|Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies
What are the implications of teaching disability as a pure metaphor? Disability often has negative connotations when used metaphorically, while the lived experience of disability can be quite different. In order to demonstrate this contradiction, I discuss some pedagogical aspects of teaching the novel, Blindness, by Jose Saramago. First, I exhibit possible interpretations of the parable that are useful for teaching. Then, I demonstrate the ways blindness is constructed as Otherness and its possible implications for instruction. Finally, I offer several strategies by which Blindness, and other literary portrayals, can be used in the classroom in a critical manner, one that values human variation and diversity.
Key Words: Disability Studies, Literature, Pedagogy, Blindness
This article is my attempt to grapple with one of my novice experiences with (not) integrating a disability related text in the general curriculum. The text I discuss is the novel, Blindness, written by Portuguese fabulist Jose Saramago, recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. Blindness, written in 1995, was a best seller throughout Europe and was translated from Portuguese into numerous languages.
I first read Blindness in 1999 in Hebrew in Israel, where the book was at the top of the best selling books' list for over a year. At the time, I was a teaching assistant for an Introduction to Sociology course at Tel Aviv University. The book was assigned as optional reading. At that time, I was new to the field of Disability Studies (a field that does not exist as such in Israel), so I articulate only in retrospect my critique of the novel–and the way we taught it. In other words, this paper reflects both a "before" and "after" perspective of gaining a disability consciousness.
When I first read the book, I was drawn into the story by Saramago's unique story telling craftsmanship. With its dearth of punctuation and paragraph breaks, the novel is designed be read in one seating. I was also taken by the novel's embodied moral lesson, designed to make readers reflect on the power of societal structures to shape their lives. Then, I became increasingly uncomfortable with being asked repeatedly by acquaintances and colleagues, "Have you read this new book on blindness?" "This is not a book about blindness," I would reply. "This is a book that uses blindness as a parable about society." "Yes, whatever..., but did you like it?" But it wasn't "whatever" for me. The conflation between disability as a metaphor and as an identity was not so trivial for me.
Blindness, like many other novels, uses disability to construct a story about human ideals, tragedy, and triumph. It is not a story about people who are blind, but an ableist metaphor that appropriates blindness as its signifier. First, I demonstrate why blindness was chosen as the main signifier in this novel. I then discuss what we taught our sociology students, what our students inadvertently learned about blindness, and finally offer ways for utilizing this novel, and others, to discuss disability more critically.
The novel begins with a traffic jam at a red light in an unnamed city in an unnamed country. The cause of this jam is a car that does not seem to move. The car's driver says only three words: "I am blind." Distraught, he is accompanied to his home by a seemingly kind stranger, who, after taking the blind man home, steals his car. This proves a quite useless enterprise because the thief also becomes blind shortly after the act.
But this blindness is not of the ordinary kind. The first blind man consults an ophthalmologist. He tells the doctor that his blindness is a penetrating white, as if he "were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea" (p. 3). The day after, the doctor becomes blind as well. Soon after, others are affected by this blinding epidemic.
Throughout the novel, we follow a cast of eight to nine characters in detail. They have no names, only descriptors. After all, as one character remarks after becoming blind, "what use would names be to us, no dog recognizes another dog... by the names that they have been given" (p. 52). There is the first blind man, the first blind man's wife, the car-thief, the doctor and the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, and the man with the black eye patch. There are a few others, but these are the key characters, and later on the dog of tears is added.
Once word of the epidemic begins to spread, the government tries to contain it. Those who are already blind and those who have been in contact with them are brought to an abandoned mental institution. Among the first detainees are the doctor and his wife. The doctor's wife is only passing for blind in order to accompany her husband to the asylum. She is the only insider who has her eyesight, although she hides this fact from the other inmates.
Their confinement in the asylum is absolute. They have been ordered to report for deportation with their luggage and with no known date of return. As the number of incarcerated blind persons grows, the asylum becomes intolerable. Systems begin to break down. Toilets back up, food deliveries become sporadic, and there is no medical treatment for the sick or proper way to bury the dead. In the midst of this chaos, one group of blind inmates takes control of the dwindling food supply and uses it to exploit the others, including using it as a means to coerce the men to send their women to the group for illicit sex. When the blind people protest their now-intolerable conditions, the soldiers guarding the asylum shoot at them from their posts.
