In editing this special issue of the Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) on disability and rhetoric, we began with a question: how might rhetoric, whether construed as theory or practice, contribute to the work of Disability Studies, the interdisciplinary project that examines historical and contemporary representations of disability to promote purposeful social change? Elaborating, we asked ourselves how such ancient concepts as ethos, pathos, and logos, or the canons of inventio, dispositio, and elocutio, or any of the many other designs and devices of classical rhetoric might inform the contemporary study of disability. Broadening the inquiry, we questioned the degree to which recent developments in rhetorical theory might extend understandings of disability or inform feminist, metaphoric, Foucauldian, and other critical approaches. Finally, we wondered how work already undertaken in rhetoric and disability (see, among many, Brueggemann, 1999; Dolmage & Lewiecki-Wilson, 2010; Heilker & Yergeau, 2011; Lewiecki-Wilson, 2003; Lewiecki-Wilson & Brueggemann, 2008; Wilson & Lewiecki-Wilson, 2001) would complicate and enrich new inquiries. These were among the questions we considered, and that we put to colleagues in rhetoric, linguistics, psychology, and other disciplines, when we issued the Call for Papers for a special issue of DSQ devoted to the topic of rhetoric and disability. The essays in this volume represent responses to some of the questions we raised, and to several that we did not think to raise. Read collectively, the writings collected here are diverse, scholarly, insightful, and, we hope you will agree, consistently provoking.

Why a special issue devoted to rhetoric and disability, and why now? Some thirteen years have passed since the publication of Simi Linton's influential essay, "Reassigning Meaning" (1998), in which she stated that a project of disability studies and the disability rights movement was "to bring into sharp relief the processes by which disability has been imbued with the meaning(s) it has and to reassign a meaning that is consistent with a sociopolitical analysis of disability" (p. 10). Linton's analysis called attention to the role of discourse in sustaining the "complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and government policies" that effectively worked to marginalize disabled persons and represent human variation as a form of deviance (ibid.). The work of disability activists and scholars, Linton argued, was to identify terms that are presumed to be "neutral" or "objective"—terms such as "normal," "special," "overcoming," and "invalid"—to show how these work to maintain the power and privileges of the non-disabled at the expense of disabled people.

Linton was not, as she pointed out in her essay, the first to call attention to the role of language in marginalizing people with disabilities (see Longmore, 1985, 1987; Wendell, 1996). Nor has she been the last. Indeed, the great insight of Disability Studies, and arguably its defining project, is its conception of disability as a representational system rather than as a medical problem, a deficit, or a personal tragedy (Garland-Thomson, 1997).

We recall Linton's essay here for two reasons. First, her admonition that scholars identify and challenge the seemingly neutral language that maintains inequitable social structures is as necessary today as it was when the essay was published, as many of the essays in this special issue make clear. More specific to the focus of this special issue, however, is Linton's emphasis on meaning and reassigning meanings in the study of disability. These terms— meaning and reassigning meanings—resonate throughout the humanities, but they call us, especially, toward the provinces of rhetoric. "Wherever there is persuasion," Kenneth Burke (1969) famously observed, "there is rhetoric. And wherever there is 'meaning' there is persuasion" (p. 172). We extend Burke's maxim toward its inevitable intersections with disability: wherever there is disability, there are meanings. And wherever there are disability meanings, there is rhetoric and persuasion.

Rhetoric and persuasion we define as follows. Persuasion is for us the narrower and ensuing term, and may be understood as an outcome of rhetorical activity. Individuals, groups, cultures, and even institutions can be "persuaded," if persuasion is understood as acceding to and acting upon a particular conception of reality posited by a rhetorical discourse.

Rhetoric we define more expansively as the use of language and other symbols used by institutions, groups, or individuals for the purpose of shaping conceptions of reality (see Duffy, 2007, p. 15). Thus, we think of the languages of professions, institutions, and activist groups as "rhetorics," and the ways that these function in public or private life as "rhetorical." This conception of rhetoric is derived from Burke, who extended "the range of rhetoric" beyond persuasion toward a more extensive theory of symbolic activity. Rather than simply persuading people, Burke suggested, rhetoric provided individuals with the means by which they might identify with one another for the purpose of recognizing mutual interests, affiliations, and ends. More, rhetoric offered what Burke called "sheer 'identities' of the Symbolic… the identifications whereby a specialized activity makes one a participant in some social or economic class" (p. 27-28).

This is a rhetoric of identity-making, in which language and other symbols are used to invite human beings to understand and identify themselves with an institution, a culture, a religious faith, or—relevant to our inquiry here—with socially established understandings of body or mind. "Our basic principle," Burke wrote, "is our contention that all symbolism can be treated as the ritualistic naming and changing of identity" (1959, p. 285, as cited in Clark, 2004, p. 55).

