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Disability Theory

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Disability Theory

Richard III in Shakespeare's Richard III (1592–4), Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1592–4), Matt Murdock in Marvel's Daredevil (2015–)... We can find representations of disability and bodily differences in many of the books, poems, TV shows, films, and plays that we read and watch.

However, despite how common disability is in our society and culture, it has often been left out of literary studies conversations. Disability theory aims to change this.

This article will introduce you to the basics of disability theory, including its basis in the social model of disability and how you can use it to help you identify and think about representations of disability in literature.

Critical disability theory definition

Questions about identity and its relation to the world are central to literature classes and the discussions we have within them. Race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, and disability are just a few of the topics that you may have already come across.

When we read or watch a book, poem, play, or film that deals with one or more of these topics, we are prompted to think about our own identities and the identities of others. In literary studies, we use various theories to ask how and why identities are represented in certain ways and what this says about the complicated relationships between identity, society, and culture.

In addition to disability theory, some other theories that are used to discuss literature include postcolonial theory, critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and eco-criticism. Although they are separate theories, they are connected in many different ways.

Have you heard of any of these theories? Can you think of any ways in which they might be connected?

So, how do disability and critical disability theory come into this?

Critical disability theory: an academic and political theory that analyses and challenges traditional ideas about disability and ‘normal’ bodies.

Critical disability theory emerged from disability studies, a broad, interdisciplinary (involving many subjects) field that grew out of the disability rights movement during the second half of the twentieth century and aimed to challenge ableism.

Ableism: discrimination and prejudice against people with minds and bodies considered 'abnormal' by the dominant standards of a society.

The word ‘critical’ in critical disability theory relates to this political background. Because disability studies and the disability rights movement were influenced by other civil rights movements across the world, critical disability theory looks at disability in relation to other aspects of identity that may also be subject to social oppression, such as race, sexuality, and gender. For critical disability theorists, the dominant attitudes about race in a society, for example, are connected to how people and societies think about disability as well.

The medical and social model of disability theory

There are two main models of disability: the medical model and the social model. The disability rights movement and disability studies have been mainly driven by the latter. So, what are these models? And why do some people prefer one over the other?

Imagine the following scenario: there is an event happening in your area and an open invitation saying 'everyone welcome!' was published in the local newspaper. However, when you get to the event location, you realise you can't get to it as it's up a long flight of stairs and you broke your leg last week.

Disability Theory, a flight of stairs illustrating social barriers, StudySmarterStairs are inaccessible for many people, Pixabay.

How would you feel in this situation? Likely, you'd feel disappointed that you can't join in the event after all, and perhaps you'd also be annoyed about your leg being broken and that you can't get up the stairs. But who or what is mostly to blame for this inaccessibility and how can the problem be fixed?

The social model of disability and the medical model of disability are frameworks that address questions about disability and access in society such as these, and they present two very different answers to this question.1

The medical model of disability

As suggested by its name, the medical model of disability looks at questions of disability and access from a medical point of view.

According to the medical model, 'impairment' and 'disability' are the same thing: if someone's mind or body is impaired to the extent that they are unable to function in society to the same extent as non-impaired people, their impairment is also considered a disability. Preventing or curing the impairment is therefore prioritised by the medical model to improve the impaired person's access to society.

In the scenario in which you can't access an event because you can't get up the stairs with a broken leg, healing the broken leg as well and quickly as possible should be prioritised as a solution to the problem of inaccessibility from the medical model perspective.

The social model of disability was invented as a reaction against the medical model of disability. Can you think of any reasons why the medical model of disability could be criticised?

The social model of disability

In contrast to the medical model of disability, the social model of disability looks at questions of disability and access from a social point of view. It critiques the medical model of disability and put forwards that a person is more disabled by social barriers than their body.

Because of this, 'impairment' and 'disability' are not the same thing according to the social model of disability:

  • 'Impairment' refers to a personal bodily reality that affects the way that someone lives and interacts with the world around them, such as a visual impairment, chronic pain, or a broken leg.
  • 'Disability' refers to the social barriers that affect the way that someone with an impairment lives and interacts with the world around them, such as ableism and an environment that has been built by and for people without impairments.

For the social model of disability, the term 'disabled people' not only refers to people with impairments but also to a social minority group that faces social oppression and must fight for equal human rights.

In the scenario in which you can't access an event because you can't get up the stairs with a broken leg, social barriers, such as an inaccessible location being chosen for the event, are the problem that needs addressing from the social model perspective. Although you could complain to the event organisers and inform them about the inaccessibility of their event, fixing the problem is not so simple as it requires gradually changing the dominant attitudes towards disability and accessibility in society.

