Introduction to DSQ Special Topic Section: New Conversations in Disability Studies

The three articles collected here represent emerging perspectives in disability studies from a growing, theoretically sophisticated cadre of graduate students nationwide who have developed as critics and researchers within critical disability studies as a recognized and institutionalized field of inquiry in higher education. This cadre of new critical disability studies scholars draws from an established academic field which includes a robust body of canonical critical texts, a multidisciplinary critical vocabulary, and extensive structure in professional organizations, varied academic programs, recognition of disability studies across academic fields and institutions, and active mentoring from established academics who locate their work primarily in the field of critical disability studies. Developing their own research in an established field places these new disability studies scholars' work in a conversation with antecedent critical interventions taken now as part of an originary canon of critical disability studies. The current conversation that engages with the ideas, perspectives, and critical vocabulary of this earlier canon has been very generative.

The three articles here comprise an exemplary instance of the extended conversation that is now critical disability studies. Each of these articles brings together a set of current multi-disciplinary perspectives, methods, and theories to address a significant question in disability studies. Each brings a set of current scholarly concerns to disability studies. In doing so, each of these articles offers a new set of critical concepts appropriate to these current concerns which is in conversation with the existing conceptual canon of disability studies.

In "Universal Design Research as a New Materialist Practice," Aimi Hamraie expands upon the foundational critical premise in disability studies that disability is a social construction, that it's a product of the interaction between bodies and environments. She does this by drawing on the recent critical attention in feminist studies on what might be called material constructivism, or the new materialism. Hamraie productively employs the critical tools of feminist science studies to think about how disabled bodies engage with built environments. This shift away from discursive meaning-making to material meaning-making leads Hamraie to the work of an accessible built environment produced by universal design. The fresh significance of Hamraie's research on the materialism of access is her contribution of two new critical concepts, both of which draw from and revise canonical critical concepts of disability studies. First is her newly coined critical term, "normate template," which productively uses my own critical term "normate" in combination with the idea of a standard form to capture the idea of the severely able-bodied (to reference Paul Longmore's wonderfully ironic term) phantom figure who is the imagined user of buildings designed outside of the guiding principles of universal design. Hamraie's argument goes beyond the well-established premise that universal design is user centered to propose what she calls "the new disability anthropometry." In doing so, she redefines the traditional ableist statistical measurement practice of anthropometry to become, in the hands of universal designer researchers, a knowledge-building tool for producing the accessible environment that disability rights political and social initiatives have worked toward. What is original about her argument is that she extends the conversation about the virtues of a universally designed built environment by focusing on the research practices which unseat the privileged normate figure and instead create a knowledge base in which "human bodies and behaviors become legible proofs of the normate template inadequacies for designers."

Rachel Dudley offers a new critical concept in "Towards an Understanding of the Medical Plantation as a Cultural Location of Disability." Taking up David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's canonical concept of disability cultural locations, Dudley employs the frameworks of black feminist studies and medical history to consider productively a canonical historical figure in women's studies. Following critical historical work on women of color from the past who were subjected to medical exploitation, such as Sara Baartman, Julia Pastrana, and Henrietta Lacks, Dudley brings forward a history of the mid-19th century slave woman Anarcha, whose body was the occasion used by James Marion Sims, the so-called father of modern gynecology, to develop the speculum and accompanying surgical procedure for treating vesico-vaginal fistulas. Responding to the turn in cultural and feminist studies to account for racial, gender, and class variations in critical explication, Dudley offers the concept of the "medical plantation" to do this intersectional analysis. Drawn from the methods of medical history, feminist history, and cultural studies, Dudley puts Anarcha in the context of 19th century slavery, medicine, and gender relations in order to offer an intersectional disability analysis of how power relations, developing technological entrepreneurship, and the gendered material conditions of the slave system worked together in the troubling relationship between Anarcha and Sims.

In her article "Autistic Human Rights — A Proposal," Jennifer Sarrett engages the theoretical conversation in disability studies about the varying conceptual models the field has put forward to explicate how the disability system operates. To do this, Sarrett productively draws on what she calls the "paradox of autism." In keeping with the position of the neurodiversity movement, Sarrrett suggests that the distinctive ways of being gathered under the diagnostic category and identity group of autism offer a productive occasion for developing a "human rights model based on interdependence, individuality, and human diversity." Because the set of traits understood as autism manifest in the categories of physical, cognitive, psychiatric, and sensory disabilities, the totality of the autistic profile can represent the complexity of disabled being and identity, underscoring particularly the ways that disability identification reduces one's social capital. Sarrrett's paradox of autism points to an incoherence in the very concept of disability-as-deficit in that the reigning model of autism-as-pathology rather than autism-as-human-variation interprets the autistic way of being as a deficit of both dependence and independence. The human rights model Sarrrett offers redefines autism by conceptualizing the manifestation of its distinctive traits as a complex, radial "sphere" rather than a "spectrum" of abilities. The representational model of the circle instead of the line permits us to conceptualize autism as an interrelated network of characteristic traits rather than a binary spectrum of pathological symptoms ranging by degree from normal to abnormal.

Perhaps the most subtle virtue of these three articles taken together is that they demonstrate how critical disability studies' scholarly inquiries can be organized not according to a range of conditions or diagnostic categories— such as paralysis, autism, and gynecological disorders— but rather according to the range of disciplinary perspectives and critical methodologies that can illuminate the cultural workings of disability.

Return to Top of Page


Copyright © 2000-14, The Society for Disability Studies. 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, Melanie Schlosser. Disability Studies Quarterly acknowledges and appreciates The Ohio State University Libraries for publishing DSQ as part of the University's Knowledge Bank initiative.