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Backwards Bending Body Disability Essay Over

With the advent of the human genome, cloning, stem-cell research and many other developments in the way we think of the body, disability studies provides an entirely new way of thinking about the body in its relation to politics, the environment, the legal system, and global economies.

Bending Over Backwards reexamines issues concerning the relationship between disability and normality in the light of postmodern theory and political activism. Davis takes up homosexuality, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the legal system, the history of science and medicine, eugenics, and genetics. Throughout, he maintains that disability is the prime category of postmodernity because it redefines the body in relation to concepts of normalcy, which underlie the very foundations of democracy and humanistic ideas about the body.

Bending Over Backwards argues that disability can become the new prism through which postmodernity examines and defines itself, supplanting the categories of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.


  • "Lennard Davis is history in the making; for he is one of the foremost proponents of "disability studies," the newest theoretical kid on the block, noteworthy in part because it brings together scholars from the humanities and the medical sciences."

    —Stanley Fish, in Chicago Tribune

  • "Bending Over Backwards is a welcome dismemberment of all that was unknowingly artificial from the start."

    The Minnesota Review

  • ”[Its] uniqueness of thought is this collection’s strength as it makes for an interesting and proactive read.”

    American Journal of Occupational Therapy

  • "Davis's work offers creative and challenging examples that may be useful to our discipline and particularly to Disability historians. Bending Over Backwards remains an important and useful work for historians as a template for examining the myriad ways disability and Deafness infiltrate vital aspects of our identity, including laws, cultural icons, literature, and citizenship."

    H-Net Reviews

  • "Taken all together, the chapters offer an important, theoretically rich introduction to disability issues."


Despite its emergent field status, disability studies in the United States has been on the academic scene long enough to have developed its own critical conventions. One of these entails introducing the topic of disability by way of contrast: disability has been neglected as an identity category, while the concerns of other marginalized groups have been more scrupulously attended to.[1] Building upon this observation, the critics I will discuss in this essay have made groundbreaking political and theoretical interventions, insisting that disability must be understood as a social condition rather than an individual defect. Their claim that disability has received far less critical attention than race, gender, or sexuality is incontrovertible, and it is worth repeating. Nevertheless, the almost obligatory recitation of the charge calls for critical examination, especially insofar as it functions to prescribe, as a remedy, the installation of disability as another identity category. This recommendation is explicitly articulated by many prominent disability scholars, most of whom consider the central goals of disability studies to include forging a group identity. In Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, Simi Linton writes that disabled people have "solidified as a group" and that her "experience as a disabled subject" and her "alliance with the community" are "a source of identity, motivation, and information" (5). David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder lament that "critical parallels with other minoritized identities have been slow in coming" (2). And for Rosemarie Garland Thomson, people with disabilities are "political minorities" whose oppression consists in part of having been denied "subjectivity or agency" (6; 11). Even Lennard J. Davis, who sounds a death knell for identity politics in Bending Over Backwards, nonetheless predicts in this book that disabled people's membership in what he designates "the most marginalized group" will paradoxically facilitate the emergence of disability as a "neoidentity" (29; 26).

Identity, agency, and subjectivity: these are the familiar rallying cries of identity politics movements; yet they are somewhat dissonant in a postmodern era, which has seen a proliferation of theories undermining identity as a viable concept, as well as the formulation of an array of critiques of particular forms of identity-centered politics. Many disability scholars—even those who have insightfully drawn upon poststructuralist theories in their work—have greeted these developments with ambivalence or frustration. Constructivist challenges to identity, they have sometimes suggested, are academic luxuries that come at the cost of attention to the real lives of people with disabilities. Consider the following moments in some of the most important writing in disability studies. In Extraordinary Bodies, Thomson warns that, until civil rights protections for people with disabilities are firmly in place, "a disability politics cannot . . . afford to banish the category of disability according to the poststructuralist critique of identity" (23).[2] While Thomson's language suggests fiscal irresponsibility, Susan Wendell describes postmodernism in terms of moral failing, accusing its proponents of "cruel" indifference to "the hard physical realities that are faced by people with disabilities" (44-45). Similarly, Tobin Siebers suggests that "recent body theory has reproduced the most abhorrent prejudices of ableist society" (DT 741). At one point in Enforcing Normalcy, Davis figures poststructuralist theorization as selfish erotic indulgence; postmodernists, he suggests, ignore disability because it is not sexy. In the introduction to this book, Davis argues that the typical postmodern theorist, whom he dubs the "critic of jouissance," is enamored with visions of the body as "a site of jouissance, a native ground of pleasure." For this reason, Davis suggests, "the disabled body is a nightmare for the fashionable discourse of theory." Unable to confront the image of "the paraplegic, the disfigured, the mutilated, the deaf, the blind," the "critic of jouissance" turns instead "to the fluids of sexuality, the gloss of lubrication, the glossary of the body as text, the heteroglossia of the intertext, the glossolalia of the schizophrenic. But almost never to the body of the differently abled" (EN 5).

But only by—well, glossing over some salient aspects of postmodernist thinking can Davis sustain his argument that poststructuralism eschews images of disability. For one thing, as the forced quality of Davis's opposition between the "schizophrenic" and the "differently abled" suggests, poststructuralist theories of sexuality are often constructed with explicit reference to disability—e.g., psychosis—rather than on the basis of its erasure. Many postmodern accounts of sexuality would be unthinkable without terms that evoke associations with disability: aphasia, mutilation, castration, and blindness. Of course, what Davis may mean to suggest—and what he argues explicitly elsewhere—is that poststructuralism's predilection for using bodily difference as a metaphor has stood in the way of theorizing disability as a social condition.[3] And indeed, the frequent use of disability as a trope in postmodern theory is troubling for many reasons. For example, disability is alternately de-eroticized (e.g., blindness as castration) and hyper-eroticized (e.g., bodily difference as sexual transgression). However, as Davis recognizes, these problems are not unique to postmodernist thinking; disability scholars have demonstrated that inadequate or distorted treatment of disability is typical of a wide range of theoretical, cultural, and political discourses.

