Passing—"the way people conceal their impairments to avoid the stigma of disability and pass as 'normal'" (1) — is already a familiar concept to the field of disability studies and those with lived experiences of disability. 1 However, what might be less familiar is how an exploration of disability passing reveals the historical, sociopolitical and economic forces that constructed and continue to construct disability identity, as well as the often unexamined and painful material effects that accompany disability and non-disability identification. Jeffrey A. Brune and Daniel J. Wilson's thought-provoking anthology, Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity, offers such an exploration by historicizing disability and passing through a disability perspective rather than from a normative one. 2 Such a perspective, argue Brune and Wilson, "blurs the line between disability and normativity" (2). By breaking down the perceived binary between disability and normativity, this anthology allows for a more nuanced understanding of disability passing as always in flux, political, situational and deeply personal. Perhaps the greatest achievement of this collection is that it challenges us to re-examine what we think we know about disability passing and to contemplate our own relationship with passing. The latter is what makes this book a sometimes uncomfortable but necessary read.

The eight essays in Disability and Passing work in conjunction to examine the complexities of disability passing in relation to a variety of visible and invisible physical, sensory, and cognitive disabilities, including blindness, polio, deafness and mental illness. As an effect, these essays historicize stigma as it changes over time and through various contexts. The interdisciplinary nature of the collection also accounts for the ways in which disability identity intersects with race, class, gender, sexuality, and other marginalized identities, each with its own unique history of passing. As such, this collection expands its audience to include cultural studies scholars and students interested in identity politics. Furthermore, the use of passing as this anthology's organizing principle results in a cohesiveness that few edited collections achieve.

Although the editors make it clear from the beginning that passing "expresses, reifies, and helps create concepts of normality" (2), each contributor considers why some persons with disabilities might choose to identify as nondisabled. In the collection's first essay, "Passing in the Shadow of FDR: Polio Survivors, Passing, and the Negotiation of Disability," Wilson does so by historicizing disability and passing in the mid-twentieth century with respect to polio. Wilson focuses on how polio survivors experiencing post-polio syndrome had to emulate Roosevelt's ability to overcome his "handicap" through determination and strength of character, two core American values. Medical professionals and the rest of America society expected persons with post-polio syndrome to do the same, even though, as Wilson explains, FDR only "masqueraded" 3 as a "cured" cripple. Wilson informs his readers that Roosevelt was only able to "walk" and perform "normal" with the aid of the Secret Service and the financial resources of the presidency. In the remainder of the essay, Wilson pulls from studies of polio survivors with post-polio impairments and his own interviews to effectively show that passing as normal resulted in great physical and psychological pain. Wilson concludes that passing, often in plain sight, was only made possible because of the stigma of disability and people's willingness to look away from difference. At the end of this essay, we are invited to speculate with Wilson whether passing was worth the cost for FDR. His answer is a resounding yes, considering that "there were no accommodations for persons with disabilities" and that the alternative to passing as normal was "being isolated in back rooms and institutions" (32). The strength and the challenge of Wilson's essay and the other essays in this collection is that we are rarely told how to feel about passing, but rather to question.

Michael Rembis's contribution, "Athlete First: A Note on Passing, Disability, and Sport" may be the one exception. Similar to Wilson, Rembis historicizes disability and passing in relation to physical disabilities. The focus of his essay is on the post-World War II rise of elite disabled sports. Specifically, he analyzes the careers of the quadriplegic rugby player Mark Zupan and athlete-turned-model Aimee Mullins. He highlights how difficult it has been for them to be considered both disabled and athletes. To be successful, Rembis explains, they had to be complacent in the overcoming narrative that they "transcended" their disabilities. In his conclusion, Rembis makes a plea to cease passing, arguing that "in the end we must choose not to pass," suggesting that it is a violation of our civil and human rights to do so. He calls for us "to act together" to effect change and to put an end to "the enormous amounts of energy" that "we spend minimizing our impairments" (135). Rembis's call is emotionally persuasive and left me chiding myself for the times I have passed, as well as thinking how my actions affect the larger disability community.

Fittingly, and indicative of this collection's range, the very next essay shakes up the stability of Rembis's argument. Alison C. Carey's "Sociopolitical Contexts of Passing and Intellectual Disability" investigates disability and passing in relation to intellectual disabilities in various time periods and contexts. She covers the Eugenics movement, the parents' movement of the 1950s and 60s, the 1970s fixation on normalization, and the disability rights movement, capturing the paradox of passing for those with intellectual disabilities and their families throughout these time periods. Carey suggests that the decision to pass for those with intellectual disabilities might be more complex because of the heightened stigma surrounding this population. Like Rembis, at the end of her essay, Carey makes clear her position on passing. She calls for a social justice movement that meets the individualized needs of its people without imposing bounded identities on them, noting that not everyone with a disability defines themselves primarily as disabled.

