As the field of disability studies continues to grow in the United States, more courses and programs in the field are being offered at the undergraduate level. Those of us engaged in teaching entry-level undergraduates, however, are well aware of the dearth of texts aimed at introducing basic concepts, histories, and debates in disability studies to these students. Many readers and anthologies demonstrate the scope and growing complexity of the field, but few of these are designed to provide a basic groundwork and vocabulary for beginning students. Ronald J. Berger's Introducing Disability Studies (2013) is crafted to fill this gap, offering students a foundational framework of activism, theory, law and socio-cultural issues from which to build.

The organization of Berger's book provides a useful topography of the rich, interdisciplinary nature of disability studies, exposing students to a wide range of histories, perspectives, and political issues central to inquiries into the "social enigma" (Berger, p. 1) of disability. Connecting key sociological concepts such as stigma, labeling theory, and social constructionism to disability activism, Berger traces the emergence of disability as socio-political phenomenon. The author outlines the medical and social models of disability, followed by an insightful discussion of the multiple theoretical critiques that have led to more nuanced frameworks, especially the cultural model (Linton, 1998; Snyder & Mitchell, 2006). In framing current socio-cultural approaches, Berger introduces students to materialist frameworks, debates around identity, and contributions from feminist and queer theories such as Rosemarie Garland Thomson's work on the "politics of appearance" (cited in Berger, 2013, p. 38), and Robert McRuer's influential articulation of "compulsory able-bodiedness" (cited in Berger, 2013, p. 40). Building upon this groundwork, Berger traces a history of disability, touching briefly on ancient and medieval societies, the Enlightenment, the rise of institutions, eugenics, the rise of rehabilitation, governmental support programs, into the disability rights movement and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. While Berger is only able to broadly sketch these distinct histories, the breath of this overview exposes students to the scope of disability studies.

After laying the foundation leading up to contemporary disability rights and policies, the three central chapters consider the particularities of disability across the life course, including the embodied insight of disability. Turning his lens to the family system and childhood, Berger begins with research on parents of disabled children. He provides useful contextual frames for key disability issues related to reproduction, childbirth, and the ongoing tensions between medical interpretations of disability and mothers' and fathers' connection to their newborns. Citing recent qualitative research, Berger outlines some of the social-emotional issues that arise for mothers and families as a result of the reactions of health professionals, as well as friends and extended family members, to their child's disability. Many mothers interviewed by Gail Landsman (2009), for example, describe feeling cheated out of the celebration of childbirth; suddenly joy is replaced by sadness, worry, or silence. Alongside the difficulties of suddenly being forced to negotiate what Tobin Siebers calls the "ideology of ability" (2008, p. 8), Berger highlights the creative ways parents resist ableist assumptions and develop new forms of familial resilience, creative adaptation, and insight, which almost inevitably involves tenacious advocacy for their disabled children.

Parent perspectives are nicely balanced with childhood narratives by people with disabilities: memories of embedded familial inclusion, occasional resistance to medical or rehabilitation procedures, and the importance of support within family systems. In the chapters on childhood and adolescence, Berger lays out many complexities of special education policies and practices, citing both the essential supports provided by special education coupled with problematic rigidities and exclusions many children and families face within this system. Berger powerfully illustrates the point made by David Connor and Beth Ferri, that the "paradox of special education is that it is both a service and a disservice" (cited in Berger, 2013, p. 109). In addition, the stigma associated with special education and disability become more intense as children advance into middle and high school. His chapter on adolescence and adulthood constructs a rich tapestry of perspectives and issues across a wide range of disabilities. In looking at peer relationships in high schools, Berger pays attention to gender dynamics, visible and invisible disabilities, the troublesome interaction of disability and race, including being targeted and bullied based on intersecting identities, as well as the overrepresentation of disabled youth of color in the juvenile justice system. While it would be impossible to cover a full range of issues in adulthood, Berger provides key issues for students to investigate further: unemployment and underemployment, the economic and structural challenges of arranging needed care, the social asexualization of disabled people, community-based care policies and models, and key linkages between disability and aging.

His final two substantive chapters, focused on the bodily experience of disability and cultural representation in literature and film, suggest an opportunity to deepen readers' understanding of disabled insight in conversation with symbolic registers of disability. In some ways, however, these chapters fall short of their promise. Berger's discussion of embodied experience touches on deafness and visual impairment, but largely pivots between physically disabled athletes—mostly wheelchair users—and those in the Special Olympics. Notably absent are narratives about invisible disability, chronic pain and illness, psychiatric diagnoses, and neurodiversity. Short, boxed stories, included throughout to spotlight specific issues and narratives, feature a few of these perspectives; however, the solitary narratives of John Nash and Temple Grandin, in this case, play into a troubling cultural shorthand where key figures stand in for a wide range of diverse experiences. Scholars in autism studies and autistic activists, in particular, have critiqued the cultural omnipresence of Grandin, especially when "individuals and their autisms," as Mark Osteen (2010) has put it, are tremendously diverse and complicated in terms of needed supports, care, and access.

Berger moves, finally, to cultural representation, where he offers a familiar overview of disability studies critiques of archetypical representational motifs such as the "demonic cripple," the "obsessive avenger," the "sweet innocent" (2013, p. 187) and "saintly sage" (2013, p. 189). His discussion of Hollywood features, from the silent film era, to the horror genre, to war veteran films, to biopics, draws almost entirely upon Martin Norden's (1994) The Cinema of Isolation. While Norden's work is a classic, Berger misses an opportunity to bring other excellent scholarship into the conversation. In The Problem Body (2010), for example, editors Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotić and contributors consider many of the films and genres discussed by Norden, and would productively expand Berger's discussion. Other rather glaring omissions in this chapter are references to queer/crip analyses, or any mention of intersectional scholarship on race, ethnicity, and disability related to literature and film. Although Berger provides beginning students much to consider, this chapter perpetuates an uncritical "white disability studies" (2006) that Chris Bell critiqued years ago, and in an introductory primer, such gaps contribute to continuing marginalization of perspectives that should be foundational — and that are, indeed, more integrated in earlier chapters.

Ronald J. Berger's text provides a welcome, accessible introduction to the growing field of disability studies. Specifically crafted for undergraduates, Introducing Disability Studies explores a wide range of topics, key concepts, policies, and issues across the life course, but as instructors work with Berger's book in the classroom, they will find natural jumping off points to add to the text's excellent groundwork, and some areas where additional resources are necessary to round out student exposure to the field.

  • Bell, Chris. (2006). Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal. In. L.J. Davis (Ed.), The Disability Studies Reader (2nd ed.) (pp. 275-282). New York: Routledge.
  • Berger, R.J. (2013). Introducing Disability Studies. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Publishers.
  • Chivers, S., & Markotić, N., (Eds.). (2010). The Problem Body: Projecting Disability on Film. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
  • Landsman, G.H. (2009). Reconstructing Motherhood and Disability in the Age of "Perfect" Babies. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Linton, S. (1998). Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press.
  • Norden, M.F. (1994). Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Osteen, Mark. (2010). Neurodiversity and Daregiving: A Roundtable with Parents and Siblings of Children with Autism. (Facilitated by Ralph James Savarese). Disability Studies Quarterly 30(1), n.p.
  • Siebers, T. (2008). Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Snyder, S.L. & Mitchell, D.T. (2006). Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2015 Michelle Jarman



Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

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 libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

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