Literary and Critical Theory Race and Disability
Dennis Tyler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0021


In recent years, a small but significant body of work has appeared addressing the intersections of race and disability and offering an analysis of how these concepts are mutually constitutive. The rise in scholarship on this topic is tied to the development of the field of disability studies, which, especially in the United States and in the humanities, has increasingly posited disability as what Thomson 1997 (cited under General Overviews) calls a “minority discourse.” Considering the intersections of race and disability have allowed scholars to uncover the constructions of disability and disease and the medical and legal constructions of race as well as to examine how these discourses are deeply embedded within matters concerning citizenship rights, public health, proper medical care, and the national body politic. The increased interest in race and disability, however, does not mean that this kind of interdisciplinary work has not been met with a few challenges. Providing an intersectional analysis of race and disability has often entailed putting the fields of disability studies and race studies in productive conversation, which has been difficult for three primary reasons. First, as Bell 2011 (cited under General Overviews) points out, early work in disability studies focused largely on white individuals and was produced by white scholars and activists. This emphasis on whiteness absent a sustained engagement with or examination of race and race theory has marginalized the experiences of people of color with disabilities. Second, this interdisciplinary work has been “discomforting,” as Mitchell and Snyder 2000 (cited under Literary Studies) argue largely because as “feminist, race, and sexuality studies sought to unmoor their identities from debilitating physical and cognitive associations, they inevitably positioned disability as the ‘real’ limitation from which they must escape” (p. 2). This distancing of other minority fields from disability is a significant historical issue with social, political, and material consequences. According to Jarman 2011 (cited under General Overviews), the need to reject false biomedical attitudes (such as susceptibility to disease and bodily degeneracy) associated with race, gender, sexuality, and poverty in some scholarship “has often left stigma around disability unchallenged—except by those specifically engaged in activism and in disability studies” (p. 9). Third, when examining two categories, one must inevitably deal with the problem of analogy, which can create a false separation and opposition between two categories. Despite these challenges, an intersectional analysis of race and disability is both significant and necessary, because it provides us with a framework for thinking about how disability is central to racial formation and how race affects the lives of people with disabilities. The majority of the scholarship on race and disability has focused primarily on blackness and disability. But there are also scholarly contributions that examine how disability influences Asian Americans and Native Americans, and that interrogate the intersections of disability, race, and ethnicity more broadly. All of this critical work has called attention to the ways that science, law, medicine, history, and literature engage race and disability. The steady increase of scholarship on race and disability suggests that interest in this subject will likely continue.

General Overviews

Thomson 1997 is a foundational text and serves as one of the earliest interrogations of race and disability in the field of disability studies. Thomson’s work aims to move disability “from the realm of medicine into that of political minorities, to recast it from a form of pathology to a form of ethnicity” (p. 6). In this sense, her book attempts to draw parallels between the stigmatization, ostracization, and cultural barriers experienced by people with disabilities and the homophobia, racism, and sexism experienced by queer-identified, racial minority, and female subjects. Baynton 2001 spotlights how the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination and inequality against women, African Americans, and immigrants. Rowden 2009 is one of the earliest book-length monographs that focuses entirely on race and disability (specifically on African Americans and blindness). Erevelles and Minear 2010 rely on intersectionality to examine how race, class, gender, and disability are mutually constitutive, while Jarman 2011 pays close attention to the intersections of race and mental health. A few special issues and collected essays have appeared on race and disability and serve as incredibly useful resources: James and Wu 2006 provide an explicit exploration of the intersections of race, ethnicity and disability; Bell 2011 focuses specifically on the intersections of blackness and disability in literature, photography, film, and music; and Senier and Barker 2013 is a special issue on disability and indigeneity, a topic that is often overlooked.

  • Baynton, Douglas C. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” In The New Disability History: American Perspectives. Edited by Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, 33–57. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

    Baynton’s examination of how disability gets deployed as a justification of inequality in the United States provides a useful historical background for the ways that disability intersects with gender, race, and sexuality in American history, and how it is often used as a tool of discrimination and exclusion.

  • Bell, Christopher M., ed. Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. Germany: LIT Verlag, 2011.

    This volume interrogates the various meanings and uses of blackness and disability, and it makes a significant scholarly contribution to the field of African American studies, which, as Bell observes, posits the black body in an ableist fashion, and disability studies, which focuses heavily on white people.

  • Erevelles, Nirmala, and Andrea Minear. “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4.2 (2010): 127–145.

    DOI: 10.3828/jlcds.2010.11

    Relying primarily on critical race feminist theory, Erevelles and Minear examine how legal, educational, and rehabilitational institutions mark individuals at the intersections of race, gender, class, and disability as “non-citizens” and “(no)bodies” (p. 127).

  • James, Jennifer C., and Cynthia Wu, eds. Special Issue: Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Literature: Intersections and Interventions. MELUS 31.3 (Fall 2006): 3–193.

    DOI: 10.1093/melus/31.3.3

    This special issue provides an overview of how disability studies and ethnic studies can productively examine the ways in which “disability has always been racialized, gendered, and classed and how racial, gender, and class difference have been conceived of as ‘disability’” (p. 8).

  • Jarman, Michelle. “Coming Up from Underground: Uneasy Dialogues at the Intersections of Race, Mental Illness, and Disability Studies.” In Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. Edited by Christopher M. Bell, 9–29. Munster: LIT Verlag, 2011.

    Jarman focuses on the issue of black women and mental illness through her analysis of Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel 72-Hour Hold. The introductory paragraphs of her essay offer a useful gloss on the uneasy relationship between disability and race studies.

  • Rowden, Terry. The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.232221

    This is one of the earliest book-length, single-authored academic studies that concentrates exclusively on race and disability, focusing specifically on blind African American musicians.

  • Senier, Siobhan, and Clare Barker, eds. “Disability and Indigeneity.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 7.2 (2013): 123–244.

    Similar to Bell 2011, Senier and Barker explore how “indigenous studies is still too ableist and disability studies too white” (p. 125). The special issue also shows the particular and complicated ways that disability and illness intersect with the lives of indigenous people.

  • Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

    Thomson’s work explores how discussions of disability, race, gender, and sexuality commingle to create figures of otherness from “raw materials of bodily variations” (p. 6). Thomson defamiliarizes identity categories of able-bodied and physically disabled.

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