Most essays in this collection make clear that it is the stigma associated with disability that allows passing to happen so often and so easily. In his contribution, Brune examines passing as an abstract concept in relation to Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Although this text is known for Griffin's efforts to pass as a Black man in the Jim Crow South, Brune argues that Griffin's text also depicts the life of a disabled man attempting to pass as normal. Griffin, we learn, who spent most of his life being blind, abandoned his autobiography about the stigma he encountered as a blind man when his eyesight returned. Although Griffin "fails to mention" his disability in Black Like Me and "allows it to pass" (47), Brune asserts that Griffin is unable to suppress his disability from the text completely. Brune makes a convincing argument that it is ultimately the reader's desire to erase disability that allows Griffin to pass. Similarly, in Kristen C. Harmon's essay, "Growing up to Become Hearing: Dreams of Passing in Oral Deaf Education," deaf children pass as hearing because their parents so desperately wish them to be "normal." Consequently, oral deaf education still endures. Harmon's essay shares her lived experiences of passing as hearing and the great emotional, physical and spiritual costs of that performance. After reading her essay, I found it difficult once again to justify passing.

Peta Cox's essay, "Passing as Sane, Or How to Get People to Sit Next to You on the Bus," also approaches passing as a performative act. Although less accessible than some of the other essays, due to its use of feminist performance theory, it is also one of the most rewarding. Cox's essay is the only one in this collection that considers mental disabilities, which is still a neglected area in disability studies. She calls for a deeper understanding of passing that departs from the notion of being "locked in the closet," claiming that "although this is true in some circumstances, it is equally true that some people find it comforting to lock the door and protect themselves from the outside world" (101). Passing, writes Cox, should be seen as a legitimate choice and not an immoral one. Most interesting is how Cox shows the contradictions of passing for the mentally ill and the blurred lines between "acting" and "being" sane. Cox shows how passing can both limit and increase the distress of those with mental illness.

In their introduction, Brune and Wilson emphasize that further work needs to be done at the intersections of race and disability. Certainly, we can see the potential of such scholarship after reading Dea H. Boster's fascinating contribution, "'I Made Up My Mind to Act Both Deaf and Dumb': Displays of Disability and Slave Resistance in the Antebellum American South." Through extensive historical research including slave narratives, Boster makes a compelling case that passing can be an act of resistance. The accounts cited in this essay detail how slaves feigned mental and physical disability to avoid being sold, receive less dangerous and intense workloads, and even to escape. Boster further explains that "marking their bodies as disabled allowed slaves to claim an element of control over themselves, but it also tempted observers to read other kinds of 'unsoundness' into their bodies" (85). Once freed, slaves removed disguises of disability in order to present themselves as strong and independent African Americans. What makes Boster's essay so striking is that it simultaneously presents passing as an act of subversion and shame.

The outlier of this anthology, and perhaps why I come to it last, is David Linton's, "Menstrual Masquerade." Linton presents an historical account of how women in many cultures have historically had to pass as non-menstruators. He also includes candid rhetorical analyses of American advertisements for feminine hygienic products as evidence of women having to hide their menstruation. Noting that menstruation is often seen an illness and stigmatized, Linton argues that it is a disabling condition equated with being a woman. Although feminist disability studies includes scholarship on how being a woman is associated with disability (see, for example, Dolmage and Lewiecki-Wilson), Linton's comparison between hiding menstruation and "individuals with various disabilities historically being institutionalized" (60), feels inequitable. Nonetheless, Linton's contribution to the anthology expands the conversation of disability passing in an unusual direction.

Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity is an important book for the field of disability studies. By historicizing disability passing in relation to a variety of disabilities, the anthology provides new insight into what is at stake both on the interpersonal and structural level when passing. Most importantly, it also asks its readers to consider their own positions on disability identification.

Works Cited

  • Dolmage, Jay. & Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia. "Refiguring Rhetorica: Linking Feminist Rhetoric and Disability Studies." Rhetoric in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies. Eds. Eileen Schell and K.J. Rawson. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. 23-38. Print.
  • Goffman, Erving. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963. Print.
  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print.


  1. This definition of passing is only the first of many attempts by the contributors to define passing.
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  2. Brune and Wilson make the distinction between a disability perspective and a normative one in relation to how their work expands and departs from Erving Goffman's Stigma.
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  3. Wilson, as do many of the contributors, cites Tobin Siebers's use of the term "masquerade" to describe the phenomenon of "exaggerating or performing difference," an act that "marks one as a target, but … also exposes and resists the prejudices of society" (Siebers 102).
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Copyright (c) 2014 Hilary Selznick

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