In fact, Davis's gloss of poststructuralism may depend in part upon an assumed antithesis between disability and sexuality. Davis's own quasi-glossolaliac wordplay contrasts sharply with his phrase, "the differently abled body," which concludes his sentence with a sobering ring. In this passage, an implied opposition between, on the one hand, "the fluids of sexuality," and, on the other hand, "the paraplegic, the disfigured, the mutilated, the deaf, the blind" allows Davis to read postmodern critics' fascination with the erotic as both evidence and explanation for a refusal to represent images of disability. This opposition is certainly not one that Davis would wish to uphold. In fact, throughout Enforcing Normalcy, Davis contests social constructions of disability as un-erotic. For example, following the performance artist Mary Duffy, he provocatively interprets the missing limbs of the Venus de Milo as "disabilities," in order to interrogate an aesthetics which celebrates the statue as "the ideal of Western beauty and eroticism," despite its missing limbs, while casting people whose bodies manifest similar visual differences as "physically repulsive, and certainly without erotic allure" (EN 127).[4] Indeed, much of Davis's work has strenuously resisted desexualized understandings of disability. However, in his critique of postmodern theory in Enforcing Normalcy, he may miss an opportunity to do this. Rather than objecting to an antithesis between "the fluids of sexuality" and "the differently abled body," Davis criticizes theorists who choose the former over the latter but implicitly leaves the opposition intact.

Certainly, Davis's thinking about postmodern theory, taken as a whole, is far more nuanced than the above passage suggests; however, his remarks suggest an ambivalence about poststructuralism, which Davis shares with many other disability scholars. In this essay, I seek to address this ambivalence. Challenging arguments against the application of postmodernist theories to disability studies, I hope to show instead that it is imperative for disability scholars to engage seriously with poststructuralist and other leftist critiques of identity politics. For example, Marxist claims that identity politics precludes class analysis may be essential to the formulation of a disability politics whose goals include social and economic equality for those disabled people who cannot work. Disability studies should also take seriously the Foucaultian argument that identity politics can inadvertently reinstall oppressive identities, such as "the disabled body" as less than fully sexual. And Judith Butler's arguments about identity politics, according to which identity is consolidated through the production of a constitutive outside, might fruitfully be employed to critique definitions of disability as visual bodily difference, rather than as illness or invisible impairment.[5] In addition, disability studies must contend with the possibility that excessive emphasis upon a given identity can impede coalitions with other political minorities.

By making these arguments, however, I do not mean to suggest that identity is irrelevant or that identity-centered analyses are invalid; nor do I wish to adjudicate between the competing claims of poststructuralism and identity politics. Although this essay emphasizes criticisms of identity politics, its arguments are nonetheless informed by analyses of race, gender, and sexuality in which both the benefits and the dangers of politicizing these identities are acknowledged.[6] In fact, poststructuralist destabilizations of identity can most easily be understood as progressive when they build upon work by theorists and activists working within an identity politics model. Outside of a context in which minoritized identities have been re-valorized, critical interrogations of these identities would be highly vulnerable to conservative misinterpretations and appropriations. Moreover, politicized identities may be indispensable to people with disabilities as we advocate for protection from discrimination. For these reasons, work that has facilitated the formation of positive disabled identities is enormously valuable. Indeed, I am indebted to each of the writers I discuss in this paper, as well as to the many other disability scholars and activists who have made it possible for me to understand my own position as a person with disabilities within a social and political context.

I do, however, wish to consider the implications of excessive or insufficiently critical reliance upon identity within the field of disability studies. To do so, I focus primarily upon work by Davis, Siebers, and Thomson—not because I consider these three writers to be especially representative of such a tendency, but because they have each made foundational contributions to disability studies. Davis's Enforcing Normalcy, published in 1995; Thomson's Extraordinary Bodies, published in 1997; and Siebers's numerous articles on disability are among the most influential works in the field. In addition, each of these writers has foregrounded questions about the relationship between disability studies and identity politics, articulating a wide range of views about this issue. This essay does not claim to take measure of the complexities of these writers' thinking about identity politics or postmodernism, or for the ways in which their ideas about these issues have evolved throughout each of their careers.[7] Instead, by examining those moments in their writing in which questions about identity are particularly vexed, I seek to take part in a dialogue about identity politics which they have initiated.

The "I" Word: "Narcissism," Individualization, and Identity Politics in Tobin Siebers

In his essay, "Tender Organs, Narcissism, and Identity Politics," Siebers frames controversies surrounding identity politics in terms of a conflict between, on the one hand, proponents of "black studies, women's studies, and now disability studies," and, on the other hand, a set of conservative critics best represented by a list that includes Camille Paglia, William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, and Allan Bloom (TO 41; 54). According to Siebers, all political movements are grounded in identity claims: "identity politics is no different from any other form of political representation," since "politics always implies the existence of a coalition whose membership is defined by ideological, historical, geographical, or temporal borders." Siebers contends that "the objection that identity politics differs from other forms of politics . . . only carries negative connotations because suffering has been linked so successfully to narcissism." Furthermore, he claims, the association between identity politics and narcissism is itself ableist because "the psychological character attributed to people with disabilities and narcissists are more often than not one and the same" (TO 42-43).

These arguments build upon Siebers's rich and complex theory of narcissism, which is explicated most fully in The Mirror of Medusa (1983), a literary-anthropological study of superstition. In this book, Siebers defines narcissism as a superstition. He argues that the accusation of narcissism attributes excessive autonomy, agency, and even supernatural powers to certain individuals, who are then imagined to desire the social exclusion that their community imposes upon them. In his 2000 introduction to The Mirror of Medusa, Siebers accurately describes his book as part of the "prehistory" of disability studies, in part because it calls attention to the frequency with which people with disabilities are characterized as narcissistic. As Siebers notes in both his essay and his book, Freud explicated the concept of narcissism by describing a person in bodily pain (MM 21; TO 43).

Siebers's arguments in "Tender Organs" are illuminating and interesting. He may, however, overstate his claim when he suggests that accusations of narcissism are inevitably informed by ableism. For one thing, Freud explicitly associates narcissism not only with physical illness, but with femininity and homosexuality as well (546; 554-55). Moreover, the "accusatory logic" of narcissism that Siebers unmasks in The Mirror of Medusa has been mobilized, not only against proponents of identity politics, but also against its critics, whose deconstructions of identity have frequently been dismissed as "mental masturbation" (MM 115).[8] Siebers's argument is also limited by its conflation of identity politics and other politically progressive movements; although absolute distinctions are impossible, there are clearly important differences between politics grounded in shared ideological commitments—such as antiwar, health-care reform, environmental, or socialist movements—and movements designed to secure rights for a group that has in common a given identity. And, most important, Siebers does not address Marxist critiques of identity politics that employ the concept of narcissism in ways that cannot be dismissed as ableism or callousness to others' suffering.

