Book Review: Disabilty Studies Reader [Fourth Edition] (Lennard J. Davis)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

The Disability Studies Reader edited by Lennard J. Davis is to the field of Disability Studies what the Norton anthologies are to literature. It is in fact, canon-making. The fourth edition of the reader has just been released in February. It will — and should be — mandatory in every disability studies program in the United States. Those trailblazers whose work remains from the previous editions will continue to gain cultural currency and those writers whose work is being admitted for the first time know they will now be read by students across the country.

One mark of the progress that Disability Studies has made as a legitimate field of study since the first edition of he Disability Studies Reader is summarized by Davis in the preface to the fourth edition. The lapse of time between the first and second editions was ten years, between the third and fourth is only three years. The field has grown incredibly and, as Davis points out, in the first edition he "lamented the lack of attraction that disability studies was in getting attention," he now finds it the "hot topic" in many of the conferences and seminars he attends.

Though scholarly, the DSR is set up in a way that makes gaining knowledge about the field relatively easy for a novice. As editor, Davis was in the enviable position of having more material than he could reasonably include. Because he had to make choices, even cutting material from previous editions to make way for new work, the DSR does not claim to be comprehensive, but for those coming to the field of disability studies for the first time, it gives more than enough to handle. Davis’ organization of the book is very helpful in this regard.

The book is divided into seven sections. The first three sections (on the historical background, political issues and stigma) set the table for section four on theorizing disability. Historian of disability Paul Longmore pointed out early on that disability rights needed the theory of the academy to give it philosophical credibility and scholars needed disability rights organizations to keep it grounded. In setting the book up in the way that he has, Davis tacitly acknowledges this truth by providing the reader with issues faced by people with disability in history, in politics and in the social arena to give the reader grist prior to passing the baton to the more abstract theorization. Douglas Baynton’s discussion of the role of disability in the stigmatization of immigrants, African Americans and women, and Paul Longmore’s explanation of why the disability rights movement opposes telethons can be eye-openers for those who have not thought about these areas previously.

The book’s section on theorizing disability is followed by an equally abstract and contentious area, "Identities and Intersectionalities." Part six on disability and culture follows logically on its heals and the book is rounded out by a brief sample of literary disability writing in the form of memoir, poetry and fiction. While the sequence that Davis lays out is structured for classroom use, there is nothing to prohibit the more causal reader from going to one of these last two sections that might provide a more congenial entrance into the field.

As Davis discusses in the preface, one of the tasks of editing a newer edition of an anthology is the winnowing of old material and replacing it with essays that keep the field up to date. In this task, Davis has a much greater challenge than an editor of a Norton literature anthology. A Norton anthology is highly unlikely to toss the work of a writer like Phillis Wheatley, whose significance historical outweighs her literary merit, so the cutting task is fairly easy. That is not the case for Davis. He was faced with the task of retaining what instructors found useful in the book while making room for the growing body of new material. If one excepts the literary final section of the book, of the thirty-five scholars represented in the fourth edition of the DSR, only Davis and six of the other original 1997 writers remain, with most of these are represented by newer work. In this kind of flux, perhaps the best one can do is to look most closely at what is newest in the current edition.

One can rather arbitrarily categorize some of these newer essays into three groups: those that focus on changes in law or technology, those that are an outgrowth of the growth of disability studies and the problems in both theory and praxis that have developed as a result, and those that represent issues that should have been included in a Disability Studies Reader in the first place. Of the latter, perhaps the most important to the general reader is Josh Lukin’s "Disability and Blackness."

Like early feminism, one of the things disabilities studies has discovered is that much of its work derives from a white, middle class perspective. As Lukin points out, while some pioneering work, such as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies (1996), did take a look at the contribution African American writers to disability, "one might reasonably ask why the appearance of Black Disability Studies has taken so long considering that a greater percentage of black people appear to be disabled." Lukin’s essay is a bit of archaeology that returns to the experiences of Johnnie Lacy and David Galloway. It also looks for threads in disability scholarship and black cultural studies that might be built upon.

Another article new to the DSR that takes up issues of color is Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear’s "Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Discourses Of Intersectionality." Erevelles is one of few writers among the Disability Studies movement who has consistently been concerned with race, not just on a national but on a global level, a fact testified to by the fact that her work comprises three of the entries in Lukin’s "Works Cited." There is no question about her authority in the area. Unfortunately, Erevelles’ insights are only going to be accessible to an elite corps of readers. Take the opening sentence:

The Literature of Critical Race Feminist Theory approaches disability as an expression of intersectional identity wherein devalued social characteristics compound stigma resulting in so-called spirit murder.

That’s not an essay one wants to step into without being academically well-armed. The student or less tenacious reader interested in the issue that Lukin raises may want to first skip over Anna Morrow’s "When Black Women Start Going on Prozac…", a discussion of Danquah’s memoir, Willow Weep for Me for an example of the kinds of issues that need further exploration.

Two areas that sometimes get ignored in discussion of disability are mental health and chronic illness. These are represented in the newest DSR by Margaret Price’s "Defining Mental Disability" and Susan Wendell’s "Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illness as Disabilities." The timeliness of Price’s article can be summoned up in three letters — NRA. In the wake of the Newtown shooting, the recent attempt by assault weapon advocates to scapegoat individuals with mental disabilities highlights the absolute importance of any work like Price’s that tries to lay a rational and humane basis for discussion is self-evident. Wendell’s concerns about chronic illness are a bit trickier. Wendell, a disability studies pioneer and one of the survivors from the first DSR, understands well the reason that disability rights advocates want to distance themselves from illness. She quotes, as an example, writer/activist Eli Clare who forcefully points out that her CP is not a disease or a medical condition. Wendell argues, however, that there are people with invisible impairments such as chronic illness that positions like Clare’s leave in a disabilities limbo.