After a fire starts at the asylum, the inmates discover that the soldiers themselves have gone blind and they escape. The doctor's wife leads the group of blind inmates into the city, which is unrecognizable as the city she remembered before the blindness epidemic. Scarcity of food and water has led to looting. Streets are filled with garbage, abandoned vehicles, and dead bodies. In the midst of this horrific landscape, the doctor's family and a few fellow refugees survive together in the doctor's old apartment, sharing their meager resources and finding comfort in each other. Eventually the epidemic exhausts itself, and a few people, then more, regain their sight as mysteriously as they had lost it.
As the doctor's wife remarks near the end of the novel: "I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see" (p. 292). Thus, Saramago uses blindness metaphorically. Webster's dictionary defines metaphor as "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or action is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." I wish to stress that I am not opposing the metaphoric use of disability as an absolute stance. Metaphors are a persuasive way of organizing the way we think and explaining phenomena with familiar examples. But the questions then become, why use blindness as a metaphor and what does it stand for?
Are we all blind? Possible interpretations of the parable from a social science perspective
Discussing the novel with students can be useful in interrogating profound questions about the nature of social arrangements and human behavior. Schor (1999) claims that blindness is a privileged metaphor, the trope of all tropes. According to French rhetorician, Pierre Fontanier:
Blindness must have at first referred only to the deprivation of the sense of sight; but he who does not clearly distinguish ideas and their relationships; he whose reason is disturbed, obscured, does he not slightly resemble the blind man who does not perceive physical objects? The word blindness came naturally to hand to also express this deprivation of moral sight. (cited in Schor, 1999, p. 216—217)Indeed, Saramago uses blindness to create an allegory about the breakdown of humanity and morality in modern societies. He suggests that as a society, we cannot deal with our post/modern state of affairs with its rampant violence, oppression, and lack of empathy.
In Israel, where I taught this novel, the allusion to the Holocaust in particular, resonates immediately. The Holocaust becomes an obvious parallel especially with scenes of baggage deportation, concentration camps, and the seclusion of people who have a seemingly common identity. Contemporary parallels may also include instances of discrimination, civil war and genocide–Kosovo, Uganda, the Congo, and Rwanda most currently among them (Landon, 1999). Saramago's dystopian portrayal of displacement and injustice will likely ring true to those who witnessed the aftermath of the recent Hurricane Katrina. Since the course, Introduction to Sociology, was taught in Israel by rather politically radical instructors (who might be referred to as "post Zionists"), we used the novel to discuss the implications of an ongoing Palestinian occupation by a so-called enlightened modern state (i.e., Israel).
One can also take this parable to discuss distinctly sociological concepts, one of the main reasons this novel was chosen for an introductory course. Throughout the novel, readers see what happens when social norms conflate and lose their meaning, which Durkheim (1893/1997) referred to as a state of Anomie. What happens when the social contract, in Hobbsian terms, breaks down? Can one live without regulating institutions? Can people become de-socialized? What power can bureaucracies and states exert over the individual? (Elor & Shenhav, 2002) These are all questions that can be addressed with students when reading the novel from a sociological standpoint.
The novel can also be interpreted and taught from a philosophical and existential standpoint. Some may want to compare this novel to Camus', The Plague (1947/ 1991), particularly regarding the insistence upon absurd logic in the face of an epidemic. From this perspective, Blindness is an allegory about the human condition. In the absence of social or cultural norms, we understand more clearly the core of humanity. Saramago's harsh depiction of violence, rape, and loss of dignity reinforces pessimistic accounts about the cruelty of humankind.
The novel also alludes to Social Darwinist notions of the survival of the fittest. In this instance, one could compare Blindness to Lord of the Flies (1954) to discuss the implications of such an evolutionary (and eugenic) vision of society. In the novel, when all are equally blinded, power is exerted by means of force. Men with weapons rape women. Stronger men control the food supply. Yet, others with scarce resources share them with others. Thus, the novel can be construed as a reactionary moral tale of good and evil, but also reflects the humanity and kindness people can embody.