Treating disagreements about identity politics in terms of a divide between conservatives and progressives, Siebers ignores the ongoing arguments about this topic within the Left. For example, Wendy Brown suggests that "identity politics is partly dependent upon the demise of a critique of capitalism" (59). Thus, while disability scholars and activists are right to insist upon employment accommodations, a more radical analysis would also contest an economic system in which resources are distributed on the basis of the amount and type of work that one does. Only a sustained class analysis can address the reality that, in a capitalist economy, many people with disabilities—as well as some nondisabled people—will never be able to work enough to rise above poverty level, regardless of what workplace accommodations they secure.[9]

The limitations of identity politics as a means of social transformation are addressed in Marx's essay, "On the Jewish Question," which is also concerned with the relationship between capitalism and the rights claims of a minoritized group—European Jews seeking civil rights, or "political emancipation."[10] "Political emancipation," Marx writes, "certainly represents a great progress. It is not, indeed, the final form of human emancipation, but it is the final form of human emancipation within the framework of the prevailing social order" (35). Civil rights are limited, according to Marx, because they do not "go beyond egoistic man, man as he is, as a member of civil society; that is, an individual separated from the community, withdrawn into himself, wholly preoccupied with his private interest" (43). A parallel might be drawn between Marx's "egoistic man" and the figure of the narcissist as described by Siebers; narcissists, according to Siebers, are accused of "social withdrawal," or "turn[ing] away from society in favor of self-gratification" (TO 40).[11] But whereas Siebers argues that an accusation of narcissism "isolates one member of the community as completely different from everyone else," Marx employs the concept of egoism in a radically different way (TO 48). This can be seen in his discussion of Bruno Bauer's analysis of "the Jewish question," which Marx adduces at the beginning of his article. Bauer accuses the European Jews of egoism, charging them with prioritizing their own liberation over universal human emancipation: "you Jews are egoists if you demand for yourselves, as Jews, a special emancipation. You should work . . . as men, for the emancipation of mankind" (26; emphasis in the original). Bauer's characterization of the Jews as "egoists" functions in much the same way that Siebers claims accusations of narcissism do; that is, Bauer's charge is "designed to isolate the one from the many" (MM 167). Marx, however, rejects Bauer's analysis, emphasizing that "religious narrowness" is by no means confined to Jewish people; the state, and by extension, its citizens, whether Christian, Jewish, or atheist, are tacitly religious, he argues. This is because the bourgeois subject's freedom is merely theoretical, abstracted from the constrained conditions of his material life, much as the Christian believer's spiritual elevation depends upon his material debasement. Marx thus uses a concept similar to narcissism to highlight limitations of what might today be called identity politics; but he does so in a way that is distinctly different from the phenomenon Siebers describes. Rather than isolating one individual or group by describing it as narcissistic, Marx defines all of civil life in modern society as egoistic.

When the diagnosis of narcissism "isolates one member of a community as completely different from everyone else," Siebers argues, this segregation is itself a means of oppression. For this reason, he describes characterizations of people with disabilities as narcissistic as forms of "violent hyperindividualization" (TO 48). Medical approaches to disability exemplify the ways in which individualization can be used to oppress, Siebers argues: "the medical model situates disability exclusively in individual bodies . . ., isolating the patient as diseased or defective" (DT 738). Siebers's description of medicine as an individualizing institution is cogent and persuasive.[12] It is also highly resonant of Michel Foucault's positing of individualization as the paradigmatic form of social control in modern societies—in particular, his contention that, within a disciplinary system, "the patient" is more "individualized" than "the healthy man" (DP 193). Yet, as noted earlier, Siebers is highly critical of recent body theory that draws upon Foucault, suggesting that it reinscribes "the most abhorrent prejudices of ableist society" (DT 741). Siebers derives his characterization of Foucaultian theory as ableist from his reading of the passage that opens the "Docile bodies" chapter of Discipline and Punish. Foucault contrasts the early seventeenth-century ideal of the soldier with its modern incarnation, claiming that a "rhetoric of honour," "strength," and "courage" gave way to representations of the soldier as machinelike and malleable, the effect of training rather than a manifestation of natural strength (135). In Siebers's account of Foucault, the docile body, because it lacks the "health and vigor of the premodern soldier," can be understood as the disabled body: "docility begins to resemble disability, and it is not meant as a term of celebration. The docile body is a bad invention." But the connection Siebers posits between docility and disability is tenuous at best. In fact, disabled bodies might better be understood as insufficiently docile than as excessively so. The docile body is the locus of extraordinary physical control: "a calculated constraint runs slowly through each part of the body, mastering it. . . . Recruits become accustomed to 'holding their heads high and erect; to standing upright, without bending the back'" (135). Against this modern ideal of postural uprightness and bodily restraint and mastery, many disabled bodies can appear defective.

Siebers not only oversimplifies by equating disabled bodies with docile ones, he also misreads the contrast Foucault draws between the two soldiers as an uncomplicated privileging of the feudal over the modern model of military fitness. According to Siebers, Foucault's contrast "could not be more strident"; his account is a "not-so-subtle retelling of the Fall," in which "well-being and ability are sacrificed" and "health and naturalness disappear" (DT 740). But Foucault's description of the docile body cannot plausibly be read as an endorsement of a return to a feudalistic model of military valor. This is clear, first of all, in the language Foucault uses in the passage cited by Siebers. According to Siebers, "Foucault uses natural metaphors to describe the health and vigor of the premodern soldier" (DT 741). But Foucault describes the premodern soldier's ostensibly "natural" strength and honor in terms more suggestive of a discursive than an ontological origin: according to a "rhetoric of honour," the soldier "bore certain signs: the natural signs of his strength" (135; emphasis added).[13] More importantly, the contrast between the feudal ideal and the docile body must be understood in the context of Foucault's larger argument in Discipline and Punish. Foucault's documentation of a shift from sovereign to disciplinary regimes is by no means a call for a return to the earlier model of power. By criticizing the modern penal system, he clearly does not advocate the reinstitution of torture; by the same token, his critique of the disciplinary production of docile bodies does not imply a wish to revive feudal military ideals.[14]

