Dialogue on Teaching Disability Literature
As a forum that consciously tries to build up the genre of disability literature, one of Wordgathering’s interests is in seeing how disability literature is being taught. The journal invited several instructors of disability literature to participate in a discussion about the courses they have taught. Participants in the dialogue are Sheila Black (New Mexico State University at Los Cruces), Lydia Fecteau (Stockton State College and Atlantic Community College), Heather Garrison (East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvnia), Therése Halscheid (Rutgers/Camden and Camden County Cultural and Heritage Commission), and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson (Miami University of Ohio). Michael Northen, one of Wordgathering’s editors, posed the questions.
Mike: It is wonderful to have such a talented and diverse group here for this discussion on the teaching of disability literature. I know that you come in with a variety of experiences and points of view. I imagine that when you first had the chance to teach a course in disability literature or to incorporate it into another course that you were taking, that it presented an exciting opportunity for you. I would like to ask each of you to talk briefly about what you personally hoped you would be able to accomplish when you got the chance to teach disability lit. Perhaps another way of asking this is, what was the main motivation for you in teaching the course?
Lydia: I was approached by my department to come up with a 2000 level literature course. I offered them disability studies and literature after being inspired by an MLA convention to look at how disability theory was being used within the literature community. My college is progressive and liberal, so they enjoyed the idea of introducing the students to a new literary theory. My goal for the students was twofold. First I wanted to introduce them to a new way of looking at disability issues. Secondly, I was hoping that many of them who were looking at a future career in teaching would come out of the class with a greater understanding of diversity and disability.
Heather: I currently incorporate assignments that use disability literature into my courses rather than teaching a course in disability literature. I teach in a teacher preparation program that educates pre-service elementary, middle, and special education teachers. In different courses, I ask students to use disability literature in different ways with the hopes that I am preparing them to critically analyze the construct of disability in literature and society and preparing them to use positive disability literature with their future students in order to decrease negative stereotypes and perceptions in future generations. To my knowledge, this is the first attempt at disability studies at my university.
Cynthia: Hello everyone. I incorporate disability theory and texts into all kinds of classes I teach, as Heather does, and, as Lydia does), I also sometimes get to teach a course devoted to a disability theme, as part of my university's new disability studies minor.
In both kinds of courses, my goals are that students become better critical readers and writers, by working through key concepts and readings in disability studies and literature, and also that they become more informed about issues important to the disabled and from the perspective of the disabled. We spend a good deal of time at the beginning of the semester working to understand the idea of a disability-center view, as opposed to the usual nondisabled perspective that dominates our everyday world, where the disabled is exotic, other, marginal, and so on. We read, think, discuss, watch films, and write about such central concepts as "normality"--its history and dominance in the cultural imagination; bodies--what constitutes beauty and monstrosity, "fitness" and its others; language--the work of labels in creating stigma but also the poetic and rhetoric practices that can re-signify in more positive or interesting ways. (I ask students to produce their own creative pieces, not only critical writing in response to texts).
I try to incorporate a range of texts--disability memoir, fiction, film, poetry--and some short excerpts of sometimes heavier disability theory: Lennard Davis on the hegemony of the norm, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson on the politics of staring; David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder on disability metaphor and narrative: these are just a few examples. After reading and discussing these texts, I then ask students to apply these concepts in their own analysis of a piece of literature, sometimes to a work that is overtly about disability, but sometimes not. For example, in an honors class I taught last year we read Shakespeare's Tempest with a focus on disability analysis, and the result was amazing.
Students also each do an individual project of their own design, one that bridges academic knowledge and community action and lived experience. Some former student projects: looking at how the application forms of different universities do or do not mention, welcome or accommodate students with disabilities; making a signed and voiced video on the everyday school life of a deaf friend, one that offered humor, critique, and understanding; a multi-media media watch project analyzing the way news stories cover disabled athletes.
I always include some time for us to study the accommodations, or lack thereof, at our own university. And I always, consciously, introduce the concept of Universal Design, including UD for learning, and use multi-modal ways of learning in the classroom.
In including community projects and in making sure to include critical self-reflection, I want to ensure that students come to realize that disability is part of all our lives, part of the university and community, not just a subject "out there," not just another way to read a blackbird in an English class.