Another possible reading could employ a gender-based lens, particularly useful in the sociology course I taught. In fact, the only identity constructs that seem meaningful in Blindness and known to the reader are gender, age and ability to see. The novel is ripe for feminist analysis in general, and the centrality of the doctor's wife strengthens these interpretations. On a symbolic and corporeal level, she is the only character who has not lost her sight, or her vision. In feminist thought, vision represents knowledge (I will return to this pairing later). Saramago reverses the typical role of the woman and turns her into the only possible knower. Unlike most literary accounts, the woman is not the object of the gaze, but instead is the only one possessing the ability to gaze. However, this ability still does not seem to give her an advantage as she is again objectified, raped, and mistreated (Elor & Shenhav, 2002). She cannot reveal her only strength, her ability to see, for fear of being exploited or punished. So, although her situation is advantageous, it is only relatively so.
One might even say that her vision becomes a burden as the traditional gender roles are never reversed. She remains the "doctor's wife," whose role as nurturer intensifies tenfold. The blind band uses her as a compass and, throughout the novel, she remains the ideal of normality. The band then becomes increasingly dependent and helpless, while the doctor's wife feels a greater and greater sense of responsibility. For example in the conversation the doctor wife's has with the girl with the sunglasses, she says:
Today is today, tomorrow will bring what tomorrow brings, today is my responsibility, not tomorrow if I should turn blind. What do you mean by responsibility? The responsibility of having my eyesight when others have lost theirs. You cannot hope to guide or provide food for all the blind people in the world, I ought to. (p. 225)The doctor's wife's ability to see seems to haunt her. She does not perceive sight as a source of power, but rather the contrary. She remarks: "You do not know, you can not know, what it means to have eyes in a world in which everyone else is blind, I am not a queen, no, I am simply the one who was born to see this horror" (p. 247).
Othering blindness through the novel
The themes discussed above are worth exploring, especially in classroom settings, but one must be cautious of the rhetorical device used to interrogate the breakdown of humanity and its celebration. If blindness is the signifier, what is the referent? What does it refer to in the world outside the novel? What does Saramago tell readers by using blindness as a signifier? Beyond a commentary about humanity and society, what does it say about blindness?
Many authors–from Grimms' fairytales to Toni Morrison–choose disability to mark deviation from a norm, to refer to some inner structure within the character to which the disability alludes. In their groundbreaking book, Mitchell and Snyder (2000) demonstrate that people with disabilities have not been just the object of representation, they also serve a particular bio-purpose: "first, as a stock feature of characterization" (p. 15), termed "narrative prosthesis;" second, as a metaphorical device, termed "materiality of a metaphor." In short, disability makes textual abstractions tangible. In this case, Saramago exoticizes blindness without giving any attention to its corporeality. In fact, the experiences of blind persons are completely absent. They are replaced by an ableist discourse that constructs the blind as the ostensible Other.
In the novel, blind people are viewed as significantly different from sighted people. Saramago's use of blindness as a device to say something about all humanity is conceived of, therefore, as ingenious. It reminds one of non-disabled actors who portray people with disabilities on screen and receive Oscars (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot; Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and Jamie Foxx in Ray are a few famous examples). "How could they play someone so different and be convincing? They must be good actors," the consensus goes. But who are they convincing by playing ableist perceptions of disability? Saramago's depiction of blindness is that of a sighted man who views blindness as a radical departure from his own corporeal being. Different experiences of living in the world are never explored. Blindness is conveniently used the way Saramago assumes most people conceive of it and yet remains invisible.
Blindness does not just represent a radical form of Otherness, but operates as a sign to refer to limitation, lack. Throughout the novel, blindness is shown to lead to disorientation, chaos, and lack of familiarity with space and time. It reminds one of disability simulations. These exercises are sometimes performed in high schools and training settings. Usually people blindfold their eyes and "see" the world from the perspective of the blind. These exercises are highly problematic and have been criticized extensively within the disability community (Blaser, 2003; Brew-Parrish,1997; Burgstahler & Doe, 2004). Having the inability to see for a couple of minutes, after spending a lifetime as sighted, does not even begin to represent the world of people who are blind. If anything, it distorts it.
Even people who are blind sometimes have to be introduced to the world of blindness. In Planet of the Blind, Kuusisto (1998) shares his experience of going blind and the life changes he made as a result. The way those who see view the world differs from the way people who do not see do: they are different, but one is not necessarily inferior to the other. Kuusisto learns to navigate this new world with the help of a guide who is blind himself, as well as a mobility instructor who helps him familiarize himself with his surroundings. In Blindness the newly blind are guided by nothing other than their own prejudice. The blind in the novel are seen as helpless–again, a familiar trope (see Jernigan, 1974 for examples)–and their demeanor is presumed to lead to the destruction of civility.