Siebers's reservations about Foucault have important implications for his own arguments about identity politics. A Foucaultian analysis of identity might take Siebers's observation that individualization is a form of subjection a step further, noting that identity categories are themselves the effects of such processes. If, as Foucault claims, "species" such as "the homosexual" or "the delinquent"—or, disability scholars might add, "the handicapped person"—do not exist outside of power, but are instead produced by disciplinary regimes, then to center a political theory on any of these categories—or on variations of them such as "the disabled person," "the lesbian," or "the queer"—is to risk reifying them. This danger becomes evident when Siebers chastises postmodern theorists for their putative preoccupation with pleasure. Like Davis, Siebers formulates a critique of postmodernism that appears to depend in part upon an opposition between disability and sexuality: "Many social constructionists assume that it is extremely difficult to see through the repressive apparatus of modern society to any given body, but when they do manage to spot one, it is rarely disabled. It is usually a body that feels good and looks good—a body on the brink of discovering new kinds of pleasure, new uses for itself, and more and more power" (DT 742). The language in this passage, like that which Davis employs in his critique of "the fashionable discourse of theory," has the effect of reinscribing an opposition between disability and sexuality; that is, between the disabled body and "a body that feels good and looks good" (EN 5; DT 742). This discursive construction of people with disabilities is naturalized when Siebers asserts that the "human ego does not easily accept the disabled body. It prefers pleasure" (DT 742). Such a formulation contributes to an individualization of disability similar to that which Siebers persuasively protests at other moments: ironically, Siebers's construction of the disabled person resembles Freud's description of the narcissistic—"so long as he suffers, he ceases to love" (551).

As with Davis, Siebers is not actually arguing for a de-eroticized definition of disability. Rather, it seems clear that the purpose of Siebers's contrast between "the disabled body" and "pleasure" is to highlight the physical pain and the social disempowerment that many people with disabilities face. These realities are important to emphasize, and by doing so, Siebers takes on an important challenge facing disability scholars: the need to theorize bodily pain. It seems equally important, however, to insist that disabled bodies can also be sites of pleasure and power. The passage cited above may risk reifying the figure of "the disabled body" as powerless and asexual; in this way, it illustrates the danger that identity-centered analyses can unintentionally naturalize constructions that might better be contested.

Siebers's endorsement of consciousness-raising and his emphasis upon the importance of individual experience also conflict with his more Foucaultian claim that the individualization of disabled people contributes to their oppression. The Foucaultian account of subject formation, according to which the "individual is an effect of power," poses a challenge to the claims of identity politics, which grant a privileged epistemological status to individual experience (TL 98). As Siebers puts it, "representing the individual experiences of unique human kinds is clearly the goal of black studies, women's studies, and disability studies" (TO 6). Personal experience also authorizes Siebers's rejection of Donna Haraway's theory of the cyborg: "I know the truth about the myth of the cyborg, about how able-bodied people try to represent disability as a marvelous advantage, because I am a cyborg myself," he writes (DT 746). While I share Siebers's impulse to resist romanticizing depictions of disability, it nonetheless seems important to note that such romanticization is not exclusively the domain of "able-bodied people." The strategy of representing "disability as a marvelous advantage" is also employed by disability scholars such as Thomson, who identifies herself as disabled and embraces Haraway's cyborg as "the affirmed survivor of cultural otherness, ready to engage the postmodern world on its own terms" (114). And ironically, Siebers himself attributes to disability a marvelous cognitive advantage when he claims, "I know the truth . . . because I am a cyborg myself." Claiming that people with disabilities have privileged access to knowledge may have the potential to subvert assumptions that we need others' advice and intervention. But by over-emphasizing our difference, the strategy risks contributing to our excessive individualization, a process which Siebers accurately identifies as a primary means of our oppression.

In addition, the confessional aspects of Siebers's writing also potentially undermine his critique of social constructions of disability as individual and personal. Siebers acknowledges the potentially depoliticizing aspects of personal narrative, but he hopes that personal narratives by people with disabilities will enable "people without disabilities to recognize our reality and theirs as a common one"; this is necessary, he believes, in order for us to gain political recognition (TO 51). Siebers's point is well taken, and his own work demonstrates that personal narrative can be an invaluable component of a political analysis of disability.[15] Yet Foucault's insistence upon the ways in which subjects are "condemned to confess" is also worth considering in relation to disability. The requirement that people with invisible or undiagnosed disabilities routinely provide first-person narratives—explain "what happened," describe "what's wrong" with them, justify their requests for accommodations when they "look fine"—exemplifies a process by which the demand to "speak the truth" contributes to the medicalization of individuals. Moreover, institutional conferral of the identity of "disabled person" often mandates the production of a narrative; many applicants for disability benefits are required to describe in detail their symptoms, daily activities, and medical histories.

Identity politics movements also often demand the authentication of one's identity. Consider, for example, Siebers's assertion that "every person with a disability can recount . . . stories" in which disabled bodies "become sources of fear and fascination for able-bodied people, who cannot bear to look at the unruly sight before them but also cannot bear not to look" (DT 746). As I will discuss later, this claim illustrates Butler's argument that the consolidation of identity necessarily operates by a process of exclusion (22). One can assume that Siebers does not mean to suggest that people with unseen impairments are not disabled; but his statement nonetheless implies that only those whose disabilities are visible belong to the group comprising "every person with a disability" (DT 746). The idea that all disabled people can relate similar stories might also be considered in the context of Janet E. Halley's critique of identity politics. Halley suggests that Althusserian interpellation can be instituted, not only by a state apparatus, but also "from within resistant social movements" (44). To support this argument, she draws upon K. Anthony Appiah, who observes: "Demanding respect for people as blacks and as gays requires that there are some scripts that go with being an African-American or having same-sex desires. There will be proper ways of being black and gay, there will be expectations to be met, demands to be made."[16]Indeed, one of the dangers of identity politics is its coercive potential. As Siebers's use of an identity politics model of disability illustrates, coercion can take the form of a requirement to produce certain kinds of stories in order to be identified as disabled; it can also operate through the entrenchment of de-sexualizing and disempowering definitions of disability.