Therése: In answering the question regarding the use of disability literature ... I must add the timeliness of Mike's question ... as it seems that I am always "living it" rather than teaching it. My late response stems from a family emergency. This topic is never outside of myself. In my personal world, I have been a caregiver of both mental (brain damage) and physical disabilities for most of my life.
For me ... to read, to work with disability literature is to first sense a kindred spirit with the language of the writer (and the writer), a common ground which gives me peace. Although I am able-bodied, the connection takes place on the emotional level. I know I am not alone in feelings. I move out of my own circumstance and sense a universal context, a shared experience, which makes my own life manageable. I believe this happens with all students. We soften. We experience the world through their eyes. In terms of teaching disability literature, I vividly recall designing a workshop for Inglis House where we wrote from swapped views. We read poems written by the disabled. The able-bodied then imagined themselves as such and wrote from a disabled view. To read literature written by the disabled was extremely potent, but when we put on the cloak of disability, it became us.
Sheila: First, I must join Therese in apologizing for my late response. This week I was being interviewed for a permanent job on the campus where I teach--a grueling process(!)--and I was also going to doctors about nerve pain in one arm--related to my XLH it turns out—which I guess is as Therese so aptly put it "living" disability rather than simply "teaching" it.
For me, as several of the participants have pointed out, what matters in teaching disability literature is working to build a sense of the perspective of the disabled, and, perhaps even more important, the way this casts light on and/or sheds doubt on perspectives f "normal." Lennard Davis's many works, including Enforcing Normalcy, have been vital for me in this regard. Like Cynthia I have also used Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, David Mitchell, Sharon Snyder, and Tobin Siebers. I love Cynthia's idea--an idea I have perhaps followed in my classes though not so consciously--of looking at literature that is not overtly or entirely about disability from a disability perspective.
In the course I taught at my university--an introductory literature/critical writing and thinking course in which instructors are able to choose a topic to focus on--I included a variety of types of text about disability--disability memoirs, fiction, and poetry--along with a hefty dose of theory. An issue I am very interested in is how the discourse of disability itself tends to shape the types of texts produced and how these choices might be opened up through a more forcible focus on paradigms of normal. I have to say for my (mostly) able-bodied students, the most eye-opening part of the class seemed to be how looking at the world through a disability perspective unsettled their own perspectives of normalcy, particularly in regards to questions of "beauty and monstrosity." To support our readings, we spent quite a bit of time analyzing images--from paintings to art photographs to advertisements, comparing the way the disabled body and the normal or ideal body were portrayed and framed. I also did give some creative assignments, which I feel helped the students grapple with how notions of disability, theories of disability impacted them in their everyday lives.
Perhaps because I am a women with a visible disability--an "abnormal" body--I am particularly fascinated with questions of how notions of beauty are formed and propagated; this is where the theory becomes most personal for me, and, therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most rewarding to teach. I am often struck by the ways in which feminism and disability theory intersect in unexpected and surprising ways--Rosemarie Garland-Thompson is very good on this. I am also struck from a scholarly perspective at the degree to which disability becomes a nexus through which many foundational questions about the post-Enlightenment construction of knowledge, value, and, by extension, society or community get opened up. This is an element of talking about disability that I find endlessly exciting. When the discussion in my course, turned to "normal," I found that almost all my students in some senses took on what Theresa calls "the cloak of disability," and the definition of "disabled" became in some sense "us." This is not to say that this is or should be an easy thing--one difficulty in all discussions of disability is that there are great ranges of experience held within the cloak of disability and that from the perspective of the disabled--or maybe I should say my perspective--these differences, these particular experiences need to be acknowledged and valued.
Mike: Several of you have mentioned that most of the students you deal with are new to disabilities literature and Cynthia pointed out she spends s good deal of time at the beginning of the semester trying to get students to understand a disability-centered view. Sheila made a similar point. I was wondering if, in your experiences you find any resistance to a disabilities-centered point of view, and, if so, what kinds of presuppositions you find it most difficult to over in trying to engage in a discussion of disability literature or in trying to get students to see disability literature as a legitimate genre of study.