So, for example, a boy with muscular dystrophy (MD) in the United States in the 1960s, for all rhetorics are culturally and historically specific, would be offered through medical language and charity campaigns the symbolic identity of "sufferer" and subsequently positioned within a broader rhetoric of pity, paternalism, and victimhood. Similarly, a non-verbal woman diagnosed with autism the mid-1990s might have been located in the symbolic identity of the "autistic" and represented by such stigmatizing symbols as the savant, the puzzle, the empty fortress, and others. In each example, the individual would have been solicited by the rhetoric "not simply to believe something but to be something," as Edwin Black (1993/1970, p. 172) put it, and to constitute one's inner and public life in the selected words, themes, images, sounds, movements, and other symbols of the rhetoric. In this understanding, rhetoric functions as a powerfully shaping instrument for creating conceptions of identity and positioning individuals relative to established social and economic hierarchies. A function of the rhetorical scholar is to identify such powerfully shaping instruments and their effects upon individuals, including disabled individuals.

Yet this perspective on rhetoric is incomplete if it does not acknowledge the capacity of individuals to respond to and re-imagine such shaping rhetorics. The rhetorical tradition historically has been an art of activity and agency, of using words as well as being used by them. So, for example, the boy with muscular dystrophy may be called upon by the historically dominant rhetorics of MD to define himself as a sufferer, a victim, or one of "Jerry's Kids," one of the children ostensibly represented by the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) in their annual telethon hosted by comedian Jerry Lewis. Yet the same boy may also write, speak, or otherwise author a competing set of symbols and images that posit an alternative identity, as did Mike Ervin, a former MDA poster child who became a disability rights activist, founded an organization, "Jerry's Orphans," protesting MDA paternalism, and narrated his own experiences in the documentary film, The Kids Are All Right ( So, too, the young woman with autism may transform her identity from non-verbal puzzle to that of artist, linguist, and social critic, as Amanda Baggs has done in her remarkable YouTube video, "In My Language" (

A second function of the rhetorical scholar, then, is to identify and analyze the words and other symbols authored by individuals or groups in response to broader, culturally dominant rhetorics. Indeed, it is the capacity of rhetoric as a discipline to account for these varying relationships of symbolic activity—institutional and individual, public and personal, dominant and minority—that makes it a compelling lens through which to study representations of disability and so contribute to the continuing project of Disability Studies.

This, at any rate, was our understanding of rhetoric when we sent out the Call for Papers for this Special Issue. We did not, of course, insist that others adopt this understanding, nor did we specify any particular methodology for applying a rhetorical perspective to disability. Indeed, we took the opposite approach, inviting contributors to define their own conceptions of rhetoric and bring to the Special Issue their own forms of methodological expertise. In this way, we sought to expand rather than regulate a rhetorical approach to disability and perhaps open new ways of thinking about both disability and rhetoric by making manifest what Peter Simonson (2011) called the "latent rhetorical theory" that runs through much of the scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. If that means at times—and it does—that a given essay in this collection reads more like an example of discourse analysis or literary interpretation than rhetorical criticism as traditionally recognized within the discipline (see, for examples, Burgchardt, 2010; Foss, 2004), it is our hope, offered in the spirit of Kenneth Burke, that these diverse approaches enlarge rather than restrict the "range of rhetoric" and provide new insights into the relationships of disability and symbolic activity.

The Contributions

The seventeen essays collected here offer examples of theoretical and critical work. In his perceptive reflections on the rhetoric of ableism, JAMES CHERNEY provides a theoretical framework for the collection and an example of how an expansive rhetorical perspective, one that calls upon Stuart Hall, Kenneth Burke, and Stephen Toulmin, can reveal the hidden workings of language as well as strategies for "reassigning meaning." RICHARD CARPENTER'S important paper draws upon genre theory to consider how disability functions as a "metagenre" and the implications of this "for examining and transcending, among other things, the reductive and oppressive categorization deployed by the medical model of disability." And SEAN ZDENEK seeks to develop in his ambitious essay the elements of a "rhetoric of closed captioning" that will address questions of how "genre, audience, context, and purpose shape the captioning act," and the implications of this for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.

