Literary legend has it that the seventeenth-century poet John Milton had read every major book, poem, play, tract, pamphlet, or essay available in his lifetime, whether it was written in English, Latin, Greek, Italian, or Hebrew. Ten years ago, disability studies scholars may have felt a bit Miltonesque — less because of our prodigious, polyglottal reading habits, however, and more because there was, relatively speaking, just so little disability scholarship to read.
Such is far from true in 2007. Now disability-studies students and teachers find themselves in the gratifying position of needing to discriminate among possible resources, especially when it comes to introductions to the field. Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law is a text that deserves consideration as such an introduction.
The essays are probably too advanced to be considered truly introductory, even though the collection follows the thematic structure of most disability-studies handbooks. It begins, for example, with a call for new conceptions of disablement along social-model lines. The subsequent 13 articles discuss the power and peril of disability's definitions, the double binds of demographic data, the value of theorizing disability, the intersections of gender and disability, race and disability, work and disability, education and disability, and home support services and disability. There is a single essay on mental disabilities (autism). And throughout the collection, several authors use their personal experiences living with physical differences as subjects of sociopolitical analysis.
Still, though Critical Disability Theory's table of contents may look (too) familiar it would be a mistake to dismiss the collection for lack of thematic originality. Original topics are far from crucial in a field whose fundamental tenets are still not well known, especially by this text's ideal audience: North American legal scholars and policy analysts. More relevant criteria for reviewing this type of work are analytic quality, conceptual clarity, topical breadth, and political and practical usefulness. In these, the volume at hand generally excels.
The collection's first essay, "Disability Policy Making: Evaluating the Evidence Base" by Mary Ann McColl, Alison James, William Boyce, and Sam Shortt is exemplary. Good demographic evidence, the authors contend, is obviously essential for creating social policies that make equality more than a shibboleth of neo-liberal democracies.
But when they analyze five major population-based surveys conducted in Canada between 1991 and 2001, McColl et al. demonstrate how data are inevitably affected by the methodological approaches used to collect them, and these methods are themselves affected by which definitions of disability are assumed. This is old news. It is not just that no single definition can capture the complexity of human subjects but that some definitions of disability are notoriously oppressive in their stigmatizing and stereotyping effects. But McColl et al. highlight the other side of this well-known critique: The very terms that perpetuate pernicious myths about disablement simultaneously produce data that may grant people with disabilities access to life-sustaining financial and medical resources.
Take biomedical definitions, for example (as the authors do). The demographic data garnered under the sway of biomedical conceptions of impairments can lead in many instances to greater access to better health care. But of course the biomedical model reinforces mistaken beliefs that disability is primarily or solely a personal and physical pathology; that society's responsibility, if any, is limited to charity and welfarism; and that full citizenship for the disabled is (unfortunately but ineluctably) limited to participation in a nation's health care system.
Or take economic definitions (as the authors do): These do locate disablement in the social sphere and can provide for people with disabilities desperately needed economic assistance. But economic demographics of disability foster the beliefs that a successful life requires "competitive employment" and that the ultimate goal of human existence is economic productivity and the autonomy it purportedly provides. Both of these are unrealistic and exclusionary goals for some people with disabilities (and as disability scholarship consistently highlights, both are dubious criteria for measuring the quality of human life in general).
Of course, problems stemming from population-based information on people with disabilities and the ideology-laden conceptions and methods that inform that information have been treated elsewhere, but McColl et al.'s analysis is more effective than many introductions in its concision and clarity. The latter are achieved especially through substantial examples concretely rendered. Moreover, its recognition of the double-bind effect noted above captures more of the complexities and significance of the language through which society comes to (mis)understand disability.
The chapter "Does Theory Matter?" by Marcia H. Rioux and Fraser Valentine continues exploring the power of definitions ("theoretical constructs") to make disability both socially visible and to control/distort its social meaning; however, Rioux and Valentine focus on legal and social discourses concerned with rights and equality. Here the complexities arise not because the terminology is negatively inflected but because it is unavoidably ambiguous and therefore open to conflicting and potentially oppressive interpretations. What members of the disability community interpret as rights — rights to services, access, and inclusion arising from rights of citizenship encoded in laws — governments tend to interpret as "'discretionary benefits'" to be constrained by budget considerations and political winds. As Rioux and Valentine point out, the disability community and the Canadian government disagree on the meaning of the most basic terms like "citizenship" and "inclusion." The result is administrative and judicial documents that sound progressive, seeming to recognize disability as a human rights issue, but because the official interpreters of these documents theorize disability and equality in disparate and often regressive ways, the reality on the ground is confused law and policy and the perpetuation of unequal and often inhumane treatment.
Reality (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot) is an apparently successful theory, and as Rioux and Valentine demonstrate, so long as people with disabilities do not enjoy the full powers and privileges of the people making, interpreting, and enforcing the legal policies, then of course theory matters.
The theory that this collection cares most about is critical theory, theory that changes reality by affecting laws, policies, and practices. It is clear that editors Pothier and Devlin required all the contributors to provide, whenever possible, practical solutions and policy suggestions for the issues they each raise. This is perhaps a major difference between Critical Disability Theory and many of its Anglo-American predecessors. Even the most abstract philosophical analysis, the critique by Ravi A. Malhotra of Rawls' theory of justice, concludes by providing four specific and precisely formulated "modifications" that would help "Rawls' model better respond to the issues faced by workers with disabilities." Teri Hibbs' and Diane Pothier's analysis of disability policy in post-secondary education, a must-read for those of us in education, concludes with four concrete suggestions that university teachers and administrators could begin implementing this semester. Kari Krogh's and Jon Johnson's analysis of home care concludes by recommending such care be redefined as a "citizenship service" rather than a health service. Not only would this avoid the frequent cuts in services labeled "not medically necessary," but it would also reduce the costs, as much assistance requires little if any medical training of the provider.
Ultimately, Critical Disability Theory distinguishes itself not by breaking new ground, at least for Anglo-American disability-studies scholars, but by covering relatively familiar ground clearly and succinctly, by substantiating its theorizing with concrete examples, and most of all, by proffering specific, pragmatic suggestions for effecting change.