Heather: As I mentioned previously, I teach pre-service teachers. I have found that most of them are able to critically analyze social constructions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and religion but have little to no experience with looking at disability as a social construct. The discussions I try to build use this prior knowledge as a scaffold to discuss disability and I often need to provide many examples to help students understand. These discussions create a lens to talk about disability literature both historically and in literature that they may use with their future students. Most of my students aren’t resistant, rather they lack the foundational knowledge, and the language, to talk about ableism. Throughout the semester, they develop the ability. Often, my students who are studying to become special education teachers have only been exposed to medical model approaches to disability. I have only had one student who was resistant (downright argumentative) to looking at disability in a new way. Interestingly, she was a mid-career student with a previous career as a nurse.
I’d like to share examples that I think have been helpful with my students. I start each class by reading a children’s book that has a positive portrayal of a character with a disability and we discuss the book and how it can be used in the classroom with students to support learning and attitudinal changes. Also, I’ve incorporated assignments that require students to read disability literature and incorporate it into the course in a meaningful way. I’ve also reached out to other departments (I’m in the Special Education Department) and talk to the “Children’s Literature” classes about disability literature. I have an extensive personal collection of children’s books with characters with disabilities and I’m attaching an Excel spreadsheet in case it is of interest. I’m also attaching a handout that I created from several sources to talk about critically analyzing children’s disability literature with students.
Cynthia: In thinking about this second question posed to us, I became caught up in Heather's very long list of books and her post about teaching future public school teachers about incorporating disability literature into their curriculum. I am so impressed by her commitment to document materials and have her students, future teachers, be aware they are available, as well as teaching them to evaluate the disability depictions in these texts. My comments are more of a series of questions and reflections--ones I've had for quite awhile--but now reanimated by Heather's post.
Like Heather, I ask my college students to examine stereotypes and how real the depiction is. I also ask them to evaluate how a character with a disability functions in a plot, to reflect on whether disability is used as a metaphor for something else, or if the book engages disability positively--not only that DS characters have leadership roles, but maybe that others learn something new about the disability experience or about life through the disability experience. So in a strong text a character's disability might be central to the transformation or "turn" of the story.
But my students often want to respond to disability stories by feeling pity or feeling good about disability, many often concluding with "I learned that they are just like us" comments. In class, we do a lot of work to unpack and examine this response: the "them" and "us" at the base of it, the desire to erase disability and the ways it might make all of us think and act differently, the desire to have everything end on a "happy" note and back to life as usual (with disability invisible or ignored). In a college class, many students do work through these ways of thinking to come up with other ways of thinking; some don't.
Heather: I think “they are like us” is a step in the right direction. Many college students aren’t consciously aware that “they” are similar to themselves. I think this is based on their prior experiences within the culture and educational system. Students who don’t have actual experiences with PWD are likely to think of “them” as completely foreign to themselves. Building awareness of othering is important before students can move past it. Students seem to need the “they are like me” knowledge in order to go further in accepting disability as a form of diversity.
I'm thinking about disabled vs. disabling. I think students often don't know the difference without discussion. I've used a real example to illustrate the difference for my students.... a local school district called my office (in the special education department) to ask if they had to take a "blind student" on a field trip since he was blind and wouldn't "get much" from it. We talked about the difference between the boy's disability and him being disabled by the attitudes (and actions) of others. I think that concrete example gives meaning to the difference in how the two terms are used. The example involves my students in understanding disability not as something residing within the person but the larger social factors that impact the PWD... this creates a new role for my students within the discourse of disability.... disability is no longer "them" since "us" can be a disabling factor.
I also agree that there are stages of growth... from looking at differences, to looking at similarities, to acceptance (simply being). I think looking at differences comes most naturally and students (K-12 and college) need knowledge to move forward. The "they are like us" is an essential step in the right direction to change perceptions that students may have of what it means to be a PWD. I'd like ideas to help students move past that step to acceptance... can that be accomplished through the use of literature, in the absence of actual experiences with PWD?
Cynthia: But here's my pondering: I wonder how disability texts are engaged with by students in K-12, in what settings they are read, what the "take away" messages are. I imagine three kinds of classrooms: the inclusive one with both nondisabled and disabled students; the "regular" classroom with no students with disabilities; and the "special" classroom composed of students with disabilities. And it seems to me that dangers lurk in each of these settings.
Heather: It’s my experience that the “narrative prosthesis” of disability isn’t critically analyzed in the way that race, gender, etc. are examined in K-12. I suspect that teachers aren’t intentionally excluding it, just that they never thought of including it.
