroughly familiar, having experienced the disease for fifteen years.

Yet Stanley's overstatement of Fox's case is not surprising in light of Thomson's theory of staring. As Thomson states, "social expectations shape our ocular sorting processes, making certain appearances and actions unusual and cataloging people as alien or native, extraordinary or ordinary" (18). Stanley's clumsy attempts to metaphorize Fox's appearance reflect her efforts to "recognize what seems illegible, order what seems unruly, know what seems strange" (3). And though it is definitively far too generous to Limbaugh to consider his reaction to Fox's disabled physicality in the same compassionate spirit infused in Thomson's theory, his pantomime of Fox's movements (dubbed with some chagrin "the spastic dance" by Fox News Analyst Bernie Goldberg), and his wild, unfounded, off-the-cuff claims that Fox was "acting" the symptoms of his disease, also seem to reflect another overstatement intended to make Fox's disability legible, though one that is essentially cruel and mean-spirited ("Fair Coverage?"). Whereas Stanley is truly struggling to give Fox's rhetoric its due, Limbaugh is rushing to discredit it, without pausing to consider whom he might hurt in the process.

One danger of the rhetoric of masquerade is that it can be misinterpreted, particularly when it takes place in as brief a moment as a 37-second television spot. As Siebers states, the "voluntary disclosure and exaggerated self-presentation [of the masquerade] may not be sufficient to render disability visible, since the public is adept at ignoring people with disabilities" (107). In Fox's case, his celebrity precludes any possibility he might be ignored, and his disability is indeed rendered visible as a result of the ad. Unfortunately, his reasons for highlighting the visibility of his disability in the ad definitively escape some members of his audience, as evidenced by Stanley's confusion and—much worse—Limbaugh's contempt.

However, Fox does not allow Limbaugh—or any of the other media pundits and journalists that weighed in on the controversy between October 21st and October 26th—to have the last word. In Always Looking Up, Fox articulates an acute sense of "obligation" to correct misinterpretations of his initial rhetorical performance in the McCaskill ad because of an unanticipated result he cannot abide: an emerging offensive and dangerous "caricature" of visible disability as seen in people with Parkinson's (137, 139). Though Fox describes himself as bombarded with "requests [from media outlets]…to slam Rush Limbaugh, preferably on their air," he is selective, choosing to participate in only two televised exclusive interviews, the first with Katie Couric on October 26th and the second with George Stephanapoulos on October 29th (144). In these final performances related to the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy," Fox can be seen staging additional opportunities for "staring encounters" with viewers through his delivery of a revised and expanded rhetoric of masquerade. This rhetoric explicates his choice to reveal his disability in the McCaskill ad by inviting his audience to understand his resistance to the cultural norms that demand disability remain invisible and to join him in questioning those norms themselves.

The change of form and venue—from monologue to dialogue, 37-second ad to hour-long television interview—allows viewers more time and space to engage in the "ocular sorting process" that Thomson insists is critical in making the strange[ness] of disability "familiar" (7). In these performances of disabled identity, Fox can be seen enacting the rhetoric of masquerade in words and in body. He describes in vivid detail the debilitating social structures that compel many people with Parkinson's to hide their symptoms, while at the same time he displays a range of Parkinson's symptoms himself. He states:

It's the biggest thing we face—it's hiding. We have to hide. Don't let anybody see. Don't let them think you're drunk. Don't let them think you're incapable. Don't let them think you're unstable, you're unsteady, you're flawed … Representing ourselves as who we are, expressing ourselves as our bodies will allow us to, is not good enough. It's suspect. And … the irony is, is that those people that are being pitied or being asked to suffer in silence don't want to suffer, don't see themselves as pitiable, don't see themselves as victims—[they] see themselves as citizens, participants in the process, and people with aspirations and hopes and dreams for the future. ("Full")

Though Fox does not use the word "stigma" in this quote, he speaks both as and of it through an amplified rhetoric of masquerade that allows him to identify and expose—on a national stage—the either/or binary construction of the "visibly disabled freak/nondisabled human" that he had illustrated so vividly in Lucky Man four years before. He then resists and refuses the binary, using the platform provided him by the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy" to claim agency, capability, community, citizenship, and full personhood for himself and his community, thereby insisting on the multivalent humanity of the visibly physically disabled body.

