What is the difference between "Disability Studies" (DS) and "Critical Disability Studies" (CDS)? I understand differences between rehabilitation/medical models and DS, materialist DS and post-modern/post structural DS, and in how DS as theorized in the social sciences, humanities and arts. I also understand DS that engages directly (and is sometimes hybridized with) rehabilitation, engineering and other applied fields. Given this multiplicity of approaches, does the dichotomy between DS and CDS do justice to the complex engagements possible in this expanding field?

Sometimes the term CDS distinguishes DS programs from rehabilitation or education programs that co-opt the term and use it inappropriately. This is not really a distinction between DS and CDS. It is a distinction between DS and pseudo-DS. These distinctions are most often visible as a form of institutional jockeying over whose DS program is the purest. Sometimes programs are considered compromised because of applied clinical, educational and/or quantitative research interests of some faculty and students. To create distance from these, some programs are titled CDS and one program described itself as the "only DS program in the country with faculty members solely devoted to DS." Is this a constructive, precise or accurate way of thinking about or describing DS? It says more about internal power hierarchies and elitisms within the field. I think we have outgrown it.

A book review written about Occupying Disability: Critical Approaches to Community, Justice, and Decolonizing Disability (Springer, 2016), by a reviewer who identified themselves as "critical theorist" within occupational therapy, disparaged some of the book's chapters because they were written by disability activists, not academics. She decried the lack of criticality of these chapters, saying they belonged in blogs, not an academic volume. Apparently it is okay with her for academics to appropriate the theories of activists and put a "critical" spin on them, but not okay to allow the original authors to represent their own ideas for an academic audience. This is "criticality" used in the service of power and privilege – an assertion of elitist ableism.

Many DS scholars doing cutting-edge innovative and critical work do not identify with CDS. The field is strong enough, we do not need to fear co-optation due to locations that are not purely positioned as DS (which simply don't exist in most academic settings other than as temporary spaces). At the 2013 SDS meetings Mansha Mirza discussed the concept of "hybrid" DS which engages critically with many fields, including applied fields. What happens when someone with a background in DS, bio-informatics, business, and insurance policy helps dismantle reimbursement barriers that exclude needed and wanted assistive technologies? How about a combination of DS, biological anthropology, rehabilitation, engineering, and archaeology to help figure out how disability was accommodated thousands of years ago?

There are valid distinctions between different types of DS that are taught, theorized and practiced, but perhaps we can start using more precision and less judgement in our discussions, and also more awareness of the power hierarchies and privilege we may be invoking.

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Copyright (c) 2017 Pamela Block

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