Disability studies emerged out of the disability civil rights movement in the late twentieth century. Early scholarship distinguishes the medical model of disability, which locates physical and mental impairments in individual bodies, from the social model, which understands the world as disabling people. The social model names both architectural and attitudinal barriers as the cause of disablement. Over the last few decades, the field has expanded to include individuals with a wide range of disabilities—not just physical conditions, but also mental and chronic ones.
This list, far from exhaustive, highlights some of the key debates and conceptual shifts in the field. In addition to showcasing disability studies’ interdisciplinary focus, the list traces the relationship between D.S. and other minority fields of study. At its broadest, disability studies encourages scholars to value disability as a form of cultural difference. As the sources below reveal, ability should not be the default when it comes to human worth.
Asch, Adrienne. “Recognizing Death while Affirming Life: Can End of Life Reform Uphold a Disabled Person’s Interest in Continued Life?” The Hastings Center Report (2005).
Bioethics scholar Adrienne Asch is one of the first scholars to bring a disability studies approach to bioethics. This essay addresses U.S. policy regarding decisions for end-of-life treatment and, more broadly, it critiques discourse surrounding “quality of life.” Asch attacks the slogan “better off dead than disabled” by showing how disability does not necessarily diminish one’s life. Instead, she argues, healthcare practitioners should focus on forms of care that give disabled people independence. She also offers pragmatic suggestions for how caretakers can affirm the humanity of patients receiving end-of-life treatment.
Baynton, Douglas. “Slaves, Immigrants, and Suffragists: The Uses of Disability in Citizenship Debates.” PMLA (2005).
Douglas Baynton’s groundbreaking essay foregrounds disability in accounts of American history. He assesses three U.S. debates regarding citizenship: the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and immigration legislation. This essay considers how disability has been used as a justification for the oppression of marginalized populations. For example, slaves were said to become “crazy” if they were granted freedom. Women were often described as mentally incapable of receiving an education. And immigrants have been cast as disabled due to racial difference. Baynton explores how attending to disability in its own right (rather than as a symptom of misogyny or racism) enables an intersectional analysis.
Brueggemann, Brenda Jo, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Georgina Kleege. “What Her Body Taught (Or, Teaching about and with a Disability): A Conversation.” Feminist Studies (2005).
Written from the perspective of three female scholars with disabilities, this essay is one of the first pieces of scholarship to address the presence of disabled faculty in the classroom. Brueggemann, Garland-Thomson, and Kleege explore the tension between wanting their disabilities to be normalized, but also wanting them to be present in students’ minds. In addition to discussing the difficulty of disclosure in the classroom, they explore how educators might adopt different approaches to teaching to accommodate instructors’ disabilities.
Davis, Lennard. “Crips Strike Back: The Rise of Disability Studies.” American Literary History (1999).
This essay reviews three publications that address disability studies from a humanities-based perspective. While D.S. first emerged in the social sciences, Davis makes a case for the centrality of disability studies scholarship in literary studies. More broadly, he proposes that disability studies should no longer be considered a narrow or specialized field. It’s applicable to us all.
Donaldson, Elizabeth J. “The Corpus of the Madwoman: Toward a Feminist Disability Studies Theory of Embodiment and Mental Illness.” NWSA Journal (2002).
This essay takes up the figure of the madwoman in literature. Adopting a feminist disability studies approach, Donaldson critiques the way feminist scholars read madwomen as merely symptomatic of patriarchal oppression, which discounts the reality of mental disability. She is resistant to framing disability as a metaphor and advocates for readings that consider disability alongside questions of gender.
Erevelles, Nirmala. “Race.” Keywords for Disability Studies.
This short essay gives an overview of the relationship between disability studies and critical race studies. Erevelles shows how disability has been aligned with race. However, analogizing race to disability (or saying, “disability is like race”) eliminates the specificity of both identity categories. She uses special education as an example because it is a site where racial segregation takes place on the premise of disability. By attending to disabled people of color, she argues that we can achieve a more nuanced analysis, which accounts for how social forces like poverty and involuntary institutionalization exacerbate different forms of social marginalization.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Feminist Disability Studies.” Signs (2005).
In placing feminist studies and disability studies in conversation, Garland-Thomson argues that both fields work to de-naturalize assumptions about embodiment and social roles. Her essay explores a range of pressing social issues, including selective abortion, caretaking, and reproductive rights.
Ginsburg, Faye and Rayna Rapp. “Disability Worlds.” Annual Review of Anthropology (2013).