Cynthia: The dangers I worry about are these: In the inclusive classroom, the disabled children become objects of the lesson, similar to the way that an African American child can be treated as a token. And since every disability is so different, and even the same ones impact each person differently, the label more than the experience can dominate. I imagine the "take away" message is mostly "have sympathy, be kind to the disabled, they are like you." And while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these attitudes, they also reinforce pity and the idea that the nondisabled person has somehow become "better" for thinking this way. Without changing anything. Who eats lunch with whom? How is Sam integrated into projects or what accommodations are made so Samantha can fully participate in the field trip? After school, who gets invited to birthday parties? I guess I'm asking whose purpose do these kinds of responses serve? I think they mostly serve the nondisabled students, but I grant that including disability literature is a beginning in teaching students to value diverse human experience.
Heather: There are lots of great children’s books that include the character with a disability doing everyday things and the book isn’t “about” their disability. This avoids tokenism or a sympathy/“be nice” message and sends a message of equality among all the characters to the reader. I suspect this could impact perceptions of children with and without disabilities (probably mostly children without disabilities since they may not have prior experiences with people with disabilities).
Cynthia: In the "regular" non-inclusive classroom, the "be kind" message might be even stronger, but there also might be eruptions of ridicule and playground language and attitudes? How do you open up discussions about labeling and negative stereotypes and stigmatizing of the disabled without making disability the resented object lesson and reinforcing a sense of shame in the resistant kids for not being kind?
Heather: In my college classes, we create a “rest in peace” word list (retard, freak, dumb down, tart cart, etc.). Students are surprised at how many of these terms and phrases they can identify. We talk about ways to handle situations when these future teachers have students who use these words in a hurtful or “throwaway” manner. I suggest taking the child aside and explaining that the words are hurtful and equivalent to racial slurs. Most children aren’t even aware that these types of expressions are inappropriate to use and awareness goes a long way.
Cynthia: In the "special ed" class, I know--from experiences with my own son--that students already are quite aware of the stigma of their labels and non-mainstreamed situations, and that they are often likely to openly express bias against other students with disabilities. How do teachers work in this kind of classroom to counter the dominant attitudes that are already internalized?
Heather: I taught in a high school self-contained special education classroom for ten years and the students definitely had internalized the belief that they were “second class citizens.” No one had to tell them, they felt it from years of how they were treated. Sad, but true. My students were generally accepting of each other but there were many times when they made fun of each other. Sadly, I have to think it was a form of retaliation, by picking on others in the ways that they had been picked on by others.
Cynthia: In a college class, I raise these kinds of problems right away, expressing why I'm uncomfortable with "feel good" kindness responses, objectifying someone with disability in class, tokenism, and so on. But I imagine that these concepts are harder to get across with younger children. One thing we do to break down the "them" "us" construct is to play "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," but with disability instead. I have students draw tree maps locating someone they are related to in some way (can be a friend) with disability. It always turns out that everyone typically has at most only three degrees of separation, often much less. Sharing and talking about the visual maps in class helps us realize concretely that "them" is really all of us, but that we powerfully screen out our knowledge of and connection to disability. And this leads us to discussion about disability as a part of the life course, about many of us being temporarily nondisabled. This might be an impossible kind of talk to have with children (perhaps even fearful for them).
Heather: I think the use of literature is a powerful way to break down the “us and them” feelings with young children. Knowledge is a powerful thing and so is ignorance. When children don’t understand something (if it looks different, etc.), a natural reaction is to have fear. Children can react to that fear by being mean. Understanding is crucial. If young children understand that difference isn’t a bad thing, that someone can be different from themselves but still be “ok,” then the fear and need to act on the fear is eliminated (or at least, reduced). Anything that fosters understanding of diversity is helpful to chip away at the “us and them” construct.
Cynthia: I'd like to hear how others talk with younger students about disability literature. And thank you, Heather, for your great list of DS texts.