A more critical read, however, yields a different analysis. In this view, society fails to function not because of people's blindness, but because the government is not able to provide the ordinary services that citizens are routinely dependent upon for survival: the production and distribution of food, water, and electricity; the maintenance of the infrastructure of transportation and communication; and so on. However, in the novel, as in daily life, dependence is projected onto the people who are perceived as embodying it on a daily basis, that is, people with disabilities. Thus, the description of a blind world in Saramago's novel resembles blindness simulation much more than it resembles a first person account of blindness, like the one offered by Kuusisto.
It is not surprising perhaps, since Saramago seems to use blindness only to tell another story, one about the human condition in general. But again, why choose blindness? Saramago's parable, like so many other literary and cinematic depictions, seems to equate blindness with lack of knowledge. The analogy between "seeing" and "understanding" is one of the oldest ideas in Western philosophy. It is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Plato's parable of the cave. Plato describes a cave where people are seated in such a way that they cannot see the direct light of the fire. Instead, they can see only its distorted shadows upon the wall of the cave (Interestingly, Saramago played with this theme extensively in his recent novel The Cave, 2003).
Michalko (2001), a blind professor of sociology, comments on this disjuncture of sight/knowledge when trying to establish his authority as a knowledgeable instructor:
"The students have had many years of educational practice for 'seeing' that 'seeing is enlightenment and blindness is ignorance'. They have had years of encouragement to 'step out of the darkness' and 'into the light' (see what I mean?). Now the very contingency that the students have been taught to avoid–the contingency that represents the quintessential barrier to knowledge–walks into their classroom and 'positions' himself as professor" (Michalko, 2001, p. 355).
This disjuncture Michalko faces exemplifies how metaphors are never just literary devices but become tangible in people's bodies and lives.
The other referent that blindness simultaneously signifies in Saramago's novel is the opposite of ignorance. Blindness as an "all knowing" quality, the blind who "see" more than the sighted. Again, quoting the doctor's wife at the end of the novel: "I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see" (p. 326). Schor (1999) examines this duality by proposing that
if one pursues this logic to its extreme, sightedness is blindness, seeing is an impediment in the quest for true vision: "To see, is a thing which conceals the true" (Hugo 396). Hence the blindness associated with oracles and prophets (Schor, 1999 p. 88).
Jernigan (1974) explicates different stereotypes of blindness which may seem contradictory: "What they have in common is the notion that blindness is a transforming event, entirely removing the victim from the ordinary dimensions of life and humanity" (p. 6). In the novel the newly found experience of blindness acts as a catalyst to re-examine core values and beliefs. Though the blind protagonists cannot see, they appear to see more deeply than the sighted. They see into their own souls and expose the throbbing core of human nature.
Blindness, like all disabilities, is also normatively viewed as a personal tragedy, something inflicted on the individual, a condition that a person suffers from. This narrative is closely related to a medical narrative claiming treatment and cure. Blindness should not be embraced and experienced as an identity, equal to any other, but should be pitied and/or treated. Indeed, at the end of the novel everyone is cured and regains sight.
The medical narrative is also apparent in the response of governmental officials who immediately quarantine all the 'infected' blind to one area. This act of institutionalization comes as a result of fear and ignorance on the part of the bureaucratic mechanism which cannot deal with human differences on a large scale (or at all). Interestingly, even the inmates do not protest their captivity, only the conditions of their deprivation. They do not demand to be released; they just want more equal distribution of goods in the wards. When considering blindness as a plague, a pure medical condition, and a radical form of Otherness, such reaction seems almost legitimate.
Blindness as metaphor in the classroom
In the course I co-taught, none of the above connotations of blindness-as- Otherness were explored. Blindness was used as uncritically in class as it was in the book itself. It remained a narrative prosthesis for our students, who never once were encouraged to explore its rhetorical use. As Mitchell and Snyder (2000) detail,
A simple schematic of narrative structure might run: first, a deviance or marked difference is exposed to a reader; second, a narrative consolidates the need for its own existence by calling for an explanation of the deviation's origins and formative consequences; third, the deviance is brought from the periphery of concerns to the center stage of the story to come; and fourth, the remainder of the story seeks to rehabilitate or fix the deviance in some manner, shape or form. (p. 20)
Usually the disabled character is exterminated, left behind, or rehabilitated (this 'cure or kill' trope is prevalent in most cinematic and literary representations of disability, see Bogdan, Biklen, Shapiro, & Spelkoman, 1982; Darke, 1998; Longmore, 2001; and Jernigan, 1974).
