Leslie Swartz. Able-Bodied: Scenes from a Curious Life. Cape Town: Struik, 2010. 1

The best memoirs don't just tell stories about people's lives. Really good memoirs make rhetorical arguments or even polemical points through telling stories about people's lives. Leslie Swartz's 2010 memoir, Able-Bodied, is good in just this way. Swartz is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. He is a leader in developing disability studies in Africa—most robustly in South Africa—and a prolific researcher and scholar in disability studies. Swartz and his colleagues edited the influential open-access book Disability and Social Change: A South African Agenda. Swartz's memoir confirms disability studies' central premises that disability is a fundamental part of every life and family and that disability is everywhere once you know how to look for it.

The story begins with Swartz's father, a man identified by others as disabled but who, like many of us, had an ambivalent relationship with claiming disabled as an identity. The story ends with Swartz's own literal journey to Zimbabwe, his birthplace and childhood home, to meet with the Southern Africa Federation of the Disabled to work with other disability activists to influence policy, politics, research, and the public about disability justice in Africa. This 2007 meeting in Zimbabwe was for Swartz symbolic on both a personal and a professional level. It was a return to the homeland that his family had left for political reasons and a generative scholarly errand. Alongside this project, Swartz, disability activist and researcher Gubela Mji, and other colleagues developed and launched an African disability studies and disability politics, based on the African concept of ubuntu. A vital principle in African culture, ubuntu means humanness, and it captures the idea that our humanness comes from our interconnectedness, the mutual caring for one another that is crucial to both African and disability culture (Mji et al.). Developing disability research and activism in southern Africa has thus been for Swartz a reconnection to family, self, and homeland. That reconnection is the narrative structure of Able-Bodied.

Disability bookends Swartz's memoir, structuring it as a life journey guided by the feminist slogan the personal is political. As the title Able-bodied suggests, what is distinctive about this Bildungsroman—this story of development—is that it is about disability identity and politics written from the perspective of someone who identifies as able-bodied. One contribution this book makes to the canon of disability memoir is to lay out Swartz's developmental journey as an opportunity to explore the complexities of what it means to be disabled and able-bodied. Much critical disability theory addresses the differences between impairment and disability in order to get at this complexity; other disability studies scholarship, including my own, offers distinctions between having a disability and identifying as disabled. Able-bodied gives flesh and blood to this critical conversation in the way only a life story can do, as disability studies scholars such as G. Thomas Couser have so amply shown us.

The flesh and blood of Swartz's story begins with a focused meditation on the similarities and differences between his father's body and his own. What we talk about when we talk about disability (to use Raymond Carver's famous poetics of the common man) is the first concern here. There's an awareness that the words we choose to talk about bodies understood as disabled are at once personal and political. Swartz surveys the geography of his father's body and his own with what seems to me an intentional awkwardness arising from the problem of how to talk about the particularities of bodies both before and after one comes into political consciousness about disability. For example, Swartz describes his father's body this way: "twisted hammer toes and strange flat feet," "the funny hip," "the painful limp" (1). He offers as well politicized words such as "impairment" or "difficulty," which he says his father would disavow, but which indicate to the reader that Swartz has developed a politicized disability consciousness over the course of his life and academic career (1). Swartz's own body is doubly present throughout the story as well, both as young and as old, described at times with the innocence of the young perspective and other times with the awareness of the disability studies scholar. As he grows older, Swartz sees in himself his father's "heavy thighs" and "lumpy chest" (1). Most significantly for this story of disability and family is the father's perpetual disappointment with his son's lack of interest and success in athleticism, the difficult and distant relationship, and the humiliation that arose from this disappointment.

Able-bodied offers a perpetual sense of the chronology of embodiment made possible by the temporal aspect of narrative. That is, Swartz effectively moves between the young self viewing father, family, and world, uninitiated to disability politics and awareness, and the mature scholar of disability studies whose body has transformed over a lifetime, heading as we all do toward disability. All this operates in service to one of the book's central concerns: namely, examining what Swartz calls "the divide" of able-bodied and disabled that both separates and joins father and son (1).

The chapters of this disability Bildungsroman move through temporal and thematic segments of Swartz's developing disability political consciousness, his disability studies academic development, and family transitions. Each narrative section serves as a kind of parable with which Swartz addresses an issue in disability studies. The chapter on Swartz's early career, for example, takes us through his navigation of the medical model and embrace of the social model of disability, along the way grounding this education in how this theory helped him understand the difficult, disappointed, and disabled father. The chapter in which Swartz gives personal meaning to the slogan Nothing about us without us is informed by Swartz's early shame, identification, and differentiation as he watched his father navigate ableist responses, thinking through what it means "to have a body that others read and react to as different" (43). Swartz's perspective as a psychologist underlies all of the narrative, particularly his story about the ways his family Oedipal triangle structures gender identity and life partner choices. However, Swartz never uses the dry and distancing language of psychology, but rather he always presents story to carry psychological dynamics.

The intersections of disability and gender are thus a central theme in Able-Bodied. Swartz's father's conflicted disability identification is entangled with the burden of achieving masculinity as a disabled man. As a self-identified failure at masculine athleticism, Swartz comes to see that what his father vaguely understands as a feminization coming from Swartz's "difficulties with coordination and sports" has a physiological cause that might have been understood as a disability in another era (95). This "sporting incompetence" that is part of Swartz's "core identity" is re-scripted as Swartz enters disability studies so that it serves as a point of identification with his father rather than as a source of perpetual shame (100). So Swartz accomplishes the developmental task of coming to terms with this difficult paternal relationship through the premises and understandings of critical disability studies, explicating theory along the way.

Swartz's closeness to his mother and his identification with the other strong women in his family stand as a rebuke to his father's fragile masculinity. In his personal and academic maturation, Swartz navigates this originary gender crisis not as an Oedipal developmental failure but as an adaptive process through which Swartz moves from his early identification with his able-bodied mother to an identification with and love for feminist disabled women. His story of choosing and loving his life partner, Louise, a disabled woman who has what the younger Swartz might have called "a funny hip," is a tender analysis of the psychology at work in people "who choose to love disabled people" (1, 111). Louise is thus a blend of Swartz's adored, emotionally available, and vibrant mother and his difficult and disabled father. Because this choice of love object is often understood as pathological, Swartz's complicated and subtle explication of his choice in the context of the meaning and experience of disability in his family is a particularly useful contribution to disability studies.

In Able-Bodied, Swartz's story of individual development as a man is ever attentive to the larger geographical and political landscape of southern Africa. This wise choice effectively balances the inward-looking narrative of individual development with an outward-looking narrative of politics, place, and community. Swartz embeds his Bildungsroman in the larger story of exile and reestablishment that his immigrant Jewish family follows as they leave the large Jewish community in Rhodesia in 1966 to make a new life in South Africa. The story of the alliances and conflicts among struggles for social justice for black Africans, Jewish Africans, and disabled Africans is always in view in Able-Bodied. In some way, this distinct particularity of Swartz's memoir is its most significant contribution to our North American-centered field of critical disability studies.

Works Cited

  • Mji, Gubela, Gcaza, Siphokazi, Swartz, Leslie, MacLachlan, Malcolm, and Barbara Hutton. "An African Way of Networking Around Disability." Disability and Society 26.3 (2011): 365-368.
  • Watermeyer, Brian, Leslie Swartz, Theresa Lorenzo, Marguerite Schneider, and Mark Priestley (eds). Disability and Social Change: A South African Agenda. Human Sciences Research Council Press, 2007.


  1. This title may be difficult to order outside of South Africa. Copies may be ordered through Lswartz@sun.ac.za
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