While narratives of self-representation and disabled agency carry great significance for the history of people with disabilities, scholars of disability life writing have suggested that autobiography risks reducing disability to personal struggle, which is then overcome through agential self-narration. Furthermore, as Lennard Davis has noted, establishing disability as static and narratable can cross into sentimentality and undermine disabled life writing's objectives (3-4). Indeed, some disability memoirs often demand the body to tell a linear narrative of adjustment rather than the reality of disability's mutability. As Susannah B. Mintz has argued, "disability is an inconstant experience, its significance to the story of self requiring multiple retellings, repeated narrative shaping" (4). An anthology such as Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability with its variegated accounts, offers a polyvocal solution to the issues created by singular narratives. This collection, edited by Michelle Jarman, Leila Monaghan, and Alison Quaggin Harkin, includes a range of experiences beyond the radicalized disabled subject who has fully embraced a "positive disability identity" (12). As the editors indicate, "While some writers assert strong disability-pride identities, others resist identity claims as political strategy toward social change" (12). In refusing the teleological narrative of disabled self-politicization, this anthology leaves the future of disability studies and activism radically open to interpretation.

Barriers and Belonging is the latest work to emerge from Temple University Press's impressive Disability Studies initiative. This 286-page paperback anthology, comprised of an introduction, six sections, an afterword and index, fills a need for disability studies anthologies geared toward an undergraduate audience. For those considering course adoption, the book is available in paperback, hard copy, and e-book. It lends itself to excerption, but would serve exceptionally well as a course foundation.

For both seasoned instructors and instructors new to teaching disability studies, Barriers and Belonging does not only serve as a teaching tool, but also a teaching guide. The introduction provides not only a map of how to use the anthology in the classroom, but also offers a rich introduction to key debates in disability studies. It includes a wealth of discussion questions, writing exercises, and suggested pairings, as well as key terms in disability studies such as "stigma," "ableism," and bodyminds," conveniently in boldface font. Each section begins with a brief page introduction to the theme of the section (for example, Part I: Laying the Groundwork), followed by questions and "Suggestions for Related Readings" within the collection. These discussion questions would operate well to generate classroom discussion, but seem particularly suited for a forum response or response paper prompt in advance of discussion. Many pieces include entwined creative and critical reflections on gesture previous works in disability studies, such as how Zahari A. Richter's "Contours of Ableism and Transforming a Disabled Life," converses with Fiona Kumari Campbell's monograph, Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness. We see this also in Suzi Vee's "I Can Dance," which was inspired by accounts of dancing in Simi Linton's My Body Politic: A Memoir. Pieces such as these model for students how they can thoughtfully bring experiential knowledge into conversation with pre-existing scholarship. Courses in Women's and Gender Studies and Higher Education, as well as Introduction to Disability Studies, Introduction to Life Writing, and Narrative Medicine courses would particularly benefit from the adoption of Barriers and Belonging.

Barriers and Belonging is not subdivided by particular impairments, which can trouble the medicalized expectations of those unfamiliar with the field. The anthology does not lend itself to a sustained study of a disability, but is rather makes an intentional move toward coalition building based on shared experiences of oppression. Many entries deal with experiences in academic environments, which will prompt students to reflect critically upon the exclusions inherent in their own educational environments: Nancy La Monica's "Deconstructing 'Accessible' Education in Academia," recounts her experiences in her education graduate program with disclosure and passing with regards to her learning disability , asking "Why should I have to disclose my impairment time and time again , so that you can understand my impairment?" (190). La Monica's defiant response to the diagnostic gaze of her classmates mirrors the refusal of this collection to indulge medicalized curiosity. Reflective of current movements in disability studies, Barriers and Belonging is widely inclusive of those with psychiatric and nonapparent disabilities. Furthermore, the anthology represents contemporary debates surrounding the coexistent violence and necessity of cure and treatment. For example, Cindee Calton's "Medicating My Socially Constructed Disability," grapples with how her academic understanding of disability as social construction can be commensurate with her need for medication for her psychiatric disability.

The collection offers multiple perspectives through which we can combat the white and Westernized emphasis of what Christopher Bell has termed "White Disability Studies." Instructors hoping to include disability narratives in a transnational context would certainly benefit from this volume. Rodney B. Hume-Dawson's "Flourishing with Polio: A Spiritual, Transformational, and Disability Studies Perspective" describes growing up in Sierra Leone with a disability while engaging with the importance of faith to many disabled people's self-conceptualization. In "Transitioning from One Culture to Another" Anmol Bhatia examines the issues with moving to the U.S. from India to gain better access to schools for the blind, such as the pressures to have romantic relationships and change his diet.

What is particularly striking about this collection is its inclusion of "students newly acquainted with sociocultural dimensions of disability," alongside "activists deeply familiar with political issues and theory" (4). In validating the fresh perspectives of those who are new to disability studies with those who are steeped in it, Jarman, Monaghan, and Harkin disrupt the linear narrative of how one finds disability consciousness and community in exciting ways. In this way, the volume is not only an invaluable teaching resource, but also a vibrant addition to the fields of Education, Disability Studies, and Auto/biography Studies.

Works Cited

  • Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.
  • Mintz, Susannah B. Unruly Bodies: Life Writing by Women with Disabilities. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009. Print.
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2018 Jess Waggoner

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with 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, Maureen Walsh.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)