What is Disability Studies? Musings on Linton, Clare, Quayson, and Mitchell and Snyder

In his article “Reassigning Meaning”, Simi Linton analyzes how we have come to construct and name disability through language. Linton exposes us to the linguistic oppression that disabled people have been subjected to throughout history. Terms such as disabled, crippled, and handicapped have become so deeply rooted in Western societies, and these terms “have emerged as collective nouns that convey the idea that there is something that links this disparate group of people. The terms have been used to arrange people in ways that are socially and economically convenient to the society” (Linton 9-10). What I find particularly interesting is that terms disability and disabled are the terms commonly used by disability rights activists; however, if we consider the term ableism—which immediately classifies the other group as lacking any abilities whatsoever—I do not find disability and disabled as the most convenient solution. Why, instead of disability and disabled can’t we have a term as this-ability? After all, doesn’t all this naming and linguistic differentiation come down to what abilities one has? If someone is blind, that does not exclude the fact that their hearing capacities may be more developed than in most people. If someone is deaf, that does not exclude the possibility that they might be a great athlete, and possess an unsurpassed ability to see. If I have the ability to run fast, and my friend runs slow, does that mean that they are disabled? Of course not! What if my friend has the ability to read faster, and I read slowly? Does that then make me a disabled person? No! We all carry certain abilities, therefore, the negation of abilities in people that society terms as disabled makes such people unable to express their abilities and qualities! Galton said that “the various natural qualities go towards the making of civic worth in man” (Essays in Eugenics 3), however, if one’s natural qualities are suppressed by the laws of the society then one can hardly express their values and their abilities. What really appealed to me in the article is Linton’s challenging of the terms that are considered polite and acceptable when referring to disabled people, terms such as physically challenged, special people/children, or the able disabled. Among all these terms, the one I find the most problematic is physically challenged, because as Linton argues, “to say that I am physically challenged is to state that the obstacles to my participation are physical, not social” (14) and that a term like this “separates those of us with mobility impairments from other disabled people” (14). On the other hand, terms such as cripple, dumb, vegetable, deformed, or retard all carry very negative meanings. Most of these words are still used in everyday language, mainly in jokes or harsh offenses, but if we analyze these words more closely, we can notice that they are all suggestive of something stiff or immovable. If a person is tied to their bed or a wheelchair for the rest of their lives, the common notion would be that they live like a vegetable or retards. But, if a person spends a considerable portion of their lives sitting in a chair watching TV or working on a computer, then they are magically outside the category of vegetables or retards! In both cases, our bodies are largely immovable, therefore terms like vegetable or retard could clearly be applied to all of humanity, not only the so-called disabled people.

The stigma of nasty words such as retard, vegetable, handicapped, disabled, and their effects on the psyche of the disabled person are things Eli Clare addresses in his article “Freaks and Queers.” Writing from the perspective of someone born with a disability, namely with cerebral palsy, Clare gives an unwavering and frank description of what it is really like to live in a society where your own family, school mates, doctors, or teachers launch an arsenal of insults every single day. “Words can bruise a body” (Clare 68), and they “bruise a body more easily than rocks and rubber erasers” (69), however, most of us tend to forget this, especially if we belong to the group of non-disabled people. Clare’s analysis of nasty terms for the disabled people is very appealing, and I have to agree with his claim that the term handicapped connotes something the society is ashamed of, as well as the society’s need to eliminate its disability of coming to terms with anything that is below or beyond average. Clare poses the question of why Western societies do not want to integrate disabled children into regular schools, and why disabled people have to be confined to special institutions. Perhaps the answer to this lies simply in the fact that a part of human nature is that we are not concerned with the things that do not affect us or our families. By integrating disabled people into the things afforded to non-disabled people, do we fear that some of our disabilities may come to the surface? Are we scared of assimilating ourselves to the lifestyle of the other? It is very peculiar how we are willing to adapt and completely modify our lifestyle if it brings material profit, but we are not willing to change our lives as soon as it does not bring any means of material profit. Further on, Clare grapples with the words cripple or crip, queer, freak. As he suggests, freak is a term that is unacceptable and quite troubling, considering the fact that a freak denotes something alien or unnatural, something that is to be feared, tested, or stared at. In addition, both queers and cripples “have been considered freaks of nature” (Clare 96), and as such, they have been dehumanized and led into believing that their bodies are abnormal. By challenging the notions of LGBT identity and the identity of disabled people, as both a disabled and genderqueer author, Clare moves far beyond the standard feminist and LGBT scholars. He analyzes physical disabilities and sexual identities head on, and answers the question of how silence and isolation can be overcome. Clare mentions the use of the pink triangle in LGBT communities, which serves not only to challenge the society’s close-minded views, but it also serves as the language of resistance. It is through these means of an “insiders’ language” (Clare 97) that LGBT communities—while being excluded by oppressors of queer culture—exclude everyone that pinches negative labels on them and their bodies.

After reading Mitchell and Snyder’s “Representation and Its Discontents: The Uneasy Home of Disability in Literature and Film”, I would like to address their analysis of the negative imagery assigned to disabled characters in film and literature. Films and literary works can be very influential in creating stereotypes and prejudice about disabled people, or as Paul Longmore suggested, there are three stereotypes induced by electronic media: “disability is a punishment for evil; disabled people are embittered by their ‘fate’; disabled people resent the nondisabled and would, if they could, destroy them” (Mitchell and Snyder 18). This makes me think of Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff, who while not having any physical impairment, was born an orphan (possibly a bastard) abandoned at the sea port; in addition, his disposition and skin color marked him in the family and the society that raised him. Towards the end of the novel Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff brings misery and death upon almost every character, portraying all of the three stereotypes mentioned by Longmore.

What I really liked about Quayson’s article “A Typology of Disability Representation” is his mention of the characters in Beckett’s plays. Being a big Beckett fan myself, I never actually thought about his characters as disabled. At the end of the article, Quayson states that one of the two main categories that could be applied to Beckett’s works is “disability as inarticulable and enigmatic tragic insight” (47-49). If we look at his play Krapp’s Last Tape, the main character is involved in a perpetual process of listening to the tapes of his bygone days over and over again. Krapp mourns his youth and all of the missed opportunities, as well as the meaning of life, but in this tragic moment, his inability to utter his desires and fears stands out as a real enigma! Krapp’s biggest disability is his fear of death and the fear of the passage of time, which no human being can escape. If we look at yet another of Beckett’s plays, Happy Days, the female protagonist is buried deep in the ground, with only her head sticking out—the only thing that wakes her from her constant slumber is a sudden sound of an alarm. I tend to look at the alarm as the reminder that we are all disabled or crippled in the face of aging and death.