A Difficult Position: Lennard Davis's "Dismodernism"

At first glance, Davis's position on the question of identity politics seems to be the polar opposite of Siebers's. "I think it would be a major error for disability scholars and advocates to define the category [of disability] in the by-now very problematic and depleted guise of one among many identities," Davis argues in Bending Over Backwards (23). This statement reflects a shift that has occurred in Davis's perspective on this issue: Bending Over Backwards, published in 2002, contains an extended critique of identity politics, while Enforcing Normalcy, published in 1995, does not. However, in both books, Davis is critical of postmodernism. Moreover, his stated reluctance, in Bending Over Backwards, to engage in identity politics is complicated by his reliance upon identity as an organizing concept in both this book and his earlier work. For example, he bases his "claim of authority to write" Enforcing Normalcy in part upon his status as a "CODA (Child of Deaf Adults)": "I consider myself somewhat Deaf. If I were a black person, I suppose that might be the equivalent of having biracial parents" (xvii; xix). And in Bending Over Backwards, Davis approvingly cites Brown's critique of identity politics' construction of a "wounded identity" but notes of himself: "Although I have generally 'passed' in a world of largely middle- and upper middle-class academics, I still bear the hidden injuries of class" (29-30; 98; 103). Davis acknowledges that his position on identity politics sometimes manifests "incoherence"; he attributes contradictions within his work to his "slow realization" that "the concept of identity, which served us well for the past twenty years, has been played out" (BOB 5). Because Davis himself acknowledges these contradictions, my identification of them does not, in itself, constitute a critique. Rather, I hope to tease out the implications of Davis's ambivalence about identity politics in order to suggest ways for disability studies to more fully incorporate what I believe are potentially liberatory aspects of postmodernist theories.

The most salient and persistent contradiction in Davis's work arises from his simultaneous rejection of both identity politics and postmodernism. In the same essay in which he predicts the end of identity politics, Davis announces that postmodernism is also "outdated" (BOB 30). According to Davis, postmodernist thinkers have yet to theorize a "partial, incomplete subject"; still working within the confines of a "humanistic model," they are unable to move beyond the "hypostatization of the normal (that is, dominant) subject." In other words, Davis charges poststructuralist theorists with doing exactly what they claim not to do. As evidence for his claim, Davis cites Foucault as "our best example" of the means by which the "postmodern subject is a ruse to disguise the hegemony of normalcy." Following Edward Said, Davis characterizes Foucault's work as "a homage to power, not an undermining of it." The idea that Foucault may, to a certain extent, fetishize the power he means to subvert deserves consideration, and Davis usefully registers the frequently made criticism that the totalizing aspects of Foucault's paradigm limit possibilities of resistance. But Davis oversimplifies when he claims that "for Foucault the state is power and citizens are docile bodies" and describes Foucault's model as "a fantasy of utter power and utter subjection" (BOB 31). In fact, Foucault is noteworthy for his critique of the state-as-power formula and for his efforts to complicate theories of power as a "solid and global" form of "domination" (DP 215; TL 96).

Davis's dismissal of Foucault is particularly puzzling given his own very convincing documentation of the role that normalizing discourses have played in constructing disability. According to Davis, the medical accounts of disability he discusses in Enforcing Normalcy have "constituted a discourse as controlling as any described by Michel Foucault" (EN 2). Indeed, in Davis's analyses in both this book and Bending Over Backwards, normalization as a form of social control is as far-reaching and ominous as it ever appears in Foucault. For Davis, Marx's concept of "abstract labor," Nazi eugenicist propaganda, and modern-day American medical definitions of a "normal" blood sugar level can all be shown to participate in the project of enforcing normalcy (EN 29; 38; BOB 115-16). "The Nazis," Davis explains, "were only the most visible (and reviled) tip of the iceberg that continues quite effectively to drive humans into daily frenzies of consuming, reading, viewing, exercising, testing, dieting" (BOB 39).

Ironically, Davis's tendency toward exaggeration may make him vulnerable to the same charge he levels at Foucault; his paradigm, which makes little distinction between an insulin prescription and a gas chamber, might itself be read as a "fantasy of utter power and utter subjection." If Foucault's model is to be rejected on these grounds, should we reject Davis's Foucaultian arguments as similarly "outdated"? Contradictions like these make Davis's "dismodernism" a difficult position to maintain indeed; he seems at times to be bending over backwards to distance himself from almost every major late twentieth-century theoretical or political movement. Davis criticizes not only postmodernism and identity politics, but also certain aspects of Marxism. For example, he argues that Marx's descriptions of the "average worker" in Das Kapital are evidence of his complicity with "the movement of normalizing the body and the individual" (EN 28-29). But Marx is hardly approving of the abstraction of actual workers' labor into averages; his discussion of the "average worker" is part of a scathing critique of the capitalist economy that depends upon this concept. Even more problematic is Davis's equation of economic equality with normalization: "Marxist thought encourages us toward an enforcing of normalcy in the sense that deviations in society, in terms of the distribution of wealth for example, must be minimized," Davis argues (EN 29). This definition of "enforcing normalcy" is so all-encompassing that it conflates calls for social justice with demands that bodies conform to arbitrary models of normal function and appearance. These claims are particularly noteworthy because much of Davis's work is deeply informed by Marxist thinking. For example, he points to the high prevalence of poverty among people with disabilities (BOB 28). And in his memoir, My Sense of Silence, he writes movingly of the intersections of disability and class in his own life as the son of deaf and working-class parents.[17] But at other moments in Davis's writing, a more identity-centered framework—in which people with disabilities are differentiated from members of other oppressed groups—seems to prevail over Marxist analysis. Consider, for example, his remarks about the eugenicist movement: "The problem for people with disabilities was that eugenicists tended to group together . . . criminals, the poor, and people with disabilities" (EN 35). In this passage, rather than contesting economic stratification, Davis seems to object simply to the association of people with disabilities with the lower classes.

Furthermore, it is not clear that the concept of dismodernism transcends either postmodernism or identity politics in the ways that Davis suggests it does. According to Davis, dismodernism's focus upon caring about bodies distinguishes it from both identity politics and poststructuralism. He contrasts a "dismodernist" caring "about the body" with the medical imperative to "care for the body," and with the "care of the body" encouraged by the makers of "deodorant, hair gel, sanitary products, lotions, perfumes, shaving creams, toothpastes, and so on" (BOB 27-29). Yet these concerns are not new, dismodernist interventions; in fact, Davis's suspicion of medical institutions, as well as his identification of "care of the self" as a form of subjection, are quintessentially Foucaultian. The other defining feature of dismodernism is its understanding of the subject as disabled, or less than whole (BOB 30). This is potentially the basis for a subversive theory of subjectivity, which disability studies might benefit greatly from utilizing. But rather than transcending either poststructuralism or identity politics, this aspect of dismodernism productively draws upon elements of each, applying a politicized disabled identity to postmodern deconstructions of the subject.