Other papers apply diverse methods of rhetorical analysis to a range of documents, historical and contemporary. GERALD O'BRIEN'S keen metaphoric analysis of American eugenic writings of the early twentieth century demonstrates how eugenicists used object metaphors—weeds, anchors, ballast, and others—to dehumanize people with intellectual and physical disabilities. ZOSHA STUCKEY'S examination of a collection of letters written to and from the New York State Asylum for Idiots in the nineteenth century is an attempt to work out a method for recapturing the voices of disabled persons who did not or could not write, and who left behind no writings of their own. "How can we," Stuckey asks, "… recover lives and histories when there is no self-authored writing? … How do we make historical that which is silent?" Stuckey's perceptive paper suggests answers.

NICOLE QUACKENBUSH and KATIE ROSE GUEST PRYAL turn the analysis to contemporary texts. Quackenbush examines the controversy that erupted when right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh accused actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, of exaggerating the effects of the disease in a television commercial Fox recorded in support for Democratic senatorial candidate Claire McCaskill. Quackenbush's thoughtful treatment of the controversy demonstrates how Fox created a "multi-layered use of disabled subjectivity to convey multiple meanings to an audience unaccustomed to the presence of visibly disabled rhetors." For her part, Pryal traces the development in scientific and pop-science literature of a trope she calls "the creativity mystique," which "suggests not only that mood disorders are sources of creative genius, but also that medical treatment should take patient creativity into account." Pryal's discerning analysis shows how arguments for the creativity mystique shift from correlation to causation depending upon the genre of the text and its presumed audience, and the consequences of this for persons with mood disorders.

The spirit of Foucault continues to speak to scholars throughout the humanities, and his presence is felt in these pages. JORDYNN JACK applies a Foucaldian genealogical lens to recent writings on autism, illustrating how the rhetorical figure of incrementum, or scale, "can help to account for how autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been gendered as male, especially in Simon Baron-Cohen's 'Extreme Male Brain' theory." Jack's insightful analysis of Baron-Cohen's work demonstrates how disability becomes gendered and the central place of rhetorical and cultural conditions in this process. AMANDA K. BOOHER'S careful study of the case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter with double transtibial amputations, similarly applies a Foucaldian genealogical lens, as Booher re-reads the writings of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which ruled Pistorius ineligible for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which heard his appeal. Booher shows the power of definition in these arguments and calls for fresh ways of thinking about the relationship of bodies, technologies, and prosthetics. And ALICIA BRODERICK invokes Foucault and the traditions of cultural studies in her important history of three "watershed moments" in the rhetoric of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)— the publication O. I. Lovaas' 1987 report on his behavioral autism intervention program; the subsequent publication of Catherine Maurice's account of employing an ABA intervention program with her two children; and the establishment of Autism Speaks, which introduced corporate-style rhetorical and political strategies to the autism debates. "Collectively, these three rhetorical moments," Broderick writes, "have substantially shaped contemporary autism cultural rhetoric, and they have done so in ways with significant material impact upon the lives of autistic people."

Several papers import analytical methods from other disciplines. In their timely essay, JENNIFER L. STEVENSON, BEV HARP, and MORTON ANN GERNSBACHER apply content analysis to texts produced by parent-driven autism societies, charitable organizations, popular media, and the news industry to show how autism is infantilized in public discourse. The depiction of autism as a childhood condition and the virtual absence of autistic adults in such representations poses, the authors write, "a formidable barrier to the dignity and well-being of autistic people of all ages." JOSHUA JOHN DIEHL, JULIE WOLF, LAUREN HERLIHY, and ARLEN C. MOLLER bring content analysis methods to the study of visual rhetoric in their fascinating account of how colors are used to represent autism in posters. In their study of "chromatic arguments," they show how the color red is prevalent in posters representing autism but less so when the qualifiers "high-functioning," "spectrum," or others are included in the message. The pattern is evidence, the authors write, "of implicit, negative societal associations with the word autism that influence discourse on the diagnosis."

Also engaged in the examination of visual rhetoric, but of a different sort and from an entirely different disciplinary location, ESSAKA JOSHUA offers a literary analysis of the visual and spatial rhetoric of Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris. "In emphasizing the synecdochic relationship between gothic buildings and the disabled body," Joshua writes in her insightful paper, "Hugo demonstrates that he is not only a pioneer in urban and architectural semantics, but that he also understands the complex symbolic relationship between architecture and the disabled body."