Saramago's use of the narrative prosthesis is interesting because midway through the story blindness becomes the norm. All the characters (except the doctor's wife) gradually go blind and have to navigate in a world made for the sighted. This situation could have led to a realization that the boundaries of normality are permeable and arbitrary, as in H.G Wells' (1904) The Country of the Blind. But in Saramago's tale, it does not even lead to a reversal in power relations in which the world is perceived through the perspective of those who do not see. The urge to cure is too tempting, and the novel is resolved by having the blind magically regain their eyesight. Although this is a departure from stereotypical portrayals of cure (since medical interventions were not the cause of this perceived miracle), it is a pure rhetorical device reinforcing a binary of dis/ability in which sight/ability is superior. Any political criticism regarding the need to accommodate different ways of sensing the world is never expressed in this moralist tale. As one of the characters remarks, "Perhaps humanity will manage to live without eyes, but then it will cease to be humanity" (p. 229).
Ways to utilize metaphoric novels to discuss disability critically
Using blindness as metaphor in novels reinforces a precarious duality: 1) the perception that blindness is symbolic of something (not simply a different form of sensing); and 2) reification of what blindness is supposed to represent, to stand for. Saramago's use of blindness burdens it with negativity on one hand (social catastrophe and personal tragedy), and a quality that brings up the "real human spirit" within people (be it good or evil) on the other.
Using Blindness as a metaphor is problematic because it has a real referent, people with visual impairments. As Mitchell and Snyder (2000) contend, "While stories rely on the potency of disability as a symbolic figure, they rarely take up disability as an experience of social or political dimensions" (p. 16). The following suggestions are meant to start that much needed discussion.
1. Teach critical thinking, understand it as a metaphor
Allegories provide fruitful ground for interpretation and education. As teachers, we can manipulate the parable and extract multiple meanings to convey a variety of concepts as well as moral lessons. However, it is important to be clear with students that this is what we are doing. Allegories always stand for something else: they are not substitutes for realistic accounts.
One might discuss what an allegory is and the rules of the genre, compare this novel with other allegorical tales (such as The Plague), and discuss the significance of metaphors and allegories in everyday life. Teachers must also talk about the need to be critical and think about the signifier itself and why was it chosen. Using metaphors is not wrong in and of itself, but one must be wary of any use that masks the oppressive nature of the discourse that produces them. For instance, ableist language (e.g., standing tall, seeing is believing) takes for granted that these activities are dominant and preferred. Disabling language (e.g., blind to the fact, lame idea) constructs disability as bad, as a lack. As educators, we need to be mindful of such instances, not as conservative thought police, or because we want to be politically correct–quite the contrary. Instead of exerting power, we can teach how power is created in ableist language and imagery (see Ben-Moshe, 2005, for discussion on ableist language in the classroom, and May & Ferri, 2005, for a discussion on ableist metaphors). The question then becomes, what are we missing when we use disability merely as a rhetorical tool?
2. Contrast with first person narratives
Novels give us a particular image of reality, one which can be construed as "real" if the author is successful. I believe it is important to engage students with images of disability and simultaneously analyze them as such. As most postmodern theorists would argue (see Gamson, 1992), images do not just reflect realities, they construct them (as any glimpse at reality shows will prove). Our world view is shaped increasingly by representations. Especially if students do not have first-hand knowledge about blindness and other disabilities, their perception is shaped by axioms produced by mass media and literary imagery.
For example, the imagery of blind people as tragic and lacking is a prevalent one in literature and film. As the girl with dark glasses states in the novel, "In my opinion we're already dead, we're blind because we're dead, or if you would prefer me to put it another way, we're dead because we're blind, it comes to the same thing" (p. 225). This fatalist notion of disability ('better die than be disabled') is used extensively in disability imagery and is a powerful construct that needs to be challenged.
Although the blindness-as-tragedy model doesn't hold up when compared to the lived experience of blind persons, it can inform the personal narratives of people who are blind (Martins, 2004). Most importantly, the power of the disabling perspectives about blindness is present in the prejudices that blind persons have to confront in their lives, be it in the daily interactions or in crucial moments such gaining employment. (Martins, 2004).