Because Davis downplays the ways in which his ideas are influenced by both identity politics and postmodernism, he is not always able to fully work through their sometimes conflicting implications in his arguments. The consequences of Davis's ambivalence about postmodernism can be seen in his efforts, in Enforcing Normalcy, to contest representations of sign language as less natural than speech. In place of poststructuralist linguistic theories, Davis relies upon a biological model of language. Following Steven Pinker, he asserts that "thought and grammar are human instincts," not particularly dependent on language; grammar, he suggests, is "built into our brains" (EN 19). He argues that because the process of signing is controlled by "the language areas in the brain called Broca's Region," there is "a somatic connection between language and signing" (EN 18).

The use of a biological model may be effective for claiming that "speech is no better or worse than sign"; however, it may also contribute to the perception that many people with other disabilities are less than natural (EN 19). Davis's easy invocation of "our brains" defines "us" as those whose brains effectively process speech; he thus naturalizes certain kinds of ability, casting people with aphasia, autism, and other cognitive impairments as less natural than those who can sign, speak, and process language. This problem is intensified when Davis describes sign language using concepts which have been undermined by the "fashionable discourse of theory" that he criticizes: truth, nature, immanence, and bodily presence (EN 5). According to Davis, sign language expresses "a connection with the body"; it is "more closely associated with a certain kind of truth of being" (EN 20). Sign language is "more immanent"; it "indicates directly by embodying, literally, the narrative" (EN 20). The implications of these claims are clearly problematic for the many people with disabilities whose communication is necessarily indirect, mediated by voice synthesis technology and other forms of assistive technology.

A more useful way of making the claim that speech is no better or worse than sign might involve considering the basis upon which speech is granted the status of privileged medium of communication, as described by Jacques Derrida. Derrida undermines the Western privileging of speech over writing, not by claiming for writing an immanence or presence, as Davis does for sign language, but by highlighting the mediated and substitutive qualities of all signifying systems (141-57). Poststructuralist linguistic theories might therefore be mobilized to subvert oppressive constructions of speech as inherently superior to sign, without relying upon a biological model that naturalizes certain forms of ability.[18]

The installation of hierarchies within a given identity group is related to another danger, which is that identity politics can impede coalition-building with other political minorities. Davis writes thoughtfully about this problem in Bending Over Backwards. He observes that "to truly acknowledge the existence of another identity dilutes the general category of identity, and to prioritize identities places some identities further down the line of significance" (BOB 101). Yet sometimes Davis himself seems to inadvertently perpetuate this dynamic. Even when he is pointing to the limitations of identity politics, he envisions a theory that will allow disability to triumph over other identities. "Rather than ignore the unstable nature of disability," Davis argues, "we should amplify that quality to distinguish it from other identity groups that have . . . reached the limits of their own projects" (BOB 26). While "instability spells the end of many identity groups," he predicts, it can lead to the formation of "disability as a neoidentity" (BOB 26). Therefore, Davis announces, "The survival of literary studies may well belong not to the fittest, but to the lame, the halt, and the blind, who themselves may turn out to be the fittest of all" (BOB 46).

The danger that identity politics can foster antagonism among minority groups is especially apparent when Davis uses what Halley has called "'like race' arguments." When Davis argues for an understanding of disability as a minority identity, he frequently compares it to race.[19] As Halley observes, such arguments are often strategically necessary. Nonetheless, she notes several problems with their application to gay and lesbian political advocacy, one of the most significant of which is their potential to foster competition among minority groups (58-60). Davis makes an important point when he objects to arguments by people of color who do not wish race to be associated with the stigma of disability (BOB 36-37). But it is also true that some of his arguments about race may risk constructing barriers and creating tensions between people with disabilities and people of color. This problem is apparent in Davis's frequent assertions that people with disabilities receive less academic attention than racial minorities. According to Davis, students pore "over the subject of race in their textbooks," while schools and the media "utterly ignore the history of disability" (BOB 147-148). He predicts that perhaps "critics of the future will be astounded, puzzled, and disturbed that works by scholars like Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, and others managed to steer so completely away from any discussion of disability" (BOB 88).

Davis is certainly justified in arguing for more critical attention to disability. However, his contrasts between disability and "other more high-profile identities" sometimes seem indicative of the ways in which advocacy for a minoritized identity can lead to what Brown calls "a politics of recrimination and rancor" (BOB 87; Brown 55). The problems that arise from Davis's comparisons between disability and race, as well as his implicit privileging of deafness over many other forms of disability, all occur at those moments in his arguments in which he uses identity as an organizing principle. In pointing to these occasional moments within Davis's work, my intention is not to find fault; on the contrary, I highlight them in order to lend further support to the critiques of identity politics that he formulates in Bending Over Backwards. Davis's insights in this book point the way toward a more inclusive and emancipatory disability politics. Such a politics might, without abandoning the project of identifying disability as a political concern, also consider the merits of disabling identity as a foundational concept.

From Pathology to Identity: Identity Politics As Exclusion in Rosemarie Garland Thomson

While Davis's vexed relationship to identity politics can be read in his efforts to dissociate himself from both identity politics and postmodern critiques of identity, Thomson's ambivalence is manifested in her attempt to practice identity politics and poststructuralism at once. In Extraordinary Bodies, Thomson claims that "the contemporary theory most suited to examining disability fuses identity politics with the poststructuralist interrogation of identity" (30). It is hard to imagine how one might fuse identity politics with a theoretical approach that emerged in part as a critique of identity. And in fact, rather than "strategically employing both constructionism and strategic essentialism," Thomson strongly favors identity politics over poststructuralism (23). She does not, as she claims, interrogate identity; on the contrary, she is deeply invested in constructing the identity of the disabled person as an object of visual difference. In doing so, Thomson has made a crucial contribution to the field of disability studies, undermining dominant conceptions of disability as deviance or defect. Yet Thomson's model of disability nonetheless exemplifies another limitation of identity politics: the consolidation of identity often occurs through a process of exclusion.[20] In Thomson's argument, the disabled body is empowered by means of a contrast with the pathological or weakened body, which is excluded from her definition of disability.

