American Literature Disability
Rebecca Sanchez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0131


Disability refers to non-normative physical, intellectual, or psychiatric abilities. As this definition suggests, the category is radically unstable. In some sense, all bodies possess unique combinations of abilities and disabilities, and these abilities change over time; where the line between able bodied and disabled is drawn and where an individual body sits in relation to that line are issues in constant states of flux, as are the ways in which particular conditions are perceived. Chronic illness and deafness, for example, are sometimes considered to be disabilities, and sometimes not. The meanings of and attitudes toward disability are also culturally and historically contingent. As disability studies scholars have noted, the very idea of comparing individual bodies to a norm is relatively recent. It was the rise of institutionalized medicine in the 18th century that led to the definition of disability as a flaw existing with the individual, which it became the responsibility of medical science to ameliorate. This medical model remained dominant until the rise of disability activism in the 1960s, at which point distinctions began to be drawn between impairments (conditions located in the individual body or mind that restricted activities) and disability, which was said to result from discriminatory social practices and policies, as well as inaccessible spaces. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, activists worked to shift perception toward this social or cultural model of disability. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) recognized the dual nature of disability in its own definition, which referenced both impairment and social stigma. In part because the social model enabled activists and scholars to align disability with identity categories such as race, class, sexuality, and gender, disability became increasingly appealing to scholars as a field of study. This work began primarily in the hard and social sciences but later branched out into the humanities. More recently, disability theorists have begun to question the supremacy of the social model, arguing that it may not be flexible enough to account for the embodied realities of individuals with disabilities, and that alternative models (rights based, cultural, political, etc.) may be needed as our understanding of the meanings of disability continue to evolve.

General Overviews

There have been a wide range of approaches to introducing the subject of disability studies. Some overviews such as Goodley 2011 and Smart 2016 have been explicitly structured as textbooks, with discussion questions and suggestions for further reading. Others, such as Davis 1995 and Siebers 2008, focus on the ways disability can be understood not only in terms of diverse embodiment, but also as a theoretical lens. Barnes 2016 explores the philosophical and ethical implications of understanding disability as a minority identity. Linton 1998, Longmore 2003, and Oliver 2009 all describe the rise of the disability rights movement and link the field of disability studies to disability activism. Disciplinary perspectives also shape these various approaches. Barnes and Mercer 2010 tackles the topic from a medical and social sciences perspective, while Davis 1995 provides the foundation for reading disability studies in dialogue with the humanities.

  • Barnes, Elizabeth. The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability. Studies in Feminist Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198732587.001.0001

    Provides a philosophy of disability that argues for understanding disabled people not as defective but as members of a minority. Articulates a value-neutral model of disability and interrogates the implications of such a model for how we think about the testimony of disabled people, the idea of intentionally causing disability, and disability pride.

  • Barnes, Colin, and Geof Mercer. Exploring Disability. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010.

    Provides a broad overview of issues surrounding disability, including policy, politicization, cultural representations, and the sociology of health and illness for students of the social sciences, health, and social care. This edition contains new chapters on genetics and disability in developing countries.

  • Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London: Verso, 1995.

    Using the historical idea of the norm as a jumping-off point, Enforcing interrogates the ways disability and deafness enhance our picture of the human. Provides a groundbreaking argument for and theorization of disability and deafness as concepts widely applicable, regardless of the textual presence of deaf or disabled individuals.

  • Goodley, Dan. Disability Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. London: SAGE, 2011.

    This textbook is structured to be useful for undergraduate and introductory graduate courses. Drawing on perspectives from sociology, critical psychology, cultural studies, psychoanalysis, and education, chapters include clear definitions, conclusions, and suggestions for further reading.

  • Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

    Claiming Disability was the first text to systematically analyze disability studies as a field of inquiry. The book provides an overview both of the academic field and disability activism.

  • Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays on Disability. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

    Divided into four sections: “Analysis and Reconstructions,” “Images and Reflections, “Ethics and Advocacy,” and “Protests and Forecasts.” The essays in Why I Burned My Book explore the institutionalized discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Provides analysis of cultural representations, disability law, and the impact of both on the lived experiences of disabled people.

  • Oliver, Michael. Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-05492-0

    Includes helpful discussions of issues relating to disability education, law, and politics. Analyzes various models of disability that bridge the gap between the theoretical and the practical.

  • Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.309723

    Provides a useful overview of some of the cutting-edge questions within the field (disability sexuality, identity politics, performativity, and what might replace the medical/social model impasse). The text is interspersed with clips from popular publications and newspapers that illustrate some of the widespread ideas about disability that the book complicates.

  • Smart, Julia. Disability, Society, and the Individual. 3d ed. Austin, TX: PRO-ED, 2016.

    Contains learning activities, discussion questions, and suggestions for further readings that make it a useful introduction for students. The first part includes explanations of the biomedical, environmental, functional, and sociopolitical models of disability. The second part focuses on societal discrimination, and the third focuses on individual responses and experiences of disability.

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