One way to counter this outcome is to bring to class someone who can speak about blindness critically, not just as a metaphor, but from a personal standpoint. People who are blind talk about their lives as powerful, ordinary, boring, and everything in between. First person accounts can provide students with a way to put certain images, especially the tragic and fatalistic ones, in perspective. Another option to gain knowledge about blindness as a lived reality is to read accounts written from a disability studies perspective by people who experience blindness. Kuusisto (1998), Kleege (1999), Michalko (1998, 1999) are some wonderful possibilities.
3. Discuss the social construction of sight and its significance in Western thought
One of the strongest rhetorical devices used in the novel is that it shifts the center, and makes seeing a peripheral phenomenon. Through this imaginary act, we can crystallize ideas about the social construction of disability. We can go where Saramago dared not and talk not only about the construction of blindness, but also about the construction of sight.
When using blindness as a metaphor, the power relations between seeing and not seeing are obscured. Seeing is viewed as the hegemonic mode of experiencing the world, and indeed the only way to experience it. Other forms of experience are devalued and seen as unnatural. Michalko, a blind Professor of Sociology remarks on this privileging of the normate (Thomson, 1997) when coming to teach students for the first time,
After all, the students, unlike me, are without contingency–they don't 'see' their eyesight as such. They are simply people, not 'people with eyesight'. They don't 'happen to see; they simply 'see'. I, on the other hand, am not simply a person–I am a person 'with blindness (Michalko, 2001, p. 96).
Kleege (1999) speaks of this duality in relation to linguistic metaphors:
Seeing, after all, is believing. We speak of seeing as a virtue. We want our leaders to be at least clear-sighted, if not possessed of "that vision thing." We hold dear our views, outlooks, and perspectives. We know a picture is worth a thousand words. We want to see eye to eye (p. 22).
The equation of all things meaningful with sight, in turn, equates lack with blindness. One can start deconstructing such dichotomies by paying attention to the way they are constructed in the first place.
4. How can we construct a world accessible for all?
Saramago constructs a world in which people who are blind become the majority. This reversal can be used to discuss the possibilities of such a world. In the novel, tactile gaze, as oppose to visuality, leads to outer chaos and confusion of boundaries, but other "visions" are possible. Such conjecturing is not an easy task and it requires a leap of imagination, not just for the sighted among us. Kleege (1999) explains:
The pleasure I derive from visual media, and from the visible world in general, suggests that although my eyes are blind, my brain is still sighted... But beyond my taste for the visual, I know what it means to be sighted, because I live in a sighted world (p. 3).
We can ask our students to create their own version of a world in which the dominant way of experiencing the world is not through vision. H.G. Wells constructs such a utopia (or dystopia) in his story, The Country of the Blind (1904). In it, a sighted mountain climber literally falls into a kingdom where the entire population has been blind for 15 generations. They are closed off from the rest of the world and treat him with suspicion and contempt because he keeps falling and can't keep up, especially at night, the time where they do most of the work because it is cooler. Throughout the story we get a glimpse of what a sighted man envisions as a blind space:
It was marvelous with what confidence and precision they went about their ordered world. Everything, you see, had been made to fit their needs; each of the radiating paths of the valley area had a constant angle to the others, and was distinguished by a special notch upon its kerbing; all obstacles and irregularities of path or meadow had long since been cleared away (p. 11).
I want to emphasize that discussing with students other ways of sensing the world and creating a vision of such a world does not have to involve a simulation activity. The questions I would pose to students are —"What would we need to change to make such a world more accessible? How can we change our environment to make it more accessible?" These are valuable questions that could be answered by taking the novel a step further than the allegorical realm.
Conclusion: Disability as metaphor in the classroom
I do not wish to condemn the use of disability as a metaphor or a literary device altogether. I wish to show how to seize the moment of disability's appearance in the general curriculum as a teachable moment. In his influential article, Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History (2001), Baynton showed how liberatory movements and minority groups use disability to normalize themselves. As teachers, instructors and disability scholars, should we do the same? Should we not be as reflexive about the signifiers in the texts we teach as we are of their embedded moral lessons?
An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the 2004 Mid Atlantic Popular/ American Culture Association conference, Buffalo, NY. A variation of the current paper was presented at the 2005 Disability Studies in Education conference, TC, Columbia University. I wish to thank all the participants who attended my presentations as well as students in Prof. Beth Ferri's 2004 class 'feminist DS' at Syracuse University and Prof. Douglas Biklen for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.
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Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)