Still other papers approach disability from the vantage of critical discourse analysis (CDA), the analytical method that employs the close reading of texts to better understand relationships of language and power. PAULA CAMPOS PINTO, for example, employs CDA to show how Portugal's First National Action Plan for the Integration of People with Disabilities and Impairment simultaneously promises but potentially restricts social and economic opportunities for disabled people in Portuguese and global contexts. YVONNE STEPHENS' discourse analysis of the transcripts of her interview with her father, Dave, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, provide the empirical foundation for her important call for a move beyond the social model of disability toward a rhetorically informed perspective. "Yet even as we revise the social model," Stephens writes, "we must return to that from which the social model stems—rhetoric—to construct a more sophisticated understanding of disabled identity." SHANNON WALTERS, in turn, employs both CDA and what she calls a "rhetorical-cultural approach" to business and technical communication by showing how companies that seek to hire autistic people may create an autistic ethos that diminishes the professional and personal identities of the autistic employees that the companies seek to hire.

Our collection concludes with a memorable example of testimonio, in which LAURA MILNER offers a first-person account of her struggles with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome and sexual abuse. In her narrative, Milner seeks to avoid what she calls "the traditional story arc and … rhetorical patterns of triumph, horror, conversion, and nostalgia found in many disability narratives." In place of these, she aims for a "rhetoric of emancipation" through which she can challenge "stereotypical attitudes toward women with chronic fatigue." We believe she succeeds, as does the essay.

As will be evident by now, we did not select or organize the essays in this collection in terms of particular disabilities. Nonetheless, we ultimately included conversations about a variety of conditions. Autism is the most frequently discussed topic, no doubt reflecting its ever-increasing prominence in scientific and popular discourses. Yet readers will also find here discussions of deafness, intellectual disability, Parkinson's, mood disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Seeking to provide a forum for established scholars and those in the early stages of their careers, we solicited—and published—essays from tenured faculty alongside essays from graduate students. One of our hopes as we began the project was that we might include contributions from writers with disabilities who might speak, whether as scholars or first-person narrators, to their understandings and experiences. In this, we were fortunate, as several essays are authored or co-authored by individuals with disabilities.

That said, our primary aim was to provide a space for examining intersections of disability and rhetoric. If rhetoric is indeed, as Aristotle had it, the ability to see in each case all the available means of persuasion, then these essays speak to the diversity of cases and the variety of means through which to consider relationships of disability, symbols, and meanings. Our hope is that the essays published here, even beyond what they say about the particular issues they examine, might lead to new questions, new methods, and new contributions to the study of disability. Given the quality of the scholarship in this volume, there is every reason to believe such hopes will be realized.


  • Black, E. (1993). The second persona. In T.W. Benson, (Ed.), Landmark essays on rhetorical criticism (pp. 161-172). Davis, CA: Hermagoras Press. (Originally published in Quarterly Journal of Speech, 56, 1970.)
  • Brueggemann, B.J. (1999.) Lend me your ear: Rhetorical constructions of deafness. Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.
  • Burgchardt, C.R. (Ed.). (2010). Readings in rhetorical criticism. (4th ed.). State College, PA: Strata Publishing, Inc.
  • Burke, K. (1959). Attitudes toward history. Los Altos: Hermes Publishing.
  • Burke, K. (1969). A rhetoric of motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Clark, G. (2004). Rhetorical landscapes in America: variations on a theme from Kenneth Burke. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
  • Dolmage, J., & Lewiecki-Wilson, C. (2010) Refiguring Rhetorica: Linking feminist rhetoric and disability studies. In E. Schell and K. Rawson (Eds.), Rhetorica in motion: Feminist rhetorical methods and methodologies (pp. 23-38). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.
  • Duffy, J. (2007). Writing from these roots: The historical development of literacy in a Hmong-American community. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Foss, S. (2004). Rhetorical criticism: Exploration & practice (3rd ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
  • Garland-Thomson, R. (1997). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Lewiecki-Wilson, C. (2003). Rethinking rhetoric through mental disabilities. Rhetoric Review, 22(2), 154-202.
  • Lewiecki-Wilson, C., & Brueggemann, B.J. (2008). Disability and the teaching of writing: A critical sourcebook. Boston: Bedford St. Martin's.
  • Linton, S. (1998). Reassigning meaning. In Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity (pp. 8-17). New York: New York University Press.
  • Longmore, P. (1985). The life of Randolph Bourne and the need for a history of disabled people. Reviews in American History, 13(4), 581-587.
  • Longmore, P. (1987). Uncovering the hidden history of people with disabilities. Reviews in American History, 15(3), 355-364.
  • Simonson, P. (2011). Our places in a rhetorical century. Paper delivered at the Rhetoric Society of America Summer Conference, Boulder, CO. June 24.
  • Wendell, S. (1996). The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. New York: Routledge.
  • Wilson, J. C., & Lewiecki-Wilson, C. (2001). Embodied rhetorics: Disability in language and culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2011 John Duffy, Melanie Yergeau

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh. Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

ISSN: 2159-8371