The material covered in Studying Disability: Multiple Theories and Responses moves across a variety of fields in an attempt to build a synthetic theory which would allow for the creation of what the authors call "legitimate communities" (211). This synthesis spans social science, humanities, medicine, social work, entrepreneurial business and so on, with "explanatory legitimacy theory" being the overarching framework. The challenge that DePoy and Gilson undertake is quite prodigious, and appears to be predicated on a notion that they consider to derive from "post-postmodernism": specifically, that a multiplicity of perspectives is intrinsically better than the many approaches they discuss, and that synthesizing a variety of perspectives is preferable to a standpoint taken from a singular discipline.

The advantage of the approach proposed by DePoy and Gilson is that Studying Disability offers a wide-ranging introduction to disability studies for a reader who wants to have an understanding of how disability has been conceived across a variety of heterogeneous disciplines and fields. The technical character of the vocabulary, however, would most likely make it an inappropriate introduction for all but the most theoretically inclined of students. At times, the strong, even polemical argument that DePoy and Gilson are putting forward for their explanatory legitimacy theory does not mesh well with the broad review of disability across disciplines that seems to be the intention of the book. Occasionally, differing perspectives are given rather dismissive treatments without in-depth discussion or evidenced critique; this is the case with their treatment of the social model, which I will return to later.

A strength of the book's analysis is the connection made between industrial standards, design and disability. The foundations of the authors' thinking regarding disjuncture is recounted as having begun with conversations DePoy and Gilson had with their students about inaccessible environments (136). These conversations led them to consider Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian man as the source of design specifications. The resulting discussion of product and environmental standards is important, and is an avenue that deserves to be researched from a variety of standpoints.

DePoy and Gilson state that explanatory legitimacy theory emerged out of this research and is concerned with identifying disjuncture between environments and bodies, offering solutions to resolve this "ill fit" (211) and ultimately achieving juncture. Within this theory, disability is understood as an interaction between bodies and environments. The primary cause for the disjuncture of disability for DePoy and Gilson is the values that underpin the design of various everyday objects. Their focus on these design standards is a significant avenue for disability studies research. For example, it might inspire the production of histories determining how bodies accredited as different have come to be understood as such.

The theoretical framework of Studying Disability focuses primarily on the notion of legitimacy: how it relates to notions of worthiness, moral and otherwise, and how these notions in turn act to define various disability categories, and responses to these categories. For instance, DePoy and Gilson assert that "disability is a judgment about authenticity and worth" (7). This focus on how bodies come to be understood and have different degrees of worth, by different services, institutions and cultures, is a useful focus for studying disablement. Jean Baudrillard, particularly his notions of simulacra and embodiment, have heavily influenced the authors' approach to values. Affinities are also drawn from Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas, from whom they derive a focus on values. Values for DePoy and Gilson determine the degree of fit between the lives we live in the built, electronic and social environment. Their work is therefore concerned with suggesting approaches to move closer to a juncture between humans and environments.

Despite their demands for the reconstitution of the body, DePoy and Gilson's notion of embodiment is somewhat medicalized, and their critique inaccurately discusses the social model and various other social and cultural approaches: "We see these approaches in some sense as illogical leaps, in that responding to embodied explanations with exterior environment strategies seems to ignore the causal factors" (154). This quotation is indicative of the manner in which the social model and related approaches to disablement are treated in Studying Disability. In fact, advocates of the social model have never denied that medical knowledge would be needed to assist with particular impairment issues, but rather medicine would be inappropriate to resolve issues relating to disability, which is understood as discrimination. The call for "reconciling the medical constructed binary" (41) will be viewed by some disability activists who adhere to the social model as tantamount to suggesting to feminists that they need to focus less on patriarchy and more on their innate biological attributes of womanhood. DePoy and Gilson's suggestion that "medicine can be allowed back into the disability studies parlance" (159) misunderstands that the focus of the social model, and similar approaches, is on the medicalization of what are considered to be civil rights rather than medical issues.

Entrepreneurial progressive business is envisioned by DePoy and Gilson as the solution for disablement, reconfigured for them as disjuncture between bodies and environment. The solution, the authors suggest, would be the achievement of juncture: a perfect fit between bodies and environments. I am, however, left unconvinced that the market can be the motor that drives the process of finding solutions to many discriminatory issues that disabled people face.

The social justice agenda that drives Studying Disability will, I am confident, be useful in encouraging people from a variety of backgrounds to contest the difficulties in what DePoy and Gilson understand as a disjuncture between bodies and environment, in their professional practice or businesses pursuits. However, historians of disability, social theorists and activists who align themselves with the social model would be better served by another text with a more precise focus. Perhaps it is fair to diagnose this as a Disability Studies reader, rather than a Critical Disability Studies text.

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Copyright (c) 2011 Tom Campbell



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

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