Sheila: In thinking about this (very interesting) second question and my own experiences, I was really struck by the third Cynthia's comment, "my students often want to respond to disability stories by feeling pity or feeling good about disability, many often concluding with "I learned that they are just like us" comments." This has certainly been my experience--in part, because talking about disability more seriously (or more honestly) is inherently uncomfortable for many of my students. I found that introducing a more developed disability-perspective often involves unpacking or focusing on precisely that response--everyone is the same and we are all beautiful, etc., etc. The problem, of course, being that such a position often erases what is particular about a disability and, more broadly, what can be inferred or learned from the specific experiences of the disabled. Like Heather and Cynthia, I have found that close encounters with disability texts often opens the door to more honest discussion, particularly of the "erasure" or "silencing" the disabled often face. I find this to be very true, also, in my own experiences as a disabled person. For example, my legs are quite crooked; I am quite exceptionally short, and I walk with what is described by medical professionals as a "typical XLH gait," somewhat limping, swaying, side-to-side; yet all my life I have had a great many people when the topic of my XLH has been introduced (usually by me), say things like, "Really, I never noticed there was anything different about you," or "you look just like everyone else to me," which is meant as a compliment, but in the complex terrain of the world-as-it-is, is often one of the most difficult hurdles for the disabled to overcome; I see that response as placing us in a kind of double-bind--on the one hand, we will say that you are just like everyone else, and deserve to be treated as such; on the other, we both know (Cynthia's note us the "us" and "them" in the comment she cites as an example) that you are not. This is, for me, where the study of disability becomes politicized at its most basic level--introducing a genuine disability-perspective involves unpacking this and, thus, as both Cynthia and Heather point out, considering broader questions of constructions of "self" and "other," "us" and "them," the ordering and valuing functions of society and how those are established and reproduced. I think this is what is exciting about disability studies as a field, but also what makes it in some senses, somewhat threatening and a challenge--but in the best sense of the word!--to teach.
I often work to introduce these questions or this perspective by not merely presenting texts on disability but also by analyzing them in terms of their position or enactment of a broader "discourse of disability." Often, I find in doing this, I am opening far more questions than I am answering, but one thing I think is vital to this effort is distinguishing between "pity"--the feel good, "us" and "them" response--and "empathy" or truly trying to occupy a distinct or "other" position. One thing I have learned as a teacher--and a person--is that we tend to assume "empathy" is far easier, far more readily accessible than it is--and I might add this is a lesson I have learned about myself as much as I have about my students. For me, the process of creating the conditions for "empathy" involves analysis and thought as much as feeling--enough intelligence, as it were, to genuinely allow the apprehension of what is to experience the world from a different or "other " position.
I hope this is not too far off the original question--and I am very much enjoying everyone's responses to this "dialogue"
Therése: Thanks to all the ideas you've shared and thanks to Heather for the sources she provided. It’s just great!
Sharing how students respond to disability (in person or in literature) has propelled me to think of the processes we all undergo with any evolvement. As with disability, so too with cultures, religions, race, sexuality.
In general, I think of this process in terms of a slow shifting in consciousness – one which begins with separateness, sometimes a cruel separateness (i.e. I stay away because they are so different from me) from which there is suffering from which we morph. I see an early stage of morphing as one which begins to look at others with kindness in terms of differences (whatever they may be), which then morphs into a state of not looking at differences at all but noting what is the same. I see the final stage as not looking for differences or sameness, but simply being. And I think to move from a narrow view to this highest state of consciousness takes time. And I think this IS the time because I do see inclusion happening, very much so, though I see everyone doing it in varying degrees.
One way of helping evolvement, I think, is by way of a moving tale. This ritual goes way back to tribes around fires. The tale has an emotional component that serves as a visual example and the mind remembers it. And then I think that it is not enough to ingest the moving story, but then we need to make these tales applicable to our own lives. We need to see these tales as something not outside of ourselves, but very much a part of us. So, it really is about using tales for change. It goes deeper – it’s about what we do with the story.
For example, one of the things that drove home for me was the notion that while society can desire inclusion, the disabled do not want to become objectified in the process. They do not want someone over-caring, or setting them apart by way of unnatural compassion. If that is where students are in their attempt for inclusion, and in many cases, I think most of us are there – then I believe this can become a teachable moment. And I think the “story” would serve to teach it.
And I think we need patience to transform thought processes, in part, because sometimes, in plain words, we simply do not know. There is innocence in not knowing how a disabled person wants to be treated, because for so long there has been silence around the subject. I hope this is making sense.
