The introduction to Disabled Upon Arrival begins with these powerful and timely words: "In North America, immigration has never been about immigration" (8). Jay Dolmage repeats this statement throughout the book, underscoring dueling narratives around twentieth and twenty-first century immigration policies. Over almost two hundred pages, Dolmage counters popular notions of the United States and Canada as welcoming stations for those seeking sanctuary or fruitful opportunity. He pulls back the curtain, revealing a long history of policymaking grounded in eugenic theories—practices that continue to be implemented and carried out in the present day. More specifically, the book investigates the "disabling and racializing force of anti-immigration rhetoric" (12), particularly the ways persons aligned outside the white, nondisabled "norm" are deemed unworthy of entry into North America and dangerous to the curation of an ideal nation-state. This is an important book, and a deeply political one, countering any argument that positions contemporary policy as extraordinary and unprecedented.

In Elizabeth Brewer's review of Dolmage's 2014 book Disability Rhetoric, she notes the utilization of a non-linear narrative approach "which is potentially more accessible to readers outside of the disciplines of rhetoric and disability studies" (Brewer). The same is true here. Dolmage divides the book into four sections—island, pier, explosion, and archive—that highlight distinct yet interconnected spaces and processes rooted in power. Each chapter is made up of smaller subsections, which he describes as "a series of snapshots, postcards, or slides" (13). Dolmage's intention is for readers to move freely through the text, to engage with and interpret at an individualized order and pace. Dolmage positions this practice as rooted in a Disability Studies framework, which enables readers to "read sideways" and locate "crooked meanings" (10), to ask questions about the values placed on particular bodies (and bodily difference). Of particular note is Dolmage's choice to utilize thick description to present photographs and other visual materials. Through this method, description is a primary means of engagement as opposed to a retrofit. It also enables readers to readily disengage from material that may be (re)traumatizing, a form of access often disregarded for the sake of realism or making " 'more real'…matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore" (Sontag 7). The move acknowledges the various positions of Dolmage's readership, countering some of the exclusionary practices embedded in many academic texts.

Dolmage is not the only scholar to interrogate immigration through a Disability Studies lens. He places himself in conversation with Douglas Baynton, who argues that late nineteenth and early twentieth century immigration policies were "a legible guide to that area's cultural assumptions about disability" (6). In A Disability History of the United States, Kim Nielsen outlines a lineage of immigration laws dating back to the mid-1800s that restricted entry to persons deemed "defective…or even potentially defective" (103). Emily Russell utilizes narratives of disability to critique American ideals of liberty, independence, and the productive citizen, highlighting the ways "anomalous figures call out the naturalized assumptions that legitimate their exclusion" (22). Yet Dolmage reorients these arguments by fast-forwarding to the present day. Donald Trump and other prominent contemporary figures permeate the pages, reifying the urgency of Dolmage's central arguments. For example, the 2017 temporary ban on immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries is situated against the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which severely restricted the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States (54). ICE detention centers are framed as "contemporary Ellis Islands, towed onto the mainland" (63). These juxtapositions, placed strategically throughout the text, are impactful, demonstrating that the present is not much different from the past; this is not a return but rather a continuous existence in a perpetual (terrifying) state.

Dolmage asks a lot of his readers. He propels them to grapple with the difficult and complicated history of North American immigration policies, and the archives that contain documentation of these practices. Yet he also asks readers to reconsider their own engagements with these materials, to research and circulate the stories embedded in these artifacts, and to "do so in a careful, respectful, and responsible way" (206). His argument emphasizes the high stakes located in archival practices, and the risks of diluting the story of the individual subject for the sake of a more universal (and palpable) narrative. Dolmage's rhetorical engagement recognizes disabled immigrants while also acknowledging the ways immigration as a process can be actively disabling. His work reveals stories that are often sugarcoated or hidden away, and as a result many readers—myself included—must consider our roles as scholars and community-members and contend with our own complicity.

Works Cited

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2021 Jessie Male

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

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