Conclusion: "The Michael J. Fox Effect" on Rhetorical Theory and Disability Studies Scholarship

In the end, by analyzing Fox's movement from a rhetoric of passing to a rhetoric of masquerade in relation to the 2006 "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy," I hope to have proven that although his rhetoric may on the surface seem to be unilateral in its purpose—to support research in the hopes of furthering progress toward a cure for Parkinson's disease—he in fact reveals through his multi-dimensional performativity of disabled identity that he has dual purposes, one of which is to claim embodied visible disability in order to resist the ableist ideology of stigma—even if it means "exaggerating." Fox seems, then, not only to have crafted two extremely effective rhetorics but also to have intuited one of the crucial differences between impairment and disability as theorized in disability studies scholarship.5 At the same time that he seeks effective medical intervention that would alleviate pain and suffering for those with chronic, degenerative diseases, he also seeks to lift the stigma surrounding impairment that disables persons whose bodily differences fall outside what is commonly viewed as "the norm" for human configuration.6

Claire McCaskill won the 2006 Senate race, defeating Republican incumbent Jim Talent by a narrow margin in a state that, "in all but one election since 1900," had an "unmatched record" of voting with the candidate endorsed by the current President. Jim Talent was endorsed by George W. Bush. Yet according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, McCaskill was able "close the gap" between herself and Talent and emerge the victor through her "strong performance" obtaining support from Republicans and independent voters—and the Post attributes her success to the "national attention" she received for "her ad featuring Michael J. Fox" and their shared "stance in favor of stem cell research" (Shesgreen A1). Prior to the election, Democrat, Republican, and independent think tanks alike predicted that what US News and World Report journalist Steve Coogan dubbed "The Michael J. Fox Effect" would be a major influence on the outcome of not just the McCaskill-Talent race but the "determination of which party would control the Senate" beginning in 2007 and going forward until the next election (Coogan; Shesgreen A1). The week the ad was released Sarah Chamberlain Resnick of the Republican Main Street Partnership forecasted that "Talent's entire race [was] going to come down to stem cells. (McCaskill has) been killing him on it" (Stone 10A). And on October 26, the HCD Research and Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion released a study of the Fox/McCaskill ad's impact on voters, which revealed that the "number of Republicans who indicated that they were voting for a Republican candidate decreased by 10 percentage points after viewing the ad and that independents planning to vote for Democrats increased by 10 percentage points" (Coogan). It is fair to say, given this information, that Michael J. Fox's rhetoric on behalf of Claire McCaskill was a key factor in securing her election as Senator and a new Democratic majority in the Senate.

It would also be fairly easy to say that voters cast ballots for McCaskill because they saw Fox's visible disability as a pitiable state and wanted to help him by electing the person he rhetorically fused with the hope of restoring him to normalcy. In this sense, Fox could be viewed as casting himself in the ad as just one of many in what Auslander and Sandahl call "the familiar cast of typical disabled characters: "'the charity case', who elicits pity and allows others to mark themselves as nondisabled by bestowing good will" (3). Yet I prefer to take a view that is more optimistic, if cautiously so, one that is informed not just by his success in securing the McCaskill election but also by the fact that since the "Fox/Limbaugh Controversy," Fox's embodied physical difference seems to have gradually become "unmarked and unremarked," an enormous change from the widespread furor surrounding his appearance in McCaskill ad (Thomson, Extraordinary 59). It seems to me that Fox's consistent, persistent, and, most of all, insistent rhetorical claiming of visible physical disability has, since the publication of Lucky Man in 1998, allowed for what Rosemarie Garland Thomson would call a "mutually vivifying staring encounter" to occur between rhetor and audience (Staring 158). In other words, when the "visual novelty" of Fox's disability "subside[d]," Fox's body became for audiences over time "familiar" enough to be "recognizable as belonging on the human spectrum" and in the public sphere (158). It is this lasting "Michael J. Fox Effect" that I at my most hopeful wish to posit as groundbreaking for scholarship in disability and rhetoric and potentially libratory for people with disabilities—when we pay close attention to how the "Effect" has been enacted—because we may find that it has carved out space for other "extraordinary bod[ies] [to] be the bod[ies] of rhetoric" (Dolmage 5).