I will share one story where I had faulty perception. I was a visiting poet in a school in NJ about 10 years ago, and there was a student in the 8th grade English class, who was born without limbs. She had an Aide and wrote with a head stick in her wheelchair. (Here’s the part that I am embarrassed about). I felt very bad for her. One day, in the teacher’s room, I saw the Aide and I went up to her and said, “Oh, I am feeling bad for …..” And the Aide turned toward me and said, “But she doesn’t feel that way. She doesn’t see herself as limited. She’s very happy.” And the Aide proceeded to tell me that this child comes to her house after school and plays with her own children. “When she wants to get from one side of the room to the other,” the aide said, “she rolls.” And there were other examples that made me realize I was the one who was disabled in my thinking.
I can’t tell you what an impact her story had upon me. The story not only was moving, it moved the way I thought. It moved the way I moved through the world.
Lydia: I have found little resistance to the discussion in a disability centered point of view; however, what I have found are that most students are completely unaware of life from a disability centered perspective. The topic most students really expressed surprise on is the eugenics movement and the institutionalization. I find most students feel they have been ignorant to a large part of history and the world.
Heather: Eugenics was a large part of my dissertation (2007) research... I'll spare you the lengthy explanation! I looked at the eugenic culture of the 1920s and 1930s and how it was reflected in the literature, particularly with characters with disabilities. I examined Steinbeck's 1937 "Of Mice and Men" from a DS lens. My research involved adolescents' perceptions of disability and people with disabilities when responding to the novel. I am happy to share a section (or more) from my dissertation that, I think, shows how prevalent eugenic thought was and how it permeated the culture. It could be good reading for your students.
Lydia: For my in-class students, seeing me and my service dog on a daily basis really helps bring home the idea of living with a disability. However, I also teach disability studies in a complete online environment. In that environment I do not tell the students that I'm in a wheelchair, so if the students are unfamiliar with me, they have no idea I am disabled. In a class I use the Internet with life story blogs and Simi Linton's book to help students envision living with a disability.
Heather: I also teach online and traditional courses. I've never met most of my online students in person so they only know me from my written word. I often find that students think of the physical "me" as someone similar to them (age, appearance). I think of the differences in perception that a physical appearance creates. This is so relevant in literature since we (usually) only have the written word to describe the characters and the author selects the words (and perceptions they convey) for the reader. Back to "Of Mice and Men," students liked the John Malkovich movie version of Lennie more than they liked the Lennie they read about in the book and part of that, I suspect, is based on John's "normal" physical appearance while the text uses frequent animal imagery, etc. to describe the physical Lennie. Lydia, I know you've written about OMAM too.
Lydia : There's another area which I like to bring disability studies to and that is ESL and developmental English. Most of these students see me and my service dog daily, but for some, especially foreign students, it might be the first time they have ever met someone in a wheelchair. I like to use this platform to get the students to think about disability discrimination, accommodation, end of life issues, etc. Many of these students are hoping to become nurses. In fact, today we took a great deal of class time discussing service animals and their rights. This was not a disability class, but rather an argument and persuasion class. I used a recent article in the New York Times about service animals as a jumping off point along with YouTube clips of service animals in action. This allows the students to see disability studies in the real world.
As for seeing disability literature as a legitimate genre of study, I have had no difficulty especially after pointing out that the MLA has panels and criticism about just that topic.Question #3
Mike: In listening to the issues that you are surfacing about the difficulty of overcoming inherited attitudes towards disability and the various ways in which you approached these, I wonder what has worked for you. Can you think of a particular piece of literature you used with a class that you felt, when finished, you had – if not achieved satori – at least begun to make a breakthrough? If you like, you can also give an example of something that totally flopped.
Cynthia: I think that many kinds of texts can be useful in a disability literature class—useful not so much for conveying an enlightened message about disability but for provoking deep thinking, unsettling received attitudes, or leading students to new ways of reading and interpreting texts.