Pros and cons of the social model of disability

The social model of disability has been extremely influential within disability studies and the disability rights movement. The model gives activists a clear target to fight against (ableism in society) which is important for a political cause. By saying that inaccessibility is caused by society and not individuals' bodies, the model has also been effective in helping to build a positive sense of identity among disabled individuals and communities.

However, the social model has also been criticised, and some have argued that the social model:

  • Doesn't take other factors of oppression, such as race, into enough consideration.
  • Doesn't place enough focus on the medical perspectives of disability.
  • Doesn't represent people who feel disabled by both their bodies and society.
  • Places more focus on physically disabled people than mentally disabled people.

Critical disability theory has evolved to be self-reflective in order to address flaws such as these in disability studies and disability rights activism as well as to challenge ableism in society.

Disability theory in literature

It is not unusual to come across disabled characters when we are reading, and disability theory can be used to analyse how representations of disability in literature influence and are influenced by traditional ideas of disability and 'normal' bodies in society.

Many disability scholars believe that representations of disability in literature and other popular media rarely portray what life is actually like with a disability, and some argue that this has a negative impact on the real lives of disabled people.

For example, some famous disability scholars have argued that disability is often used as a plot device (something that increases interest and drives the plot forwards) by drawing attention to the differences between disability and what is considered 'normal' by society. This can be problematic as it reinforces ableist views that disability is 'abnormal' and can never be accepted as an ordinary presence in society.

Take the three examples from earlier in the article: Richard III in Shakespeare's Richard III, Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and Matt Murdock in Marvel's Daredevil:

  • Richard III's deformities are linked to his villainous character. We can see similar portrayals of disability as a marker of villainy in many other popular characters such as Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan (1953), Captain Ahab in Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), and Mad-Eye Moody in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997–2007).
  • Tiny Tim is another famous example of disability representation. Tiny Tim is described as being sickly and holding a crutch. His disabilities mark him out as an innocent and pitiful victim of poverty and the initially mean protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge. We can see similar portrayals of disability as a marker of victimhood, innocence and pitifulness in other characters such as Boo Radley in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).
  • Matt Murdock is a Marvel superhero. Following an accident as a child when he loses his sight, he gains superhuman senses. His superhuman abilities granted to him by his disability mark him out as a supercrip, which is a term invented by disability scholars to describe someone who 'overcomes' their disability, often by achieving inspirational superhuman feats. Forrest Gump in the film Forrest Gump (1994) is also portrayed as a supercrip.

Can you think of any other examples that use disability as a marker of villainy, victimhood, or inspiration? Why do you think such representations could have a negative impact on the real lives of disabled people?

Disability theory books

Here are some disability theory books that you can use as a stepping stone to begin looking at literature and other media from a disability studies perspective.

The Disability Studies Reader (1997–)

If you want to get a broad overview of disability studies, theory, and the kinds of things that disability scholars are exploring, The Disability Studies Reader is a great place to start. Edited by Lennard J Davis, each edition contains many different articles written by various scholars on a multitude of topics, and you are bound to find something that piques your interest.

Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2000)

In this famous disability theory text, David T Mitchell and Sharon L Snyder explain how disability has traditionally been used as a plot device in literature and bring in many examples to support their argument.

Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction (2018)

This disability theory text by Sami Schalk analyses speculative literature (a broad genre of narratives that go beyond what we know as reality) from a disability studies and Black feminist perspective. Schalk looks at how the bodymind (the body and the mind together) is portrayed and 'reimagined' in speculative fiction by Black women authors.

Disability Theory - Key takeaways

  • Critical disability theory is an academic and political theory that analyses and challenges traditional ideas of disability and ‘normal’ bodies.
  • The social model of disability and the medical model of disability are frameworks that address questions about disability and access in society.
  • While the medical model of disability argues that people are disabled by their individual impairments, the social model of disability argues that people with impairments are disabled by social barriers.
  • Some disability scholars say that disabled people are misrepresented in popular literature and that this can have negative effects on the lives of disabled people.
  • Lennard J Davis, Sami Schalk, David T Mitchell and Sharon Snyder are examples of famous disability studies scholars.

1 Tom Shakespeare. "The Social Model of Disability." The Disability Studies Reader. Edited by Lennard J Davis. Routledge. 2010. 266–73.

Frequently Asked Questions about Disability Theory

The social theory or the social model of disability looks at questions of disability and access from a social point of view. It critiques the medical model of disability and puts forwards that a person is more disabled by social barriers than their body.  

Critical disability theory is one popular theoretical perspective in disability studies. It is an academic and political theory that analyses and challenges traditional ideas of disability and ‘normal’ bodies.  