Thomson's indecision about how to situate her argument in relation to identity politics and postmodernism is evident in her reference to Eve Sedgwick. Citing Sedgwick's distinction between minoritizing and universalizing conceptions of homosexuality, Thomson argues that disability studies "should become a universalizing discourse in the way that Sedgwick imagines gay studies and feminism to be" (22). In fact, however, Sedgwick does not privilege universalizing models of homosexual or heterosexual identity over minoritizing ones. Rather, she repeatedly urges against adjudicating between these two positions.[21] Moreover, Thomson does not herself forward a universalizing understanding of disability. Instead, she describes people with disabilities as "political minorities" and figures disability as "a form of ethnicity" (6).[22]

Thomson's use of Foucault also manifests signs of ambivalence. Thomson claims to enlist "Foucault's ideas on particularity and identity" to theorize disability (16). But rather than treating the individual as an effect of power, Thomson emphasizes individual empowerment, embracing a "post-civil rights impulse toward positive-identity politics" (137). Moreover, Thomson's readings of disability in literature show little, if any, Foucaultian influence. Rather than wondering, "What is an author?" Thomson seems to derive many of her conclusions by answering the question, "Who is the author?" In contrast to freak shows, or to nineteenth-century reform novels by white women, novels by twentieth-century African-American women are described by Thomson as unproblematically "liberatory" (18).[23]

The most troubling aspect of Thomson's use of identity politics is her definition of disability as visible physical difference. Extraordinary Bodies locates "the disabled people of the later twentieth-century" at the end of a historical trajectory that begins with "the wondrous monsters of antiquity" and moves to "the fascinating freaks of the nineteenth-century" (58). Undoubtedly, many of the people who appeared in nineteenth-century freak shows might today be described as disabled. But other nineteenth-century constructions that have little to do with visual bodily difference—such as the hysteric or the invalid—are also important to consider in a history of disability. Thomson, however, tends to equate disability with visible difference. She writes that "the disabled body is a spectacle . . . in a complex relation between seer and seen" (136). In literature, she claims, disability "functions only as a visual difference"; and throughout history, female "deviance" is "always attributed to some visible characteristic" (10-11; 28; emphasis added)

I do not mean to suggest that Thomson would deny that many people with invisible impairments are disabled; on the contrary, like each of the critics I discuss in this essay, Thomson is committed to combating oppression of people with all forms of disability. In fact, early in the first chapter of her book, she provides a definition of disability that includes a number of non-visible impairments (13). Yet Thomson does not explain in Extraordinary Bodies how her definition of disability as a visual spectacle might be reconciled with her recognition of arthritis as a disability, or with the ADA's inclusion of conditions such as carpal tunnel syndrome, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, hypertension, and chronic back pain under the category of disability.[24] Thomson's unintentional elision of invisible disability has potentially serious political repercussions; people with unseen disabilities are often objects of suspicion and disbelief.[25]

Thomson's narrow definition of disability does not result from a wish to exclude, but rather from the use of an identity politics model. Critics of identity politics point out that the construction of identity is an inevitably exclusionary process; one defines who one is in part by saying what one is not, thus producing what Butler has called a "constitutive outside" (xi). In Extraordinary Bodies, this constitutive outside might be understood as disease. Thomson's construction of a positive disabled identity is facilitated by her emphatic disassociation of disability from disease. She seeks "to recast [disability] from a form of pathology to a form of ethnicity" (6). The title of her conclusion—"From Pathology to Identity"—repeats the call for such a transition in understanding disability.

I certainly agree with Thomson's objection to a "medical model," according to which "any somatic trait that falls short of the idealized norm must be corrected or eliminated" (79). It may be an error, however, to direct a critique of the medical model at the pathologization of disability per se, instead of at punitive social attitudes toward pathology. Certainly, it is true that many forms of disability have been inappropriately medicalized. Many members of the Deaf community, for example, prefer to think of themselves as belonging to a linguistic minority, and people with a variety of physical anomalies have rightly resisted definitions of their bodies as diseased. But it is also true that many forms of disability are, in fact, illnesses. If impairments such as AIDS, cancer, or diabetes are recognized as disabilities, Thomson's injunction to "elaborate an identity that . . . celebrates physical difference" clearly needs to be modified (18).

The implications of Thomson's elision of illness and invisible impairments become apparent when she mentions "hysteria" in passing. Diagnoses of hysteria, nervous illness, hypochondria, and psychosomatism continue to be used to discredit people with a variety of unseen or difficult to document impairments, including early-stage multiple sclerosis and lupus, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and fibromyalgia. The claim that these disorders are psychological in origin is often used to justify decisions to deny benefits and workplace accommodations and to neglect research for possible medical treatments.[26] Thomson invokes the concept of hysteria when she writes that women's anxieties about social and economic changes "may have contributed to the periodic breakdowns, nervo us disorders, and chronic bouts of ill health" from which certain nineteenth-century novelists suffered (93). Because Thomson assumes that so-called "nervous illnesses" result from excessive femininity rather than organic causes, she considers the coexistence of feminism and undiagnosed chronic illness to be "schizoid" (93). Thomson's suggestion that feminism and subjective physical symptoms are contradictory, coupled with her use of the word "schizoid" to signify inconsistency or indecisiveness, function to establish pathology—mental illness and chronic physical illness—as the outside against which disability can be identified as "strong," "worthy," and "powerful" (119; 103; 104; 107).


The abjection of illness is one of many dangers of an identity-based understanding of disability. As I have argued, the use of identity politics within the field of disability studies also sometimes has the effect of discouraging class analysis, reifying identity categories that might better be contested, creating hierarchies of disability, and fostering antagonism with other minority groups. Paradoxically, the construction of disability as a minority identity is often impelled by the desire to gain recognition for disability as a concept of universal importance: Siebers, Davis, Thomson, and other disability scholars have called attention to the marginalization of disability within academic conversations and then argued powerfully for its inclusion within these conversations. Following their example, we must continue to foreground academic inattention to disability. At the same time, we must insist upon the relevance of disability to a wide range of contemporary theoretical and political discussions; and to do so means to acknowledge, conversely, the relevance of these discussions to disability studies.


  1. For advice, support, and insightful comments on earlier versions of this essay, I am grateful to Susan Schweik, Paul Longmore, and Ellen Samuels.Thanks also to Len von Morzé for indispensable secretarial and research aassistance.

  2. See, for example, Davis, EN xi; Thomson 5; and Mitchell and Snyder 1-2.

  3. In fact, much poststructuralist theorization about identity does not call for its banishment, but for undermining it as a foundational concept or investigating the ways in which it comes into being. See Butler 7. Thomson also overlooks queer theory's destabilizations of identity, which have taken place without civil rights protections for sexual minorities.