For example, I taught Shakespeare’s _The Tempest_ to first-year Honors students in a literature class themed around beauty and monstrosity. I included several disability studies critical texts—for example, Mitchell and Snyder on disability metaphor, Lennard Davis on normalcy, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson on the politics of staring—so as to provide students with some critical approaches. Almost every student had read _The Tempest_ in high school, and as advanced placement students they almost to a person had read it for its “universal themes” of love, good magic, and rational rule. I asked them to read the play this time, paying close attention to language, metaphor, and dramatic action, in light of our disability studies secondary texts. We attended to how Caliban’s monstrosity is figured as defect or deficit, related his deficiencies to European “norms” and expectations. We discussed Caliban and Ariel as “natives” to the island, and how as children of Sycorax they are aligned with dangerous female forces. We discussed how they function or become metaphors for the other characters, Prospero and Miranda especially, and how the two native “monsters” function to establish or sustain several levels of “power” or “rule.” We mapped different kinds of looking at, or gazing, in the play, and pondered the relation between looking at the beauty of Miranda, the love gaze, and looking at the monstrosity of Caliban. This disability studies approach led students to an understanding of feminist and postcolonial readings of the play, in that students discovered the intersections among the various “others”—the native characters, women, those to be ruled, and the function of othering (or disenabling) in establishing and maintaining power. Although none of us would call this a play about disability per se, disability studies insights led students to read more closely and to make claims and arguments about the text, supported by details, that were more considered and complex than their previous thinly evidenced “universal themes” readings.
Heather: I wanted to share a text that I’ve found to work extremely well as an introduction… Rudolph. My students all have prior knowledge of the story and I ask them to revisit it in a new way. They inevitably point out Rudolph’s physical difference (his nose), his family’s embarrassment and attempts to hide his difference, the refusal of his peers to let him “join in any reindeer games,” and Santa’s sudden change of heart when Rudolph’s difference becomes useful to him. They also mention the “Island of the Misfit Toys” and segregation. Rudolph has proved be an excellent introduction because students know the story well, are easily able to apply DS concepts to identify ableist attitudes, and are able to perceive the powerful connection between literature and culture.
Sheila: I love Heather's notion of using Rudolph(!)--One reason I love that notion is it is a story we don't expect to be used that way, and it speaks to something I found in teaching my college level disability of literature class--namely that texts which surprised my students in some way (they hadn't though of them as being about disability or hadn't thought of disability in this way) were the most effective.
A text, for example, that worked wonderfully for me was Jim Ferris's The Hospital Poems. Why? Primarily because students were so initially shocked at how Ferris presented the hospital and the doctors that they were really pushed to examine some of their unexamined ideas about "good" and "bad" "disabled" and "normal" in a way that they hadn't ever done before. At first, many expressed anger or even resistance to Ferris's way of describing the "hospital." Many said, for example, that they were disturbed that his description of the hospital was not more positive. "Hospitals are there to help people," many insisted. They also objected to the way in which doctors were portrayed in the book--particularly the idea that doctors might do things that hurt the patient and did not have a particular (or particularly effective) curative value. At the same time, as they read on, they became engaged by and even entranced by Ferris's notion of the hospital as a kind of "melancholy homeland of the disabled." This made them really think about and question and speculate on notions of disability culture in a totally new way. They also came to see how and why doctors might, say, perform surgeries that did not result in a better outcome for the patient (Ferris himself) in question. The shock of the text helped them have insights into the situation of the disabled and into the whole notion of the normal body that other texts simply had not given them--or had not given them in way that shocked them into a new awareness. Similarly, perhaps, I found that texts would provided ways of talking about concepts that were hard or disturbing to articulate were very helpful. For instance--and I recognize this is quite an "old" text--Goffman's essay "on Stigma" in the Disability Studies Reader, was one of the most helpful texts we read in terms of helping students discuss issues of disability more honestly because Goffman was so specific and often humorous about how "stigma" works in the culture. Perhaps I would sum by saying that part of what made both these texts so successful was that they both contained an element of defamiliarization about them--both presented "familiar" situations--at least in outline--from perspectives that allowed the students to see the situation as if for the first time; this often led to new insights.
I may add more if it comes to me, but I just wanted to say that I have so enjoyed being part of this dialogue and everyone's excellent responses.
Therése: I really enjoyed Cynthia's response here. On a side note, I wanted to share that since this discussion I have included a mini lecture on disability in the education class I am currently teaching at Rutgers. I want to thank everyone. The course is titled Teaching Reading and Writing in Secondary Schools, and though the text covers multicultural issues and struggling readers, there is no mention of disabilities in the text. This discussion group fueled me to expand the curriculum. In terms of poetry workshops I have taught, I have used Kenny Fries' book Anesthesia, Jim Ferris collection called The Hospital Poems as well as the work of Karen Fiser and Stephen Kuusisto. The power of reading poems of disability written by the disabled are like doors we open, that we could not open in any other way. I've noted a silence that could be interpreted to mean that participants are locked in a stillness because for that moment they have experienced not only the poem's message, but the person. It does deep. Likewise, third person accounts, poems written about a loved one, have been equally moving.