Works Cited

  • Barnes, Colin, and Geof Mercer. Exploring Disability. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Polity P, 2010. Print.
  • Bizzell, Patricia, and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's P, 2001. Print.
  • Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. "Delivering Disability, Willing Speech." Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Eds. Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. Print.
  • Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 10th Ann. ed. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
  • "CBS Exclusive with Michael J. Fox." Eye to Eye with Katie Couric. CBS. 26 Oct. 2006. Television.
  • Cheu, Johnson. "Performing Disability, Problematizing Cure." Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Eds. Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. Print.
  • Coyle, Jake. "Michael J. Fox Plunges into Election." The Associated Press Online, 25 Oct 2006. n. pag. Web. 30 June 2010.
  • Coogan, Steve. "The Michael J. Fox Effect." US News and World Report Online, 26 Oct. 2006. n. pag. Web. 30 July 2010.
  • Crow, Liz. "Including All of Our Lives: Renewing the Social Model of Disability." Encounters with Strangers: Feminism and Disability. Ed. Jenny Morris. London: The Women's P, 1996. 206-227. Print.
  • Dolmage, Jay. "Metis, Metis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies Across Rhetorical Traditions." Rhetoric Review 28.1 (2009): 1-28. Print.
  • "Fair Coverage?" The O'Reilly Factor with Bill O'Reilly. Fox News. 26 Oct 2006. Television.
  • Fox, Michael J. Always Looking Up: Adventures of an Incurable Optimist. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.
  • ---. Lucky Man: A Memoir. New York: Hyperion, 2002. Print.
  • Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963. Print.
  • "Limbaugh 'Apologized' for Being Wrong." Mediamatters.org. Media Matters for America, 26 Oct. 2006. Web. 30 June 2010.
  • "Limbaugh on Michael J. Fox Ad for MO Dem." Mediamatters.org. Media Matters for America, 23 Oct. 2006. Web. 30 June 2010.
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  • Montgomery, David. "Rush Limbaugh on the Offensive Against Ad with Michael J. Fox." The Washington Post Online, 25 Oct. 2006. n. pag. Web. 30 June 2010.
  • Sandahl, Carrie, and Philip Auslander. "Introduction: Disability Studies in Commotion with Performance Studies." Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance. Eds. Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2005. Print.
  • Scherman, Elizabeth. "The Speech that Didn't Fly: Polysemic Readings of Christopher Reeve's Speech to the 1996 National Democratic Convention." Disability Studies Quarterly 29.2 (Spring 2009): n. pag. Web. 12 June 2010.
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  • Shesgreen, Deirdre, and Joe Mannies. "McCaskill Upends Talent." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 8 Nov. 2006, 3rd ed.: A1. Print.
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  • "Stand Up for Claire Today and Help Us Air Michael's Message."ClaireOnline.com. McCaskill For Missouri, 20 Oct. 2006. Web. 30 June 2010. <http://www.claireonline.com/multimedia/ads/MichaelJFox.jsp>.
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  • Stone, Andrea. "Limbaugh Says Actor Fox Exaggerating his Disease as Stem Cell Issue Churns." USA Today. 25 Oct. 2006, final ed.: 10A. Print.
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  • ---. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." The Disability Studies Reader. 2nd ed. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. 257-274. Print.
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  1. Before proceeding in my argument I would like to note that I am keenly aware of how important it is for those of us who do disability studies scholarship and/or identify as members of the disability community to maintain a healthy skepticism toward the cultural phenomenon of the "disabled celebrity spokesperson" who, by virtue of power and privilege conferred by fame and wealth, are often accepted and even celebrated by mainstream audiences as authorities whose experiences and beliefs are representative of all those with disabilities, or, at least, of all those who share their medical condition.

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  2. I do not write this article to claim Michael J. Fox as a disability rights activist, to reify him as a spokesperson for all people with disabilities or all people with Parkinson's disease, or to deny the connection between the privileging of cure with the medical model of disability that has historically justified the devaluation of people with disabilities (see Elizabeth Scherman's insightful essay "The Speech That Didn't Fly" on Christopher Reeve's rhetoric in the Spring 2009 issue of DSQ). Instead, I wish to pinpoint the ways in which Fox's rhetoric deserves a complex reading in relation to what I argue is a collision between his embodied performance of visible disability and a dominant ableist ideology that renders the disabled subject, in the words of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, "stubbornly inhuman" (4).

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  3. See also Brenda Jo Brueggemann's essay "Delivering Disability, Willing Speech" in which she discusses the "ancient rhetorical canon of delivery…as it has historically prescribed and described normalcy" in relationship to the disabled rhetor, who, in her words, "often exist[s] and perform[s] outside the typically narrowly prescribed boundaries of rhetorical 'standards'" (17, 18).

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  4. At the close of his memoir, from the vantage point of full disclosure, Fox represents the ability to openly claim disabled identity as a socially constructed privilege in and of itself, denied to many because of "attitudinal, environmental, and economic barriers" (Thomson, "Integrating" 264). He shows a complex understanding of how his own social status—"[his] career, [his] celebrity, [his] position in the world"—granted him a "plush, well-appointed closet" in which to "pass" and, after his disclosure, "advantages that most of [his] fellow P.D.ers could only dream about" (235).

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  5. I am aware that Tom Shakespeare and others take exception to this separation between impairment and disability as artificial and as ignoring the complexities of each and how each impacts the other, and I agree that these arguments have merit (see Shakespeare 35). However, I find the distinction ("differentiating 'impairment' as a biophysiological condition from 'disability,' which denotes the social disadvantage experienced by people with an accredited impairment") as initially defined in 1981 by the BDCOP and recently designated by Barnes and Mercer in 2010 as crucial terminology in understanding disability studies to be most useful in my analysis of Fox's work (see Barnes and Mercer 11).

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  6. Fox's dual purposes are evocative in light of the fact that disability studies scholars are increasingly calling for new theories of disability that do not view the rejection of the social model of disability as a necessary precondition for a person with a disability to believe that her physical suffering can be alleviated by medical intervention. See work by Liz Crow ("Including All of Our Lives," 1996), Susan Wendell ("Unhealthy Disabled," 2001), and, most recently, Tom Shakespeare ("Critiquing the Social Model" in Disability Rights and Wrongs, 2006) and Tobin Siebers ("From Social Constructionism to New Realism of the Body" in Disability Theory, 2008).

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Copyright (c) 2011 Nicole Quackenbush

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