Michael Bérubé posits that "any admission that disability involves a reduction or loss of function threatens not only to return us to the idea of disability as lack, but to give up on the foundational distinction between disability (as a social phenomenon) and impairment (as a somatic phenomenon)" (56). Although this is not the first time I've read Bérubé's comments, this new reading happened on Aug. 5th as I was preparing to review Benjamin Fraser's Cognit ve Dis bility Aesth tics. The date is ironic because, on this day, the ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network) ended its partnership with Sesame Street over its use of Julie, the show's first muppet identified as autistic, to promote the Autism Speaks 100-Day Kit. ASAN reports that the show's representatives refused to "reverse course in their plans to promote [the kits]," despite their concession that the kit was "harmful and portrayed autistic children in a negative light" (par. 3). Pairing this event alongside Bérubé concerns makes Fraser's book timely.

Utilizing scholars like Bérubé, Davis, and Mitchell and Snyder, Fraser acknowledges the slow-building of discontent among disability communities concerning the dearth of representations of invisible disability, boldly stating that "This book is motivated by a simple premise: cognitive disabilities, when juxtaposed with the increased theoretical, social, and cultural visibility of physical disabilities, have tended to remain disproportionately unseen" (29). He challenges disability studies scholars to ask themselves "whether cognitive disabilities merit their own attention" (37) and to consider how this new awareness might influence the field as a whole. Fraser explains that this challenge is not meant to dismiss the existing work of disability studies scholars; however, taking this approach allows us to "imagine…an undifferentiated physically disabled population" (37).

This talk of imagining a crip futurity echoes Alison Kafer's "presumption of agreement" (3) that able-bodied/able-minded populations carry towards all folks identified as disability and, within the field of disability studies, there seems to be the same "presumption of agreement" that only the physically disabled require accessibility in the future. Fraser's book tackles this line of thinking, while also giving us techniques to incorporate into our own interactions with disability studies. In a bold move, Fraser invites humanities as a field to do the same by crossing disciplinary lines (4).

Fraser divides the book into two parts, each with three supporting chapters. Part One summarizes the existing work by other scholars and discusses the current state of cognitive disability within the field of disability studies, before moving to a theoretical platform for readers to apply to their own work. Fraser provides an impressive literature review of the previous scholarship while also politely, yet firmly, pointing to areas of weakness in terms of representations of cognitive disability. Next, Fraser explains how the elements of visual media are an especially useful tool in analyzing cognitive disabilities and sets the groundwork for the work to come. It is in Chapter Three that Fraser makes one of his boldest claims: "This [returning our focus to biology and the materiality of impairment] does not require that we release the strong social model of disability, merely that we broaden it to include cognition more intentionally" (73). Part Two then puts these concepts into practice by analyzing several visual representations of cognitive impairments, including documentaries, graphic novels, and art. Appropriate to his thesis, Fraser chooses Spanish documentaries and graphic novels for these analyses and places them carefully in conversation with Anglophone approaches to cognitive disability.

Overall, Fraser's claims are well-presented and well-supported. He is clearly passionate about representations (or lack thereof) of cognitive disability in both Anglophone and Hispanophone disability studies; however, there are two points of variance I would point out. First, Fraser's work is highly reminiscent of Alison Kafer's work in Feminist, Queer Crip yet, he only refers to her work briefly. An acknowledgment of Kafer's political/relational model, alongside Fraser's own remarkable research would, I believe, strengthen the overall claims of the text. Second, while the linguistics discussion in Chapter Two is fascinating, it is very dense for the not-linguistically inclined, which led to this reader's frustration.

Despite these minor critiques, the book reaches a variety of audiences at different levels. Those widely interested in the history of disability studies benefit from Fraser's arguments for a second wave of disability studies, with a focus on the inclusion of cognitive impairment and disability. Those interested in disability representations in prose literature and graphic novels will undoubtedly find Fraser's detailed explanations of these two mediums' differences valuable. Those interested in film studies, especially non-Anglophone documentarians, will profit from Fraser's exhaustive analyses in his chosen documentaries. And, despite my hesitation above, those at the intersection of cognitive disability and linguistics will appreciate the careful scaffolding Fraser provides in chapter two. Additionally, Fraser's commentaries concerning Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, physicians, medications, and the medical establishment are useful to those who study and teach medical humanities. Lastly, Fraser's thorough explanations of why it is so important to turn our work towards cognitive disability studies will surely be useful to any instructor who incorporates disability studies into their curriculum.

As I read this book, I struggled to finish it, not because the material is difficult but rather, because I found myself continually stopping to insert parts of Fraser's excellent work into my own newly-beginning dissertation work. This leads me to believe that Fraser's versatile and thorough text will prove as useful to scholars across the humanities as it has for me.

Works Cited

  • "ASAN Has Ended Partnership With Sesame Street." autisticadvocacy.org, 5 August 2019. Accessed on 5 August 2019.
  • Bérubé, Michael. The Secret Life of Stories: From Don Quixote to Harry Potter, How Understanding Intellectual Disability Transforms the Way We Read. NYU Press, 2016.
  • Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.
Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2020 Brenda Tyrrell

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

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)