In terms of leading writing workshops, poetry or memoir workshops that are not disability focused but are for a general audience, it is also amazing how the use of an open-ended prompt can give way to poems or stories of this nature. For example, there was a woman who took my workshops at Atlantic Cape who had Lupis, and she20would use the neutral prompts (that did not mention the physical/mental states of the body) to work through her own disability. Her writings were often the highlight of the class, and it was always amazing to see how a neutral topic could inspire the unveiling.
Lydia: I always start my disability and literature class with Oedipus and A Christmas Carol. Those stories allow me to give the students a glimpse at disability theory as well as disability in culture. I have had books that have flopped, but because the students didn't like the books or found them too difficult to access. My biggest flop was Geek Love. The students simply hated it the book. Part of their hatred came from the nonlinear narrative and part came from the weirdness.
The favorite book most of my students had was The Curious Incident of the Dog at Nighttime. My students felt the book was very accessible, gave insight into the autistic mind, and with usable for future teaching. Each time I teach the class I try to switch around the books and ideas we study. This semester I have included Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy. I wanted to explore sexuality and scarring. I also have included the book Blindness which I thought would help in talking about disability as metaphor. However, I am always on the lookout for new books and in fact have ordered a new one by Harvey called the Wilderness: a Novel. The book is a fictional first-person account of someone with Alzheimer's. This may very well end up in my next class.
I love using children's stories as well. My favorite is Finding Nemo. It works on so many levels.
Heather: Agreed! There's a great scene when Nemo's school friends talk about their differences... one is H2O intolerant, one has a shorter tentacle, another announces that he is obnoxious. Good stuff. Students also mention South Park and talk about the two characters with disabilities in the show.
Geek Love also did not go over well in a grad class. The students found it too "weird" and the experience took on the gaze of a freak show (which may have been part of the message of the novel but we didn't get any further than that).
In regard to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, I have had undergraduate students really connect with this book. I think I've read criticisms about the book and the way it portrays people with autism but I can't recall the specifics (who, when, where, etc.).
Lydia, does Toni Morrison have anything that you could use for sexuality and scarring? Beloved has a sensual scene that details the scars on Sethe's back. Also, throughout the book, there are references to her scar and sexuality- the lashing that created the scar while she is held down by men, etc. The gaze is prevalent in her writing- a friend wrote his master's thesis on the topic! I think Lucy Greely's Autobiography of a Face could also work. Her facial scars from chin cancer led her to act in certain sexual (and other) ways. I may be able to think of other books if you're interested.
By the way, I can use assistance in finding autobiographies written by people with disabilities who had their disability as child (not acquired in adulthood) to use in a curriculum course. I have a decent list but would love to have others to add to the list.
I'd love to hear more about the books that people used and how they used them. Sorry that my responses have been/are somewhat random but I'm enjoying the dialogue tremendously!
There is virtually no research about the use of disability literature at all... many articles that said it was a good idea to use literature with positive portrayals of characters with disabilities to affect perceptions, but little actual research. I found a handful of studies at the elementary/middle level but only one study at the highschool level. My dissertation study (2007)was the only research that looked at the impact on perceptions of reading literature with a negative portrayal of the characters with disabilities. I think awareness is slowly building that disability literature is worthy of critical examination. I'm seeing it on the American Library Association awards, MLA, etc. but very little in college textbooks about children's literature.
Mike: I want to thank all of you for taking part in this great discussion. It has been a great exchange of ideas and information. I think Wordgathering readers are really going to enjoy it.
Cynthia: I really appreciate this thoughtful dialogue! You've all moved me to think a little differently about the possibilities of ways students can be moved in their responses from one way of thinking to another.
Sheila: I just want to second what Cynthia said; I am not a scholar of disability studies and so have been moved and enlightened a great deal by everyone's comments. Thanks!
Therése: Thanks for initiating the discussions, Mike!
Heather: It’s been a pleasure to read everyone’s ideas and exchange thoughts!