  4. Numerous disability scholars have made this point. See, for example, Mitchell and Snyder 5-6.

  5. See Davis's discussion of Duffy (EN 148-49). See also Mitchell and Snyder's film, Vital Signs, for a record of Duffy's performances, which foreground similarities between her body and the Venus de Milo statue.

  6. See Butler 22, 30, and 35.

  7. In particular, I am thinking of writing by Butler, Brown, Halley, and Sedgwick.

  8. Davis explains in Bending Over Backwards that he has grown increasingly critical of the concept of identity, and Thomson's ideas about identity politics seem to have developed along similar lines: in a recent interview, she characterizes identity politics as "highly problematic theoretically" (Potok 183).

  9. In her article, "Jane Austen and 'The Masturbating Girl,'" Sedgwick critiques the frequent use of the phrase "mental masturbation" to discredit postmodernist theories.

  10. A class-centered critique of identity politics would thus problematize Thomson's endorsement of "a strategy of identity formation" that "validates. . . an accommodation model of interpreting disability, as opposed to the earlier compensation model" (18). For disability scholarship that analyzes the relationship between disability and capitalism, see Michael Olver, Marta Russell, and Paul K. Longmore ("Conspicuous Contribution").

  11. See Brown 97-121 for a thorough explication of "On The Jewish Question" in relation to identity politics in general and rights analysis in particular.

  12. There are also important differences between the two concepts. For example, Marx's concept of egoism does not refer to supposed supernatural powers; nor does it emphasize social exclusion. Interestingly, however, both Siebers and Marx contest individualizing conceptions of narcissism or egoism. Siebers does so by defining narcissism as a superstition, a category "formed by collective accusation" (MM 168). Marx retains egoism as a valid concept but reworks it in order to emphasize the social over the individual; he characterizes modern society as a whole, not specific individuals, as egoistic.

  13. For more discussion of this problem, see Linton 134. Siebers elaborates upon these observations by arguing that the "struggle for civil rights is completely different from the usual process for people with disabilities because they must fight against their individuality rather than to establish it—unlike political action groups based on race and gender" (DT 743). In fact, however, queer people have also been subject to excessive individualization similar to that which Siebers describes; they have also been medicalized and figured as narcissistic. And ironically, by insisting upon the absolute difference of disability from other identity categories, Siebers's analysis itself isolates and individualizes people with disabilities.

  14. I would like to thank Susan Schweik for pointing this out to me.

  15. Foucault is explicit about this in "Two Lectures": "it is not through recourse to sovereignty against discipline that the effects of disciplinary power can be limited. . . . If one wants to . . . struggle against discipline and disciplinary power, it is not toward the ancient right of sovereignty that one should turn, but toward the possibility of a new form of right" (108).

  16. See "My Withered Limb." Paul K. Longmore's account of the effects of institutional power upon his own life—most notably, the ways in which the Social Security Administration's policies impeded his efforts to work and live independently—is another compelling example of a politically engaged personal narrative (Why I Burned 230-59).

  17. K. Anthony Appiah, "Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction," Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 162-63, qtd. in Halley 42.

  18. For more on this, see BOB 158-64. See also Davis's numerous articles in The Nation, most notably "The Prisoners of Silence," in which he advocates for the rights of Deaf prisoners who cannot sign, speak, or write. In addition, Davis's extensive writing on the novel is highly critical of the form's bourgeois ideological investments. And in his articles "Beyond Tenure" and "Dancing in the Dark," Marxist thinking informs Davis's critiques of the hierarchizing functions of academic institutions.

  19. Derrida's efforts, in Of Grammatology, to expose the "deficiency and infirmity" of speech exemplify a problem in much poststructuralist theory, to which disability scholars have called attention: the uncritical use of disability as a metaphor, in this case for dislocation, dispossession, and absence. The trope of blindness is particularly noteworthy in this regard. Much as, for Derrida, the "concept of the supplement is a sort of blind-spot in Rousseau's text, the not-seen that opens and limits visibility," so the concept of blindness—itself a supplement, a substitution of the concept of inability to see for inability to understand—can be read as the "blind spot" or unperceived center around which Derrida's text orders itself (163).

  20. See, for example, EN 79-80.

  21. As discussed earlier, I am referring primarily to Butler's argument.

  22. See Epistemology 9; 13; 82-86.

  23. Thomson's ambivalence about identity politics is evident in her claims about disability and ethnicity. In the first chapter of her book, she writes that she wants to "recast" disability as "a form of ethnicity" (6). However, in her conclusion, she states that she does "not wish to suggest that . . . disability is a form of ethnicity" (136).

  24. Thomson's description of Toni Morrison's disabled characters as "powerful women" might be complicated by considering Morrison's short story, "Recitatif," in which Maggie, the mute "kitchen woman with legs like parentheses," is not a "powerful" woman, but instead the object of physical and verbal abuse (Thomson 103; Morrison 245). The story, which foregrounds problems of racial identification by making the central characters' respective races unclear, arguably uses Maggie's body, which is noteworthy for its own racial indeterminacy, as the embodiment of the political weaknesses such undecidability may entail. The representation of disability in Morrison's story thus repeats conventional conflations of physical and psychic weakness. I am grateful to Susan Schweik for referring me to this story.

  25. Similarly, Davis recognizes that "people with invisible impairments" have disabilities, but he tends to de-emphasize such conditions, arguing, for example, that disability is perceived "through the senses" and describing disability as "a disruption in the visual, auditory, or perceptual field" (EN 8; 13; 129).

  26. This fact is obscured by definitions of disability that focus upon visual difference. For example, Harlan Hahn has devised a "disability continuum" that posits "a correlation between the visibility of disabilities and the amount of discrimination which they might elicit in employment or other areas of society." In fact, however, discrimination is often justified precisely because a disability is invisible; employees with repetitive strain injury, for example, often have difficulty obtaining accommodations because they show no obvious signs of impairment. (Harlan Hahn, The Issue of Equality: European Perceptions of Employment Policy for Disabled Persons [New York: World Rehabilitation Fund, 1984], 14, qtd. in Hahn, "Acceptably," 175).

  27. Showalter makes such claims about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Gulf War Syndrome, and Groopman describes fibromyalgia in much the same way. In their early stages, both multiple sclerosis and lupus often cause symptoms that are invisible and undetectable by medical tests; as a result, patients with these illnesses are often initially suspected of malingering or imagining symptoms (NIH website).


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