Ginsburg and Rapp call for a critical approach to disability in the field of anthropology. Bridging the gap between the medical and anthropological fields, they shift toward understanding impairment as both environmental and cultural. They also consider what ethnography can bring to questions of disability within anthropological study.
Hershey, Laura. “Disabled Women Organize Worldwide.” off our backs (2003).
Recounting events from the NGO Forum on Women in China (1995) and the International Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities in Maryland (1996), disability activist Laura Hershey moves beyond Western definitions of disability to offer a global perspective. In addition to showing how disabled women are doubly discriminated against, Hershey outlines how gender can influence the international movement for disability rights. She also considers how issues like poverty and illiteracy speak to the feminist and disability movements.
James, Jennifer C. and Cynthia Wu. “Editors’ Introduction: Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature: Intersections and Interventions.” MELUS (2006).
This essay brings ethnic studies into conversation with debates regarding disability representation. From the nineteenth-century freakshow to forced sterilization, people of color have been disproportionately disabled, and James and Wu call for an intersectional approach to these complex subjectivities.
Kleege, Georgina. “Blind Rage: An Open Letter to Helen Keller.” Southwest Review (1998).
In this more personal essay, Kleege interrogates Helen Keller’s status as a disability icon. Kleege critiques the way disability has been individualized, refuting both tragic and triumphant representations of impairment. In describing her experience navigating everyday life as a blind woman, Kleege attends to the realities of living in a world not made for disabled people.
Kudlick, Catherine. “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other.’” The American Historical Review (2003).
In this groundbreaking essay, Kudlick moves to situate disability studies in historical scholarship. Reframing disability as valuable, she argues that a renewed attention to bodily and mental impairments can revise our accounts of nearly all events in history—from women’s rights to labor movements. Her essay offers a comprehensive overview of books and articles pertaining to disability history, and, more specifically, deaf history.
Linker, Beth. “On the Borderland of Medical and Disability History: A Survey of Both Fields.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2013).
This essay addresses why the history of medicine and disability studies fail to interact. Linker begins by critiquing disability studies’ resistance to medical discourse. She argues that certain disabled people, especially those who are living with chronic conditions, often rely heavily on medical care, which is why the “medical model” should not be so readily dismissed. In turn, while disability history is typically understood as different from medical history, especially in the U.S., Linker argues for a greater need for cross-disciplinary collaboration.
Linton, Simi. “Reassigning Meaning.” Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1988).
One of the most foundational essays in the field of disability studies, Linton outlines how language has been important to naming disability as a political rather than medical category. She also addresses the problem of “overcoming rhetoric,” which fails to address disabled people’s need for access.
McRuer, Robert. “Crip Eye for the Normate Guy: Queer Theory and the Discipling of Disability Studies.” PMLA (2005).
McRuer is one of the first scholars to assess the relationship between disability and queerness. In this essay, he analyzes how the popular show The Queer Eye for the Straight Guy normalizes the disabled body. While representations of queer life often resist disability, he argues that queer and disability studies share a resistance to normalization, which should be embraced in future scholarship and activism.
Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan (2011).
Price offers one of the first substantive accounts of mental disability, which has come belatedly to studies of physical disability. She focuses on higher education as a site that stigmatizes mental disability in its focus on rationality, cohesion, and cognitive agility. Her book offers a range of suggestions, many of which are pedagogical, for how mental disability might revitalize academic life.
Siebers, Tobin. “Disability in Theory: From Social Constructionism to the New Realism of the Body.” American Literary History (2001).
Siebers critiques the social model of disability, arguing that it fails to account for the experience of individual bodies. His term “the new realism of the body” calls for an assessment of the bodily effects of disability, which often cannot be altered through environmental transformations alone.
Wendell, Susan. “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illness as Disabilities.” Hypatia (2001).
This article broadens the definition of disability to include individuals with chronic illnesses. While people in the disability community often distinguish themselves from people who are ill, not all disabled people, she observes, are healthy. Wendell questions some of the main assumptions in disability activism and scholarship regarding social justice and reform. Dismantling the environmental effects of disablement will not always eliminate a body’s suffering, she argues.
Williamson, Bess. “Access.” Keywords for Disability Studies (2015).
This short essay gives a comprehensive account of the history of access and why it is a key term in D.S. Williamson argues that paying attention to access turns our focus away from the individual, highlighting instead the disabling makeup of the social world. Although access is easy to define, Williamson notes that it is hard to implement in practice because disabled people have conflicting needs.