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Issue 3
2001

 

Read the other book review in this issue:
The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity To Confrontation

 

 

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Becoming invisible

A review by Cal Montgomery.

Cal Montgomery is an activist, writer, and speaker focusing on disability issues.

A HISTORY OF DISABILITY, by Henri-Jacques Stiker. Translated by William Sayers. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 2000. Softcover, xiv + 239 pages, $19.95..

David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, currently at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are working to get challenging manuscripts from the disability studies field published. I have more than a few books from Corporealities: Discourses of Disability, the series they edit for the University of Michigan Press, on my shelf.


Read the review of The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity To Confrontation..


These aren't the sort of books one reads in a bubble bath or on a brief bus ride: they are written by academics in a particular tradition for other similarly trained academics. But -- so far, at least -- they've been worth some effort; they challenge me to stretch my understanding and to scrutinize my beliefs.

Henri-Jacques Stiker's A History of Disability is no exception. Stiker argues that the idea that we should all strive to be alike is what underlies our current understanding of disability, and he challenges that very idea.

A History of Disability is an English translation of the 1997 revised edition of Corps Infirmes et Societes, the original edition of which was published in 1982.

"The child is father of the man," William Wordsworth once said. We grow and change and have different experiences, but at least some seeds of who we are as adults are present in our childhoods. Today the line is often quoted to assert that if we wish to thoroughly understand an adult, we must look at who that person was as a child.

Stiker has written this study as history because he believes that just as we look for clues to human character in earlier developmental periods, so we look for clues to societal character in earlier historical periods. Ancient Hebrew society profoundly affected the Christian tradition; ancient Greek society profoundly affected the rational tradition; and both of these traditions -- and others -- continue to shape Western society today. There are breaks in how we have historically viewed disability, but the older worldviews continue to shape our present view, and so Stiker uses history to illuminate the present.

Because Stiker's present is Europe at the end of the 20th century, he provides a European history. (If you're more interested in looking beyond Western society than behind it, you might set Stiker's book aside and try Ingstad & Whyte's Disability and Culture instead.)

He looks at Jacob wrestling through the night, at Oedipus and his struggles, at the systems of charity in the Middle Ages, at the response to disabled veterans of World War I -- all in order to better understand what disability means today. He looks at religious and supernatural and moral and medical worldviews in order to better understand the distinction between normal and abnormal, pure and impure, healthy and unhealthy.

In particular, Stiker tracks ideas of sameness and difference through time; he gives a history of the idea that we ought to aspire to be the same -- and argues that that idea is so embedded in Western ideology today that we cannot question it. And then he considers, critically and in detail, the contemporary situation in light of that idea.

That we ought to aspire to be alike, to conform to one particular standard, according to Stiker, is so basic a tenet of contemporary Western faith, so deeply ingrained in us, that even in our attempts to celebrate diversity, we often work to suppress it. Therefore we have identified "disabled people" as people who are missing some necessary component of sameness, which society, through rehabilitation or prosthesis or even accommodation, must replace.

He argues that in contemporary Western society, people with disabilities are identified so as to be made invisible, are marked as different in the service of making us "just like everyone else." He argues that society's gaze is fixed on us so that it may use the technologies of rehabilitation to make us invisible. Even when we call for modifications to the buildings and practices that are identified as barriers, there is an expectation that we will use the ramps and interpreters to become invisible within the society whose barriers have initially made us stand out.

"For good or ill," he says, "the disabled were exceptions and stood for exceptionality, alterity; now that they have become ordinary, they have to be returned to ordinary life, to ordinary work.[R]ehabilitation marks the appearance of a culture that attempts to complete the act of identification, of making identical. This act will cause the disabled to disappear and with them all that is lacking, in order to drown them, dissolve them in the greater and single social whole." (p. 128)

That dissolution, Stiker believes, is undesirable. His challenge to those of us who are concerned with disability is to question our faith in the desirability of sameness and to challenge the dissolution that that faith requires.

No, it's not a bubble-bath book, but patience and perseverance do pay off.

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