Among the chapters that might be labeled as looking at new developments Elizabeth Emens’ essay on the ADA Amendments Act and Elizabeth DePoy and Stephen Gilson’s "Disability, Design and Branding" jump out as the most obvious. Emen’s piece follows Baynton’s and Longmore’s historical investigations, with the opening sentence, "This is an uncertain time for disability law in the United States." Emens describes the downward trajectory disability rights has taken since the ADA as a result of court decisions and the ADAAA . While she also unavoidably crosses into philosophical territory, her article is essential reading for understanding the legal grid within which disability has to maneuver, prior to layering it over with the more theoretical offerings in parts four and five of the anthology. DePoy and Gilson’s essay exploits the current obsession with branding. While timely, it is a pretty good bet that this particular piece will not be making a return appearance in the fifth edition of DSR.

Anyone with the briefest acquaintance with disability studies knows that Lennard Davis is by no means merely an anthology editor. From the point of view of scholarship, Davis is one of the groundbreakers. His writings, particularly Enforcing Normalcy, have been seminal and a book on disability that does not list Davis’ work among its references is probably too untrustworthy to be credible. He is an iconoclastic writer who has had his eye on the development of the field since the beginning. In this context, Davis’ chapter "The End of Identity Politics: On Disability as an Unstable Category" should be a prerequisite to many of the other theoretical pieces in the book. The disability rights movement, patterned after and analogous to the movements of other minority groups, was the first to infuse people with disabilities with a sense of identity, and that conception of disability especially when coupled with the ADA is still the image that occupies most people’s minds. What Davis’ chapter describes, however, is how the rights model was taken over by the social model which in its turn came under criticism from the postmodern contingent. It can hardly fail to strike a potential reader perusing the table of contents, that the new phrase to be associated with one’s work is "post-postmodern." Davis’ essay helps to put all of this in perspective.

Given that readers of Wordgathering probably have a greater interest in the literary and visual arts than in post-postmodernism or intersectionality, the remainder of this review will concentrate on briefly pointing out a few of the chapters that they might find the most valuable for their own work.

  • G. Thomas Couser, "Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation"- Couser is the undisputed expert on disability life writing, and a familiarity with the points. The observations he makes will help writers avoid many problematic features of disability life writing. This short piece is an easy, valuable read and an introduction to Courser’s work.
  • David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, "Narrative Prosthesis." Mitchell’s concept of narrative prosthesis has become one of the landmark contributions of disability studies to literary analysis. It is not an easy read, but equally as valuable as Couser’s the negative traps, metaphors and stereotypes of disability that many writers unwittingly fall into.
  • Ann Millet-Gallant, "Sculpting Body Ideals." This essay on the controversial statue Alison Lapper Pregnant brings to the fore many of our ingrained prejudices about bodies both in and out of art.

These are by no means the only chapters that will interest writers, but they are good entry points. In fact, the very diversity they represent points up a curious omission in the final section, the one representing excerpts from literary genres –  the lack of a drama selection. Theater and performance has been among of the more vibrant aspects of disability culture. Surely, with the publication of Victoria Lewis’ Beyond Victims and Villains several years old now, a worthwhile excerpt could have been found. Mike Ervin, Paul Kahn, John Pixley, Lynn Manning   the plays any one of them might have provided material.

By no stretch of the imagination is DSR a beach book. While some casual readers who may be curious enough about its contents to pull it off of a Barnes and Noble bookshelf, the main audience for the anthology will be college students and faculty. Its publication by Routledge, most known for its production of educational material, underscores this fact. With this audience in mind, perhaps the one major criticism that can be lodged against Davis’ anthology is the lack of a section pointing to supplemental material that leads readers beyond the anthology itself. True, there is the list of sources for the essays included in the book, but nothing to lead the reader to other resources. The importance of this need can be illustrated by looking at the book’s final section. Part VII, "Fiction, Memoir and Poetry" includes the work of three poets: Cheryl Marie Wade, Kenny Fries and Jim Ferris, and each of these merits a place in the anthology. Wade illustrates the motivational cheerleading of the disability rights movement, Fries is one of the first poets to actually come out and write poetry about his non-traditional body, and Ferris has been both a theoretician and a major shaper of disability poetry. Nevertheless, asking these three writers to stand in for all of disability poetry is like asking Wheatley, Longfellow and W. C. Williams to represent all of mainstream American poetry. Readers, especially those new to the field, need to be given other places to look and, while its true that anthologies need to limit their size for practical reasons, it is hard to believe that adding one page of resources for each of the seven parts of the book in an anthology that already has a ready made audience would have sent Routledge into an economic tailspin.

This last omission notwithstanding, Disability Studies Reader (Fourth Edition) is an essential book. For those who want to invest in just one book that gives them a healthy taste of what the Disability Studies is all about, this is it. It is also the one-stop shopping tome for undergraduate students doing their first Disability Studies research. DSR is available as an eBook in a number of digital formats for readers for whom hard copy books are not practical (as it should be for a book of this nature). Whether or not that format will help users of screen readers still needs to be determined, but it is a pretty good bet that the Library of Congress will be making this a priority recording for their audio books. Perhaps only Davis himself can absorb and process everything that is in the book, but given a high school reading level and a little time almost anyone can come away from the anthology with some shift in perspective, knowing a great deal more than when they opened the cover.