The purpose of critical disability theory is to analyse and challenge traditional ideas about disability and 'normal' bodies in an ableist society.

There are many models of disability. The two most well-known models of disability are the medical model of disability and the social model of disability. Other models of disability include the moral model and the affirmation model.

Final Disability Theory Quiz

Question

Critical disability theory and critical race theory are entirely separate.

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True

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The field of disability studies is...

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Political

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Question

What are the two main models of disability?

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The medical model of disability and the social model of disability. 

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Question

In the medical model of disability, 'disability' and 'impairment' are the same thing.

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False

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Question

In the social model of disability, 'disability' and 'impairment' are the same thing.

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True

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What is the medical model of disability?

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The medical model of disability focuses on disability as a medical condition. It says that a person is mainly disabled by their impairment.

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What is the social model of disability?

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The social model of disability focuses on disability as a social condition. It says that a person is not necessarily disabled by their impairment but by social barriers in an ableist society.

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What is ableism?

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Ableism is discrimination and prejudice against people with minds and bodies considered 'abnormal' by the dominant standards of a society. 

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Which of the following are reasons why some people prefer the social model of disability over the medical model of disability?

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The social model blames provides a clear target for achieving long-term social change.

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What are two criticisms of the social model of disability?

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Any two from the following:


  • It doesn't take other factors of oppression, such as race, into enough consideration.

  • It doesn't place enough focus on the medical perspectives of disability.

  • It doesn't represent people who feel disabled by both their bodies and society. 

  • It places more focus on physically disabled people than mentally disabled people.

Show question

Question

Some disability scholars argue that misrepresentations of disability in literature can have a negative impact on the real lives of disabled people.

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Answer

False

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Question

Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol presents disability as a marker of what?

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Answer

Villainy

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Which of these characters represents disability as a marker of being inspirational and superhuman?

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Answer

Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump

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The character Richard III in Shakespeare's Richard III presents disability as a marker of what?

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Villainy

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Question

Where does Rosemary Garland-Thompson live?

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San Francisco, California, USA

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True or false: Rosemary Garland-Thompson identifies as disabled from birth.

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True

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At what point did Rosemary Garland-Thompson fully understand what it meant to have a disabled identity?

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When she went to university and learnt about critical theory and the history of the Disability Rights Movement.

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What is critical theory?

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Critical theory is theory that aims to reflect on and critique society including its cultures, social norms, and structures, often with the goals of identifying and challenging sources of oppression.

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Fill the gap: The Disability Rights Movement is a political movement that aims to identify and challenge _____.

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Ableism

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What is ableism?

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Ableism is discrimination against disabled people.

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Later in her life, Rosemary Garland-Thompson received her second master's degree in which subject?

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Bioethics

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Rosemary Garland-Thompson has been employed as a professor of which subjects over the course of her career?

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Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

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Why did Rosemary Garland-Thompson want to get involved in the field of bioethics?

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Because she said 'it is healthcare as an institution where disability and disability policy and practice is generally carried out'.

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Rosemary Garland-Thompson was instrumental in the development of which branch of disability studies in the early 2000s?

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Feminist Disability Studies

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What is feminist disability studies?

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Feminist disability studies is a branch of disability studies that explores the lived experiences of being both disabled and a woman through a critical theory lens.

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True or false: in Extraordinary Bodies (1997), Rosemary Garland-Thompson explores disability as a medical phenomenon.

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False. She explores disability as a social and cultural phenomenon.

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True or false: in Extraordinary Bodies (1997), Rosemary Garland-Thompson relates the treatment of disabled bodies to the treatment of other bodies politicised for reasons including race.

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True

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Which of the following books did Rosemary Garland-Thompson write?

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Staring: How We Look  

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Why does Rosemary Garland-Thompson think freak shows were so popular in the UK and the US in the 19th century?

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Because freakshows made onlookers feel more normal and in control as they stared at the people on display.

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True or false: according to Rosemary Garland-Thompson, the history of freakshows continues to affect the way we think about disability and bodily differences today.

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True

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Freak shows were an especially popular form of entertainment during which century?

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18th century

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Does Rosemary Garland-Thompson think that staring is bad?

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Rosemary Garland-Thompson thinks that staring is a natural response that isn't necessarily bad.

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Why does Rosemary Garland-Thompson think that staring has the potential to be productive and progressive?

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Because when we stare we are forced to reconsider our expectations about who and what belongs in the public sphere.

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In 2016, Rosemary Garland-Thompson wrote a debut article for a new disability column in which famous US newspaper?

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Answer

The New York Times

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