Principal Disability and Social Theory: New Developments and Directions

Disability and Social Theory: New Developments and Directions

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2012
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Palgrave Macmillan UK
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english
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356
ISBN 13:
978-1-137-02300-1
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Disability and Social Theory

Also by Dan Goodley
DISABILITY STUDIES: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY INTRODUCTION
FAMILIES WITH DISABLED CHILDREN: VALUES OF ENABLING CARE AND
SOCIAL JUSTICE (with J. McLaughlin, E. Clavering, P. Fisher, and C. Tregaskis)
RESEARCHING LIFE STORIES: METHOD, THEORY AND ANALYSES IN
A BIOGRAPHICAL AGE (with R. Lawthom, P. Clough and M. Moore)
ARTS AGAINST DISABILITY: THE PERFORMING ARTS OF PEOPLE WITH LEARNING
DIFFICULTIES (with M. Moore)
SELF-ADVOCACY IN THE LIVES OF PEOPLE WITH LEARNING DIFFICULTIES:
THE POLITICS OF RESILIENCE
DISABILITY AND PSYCHOLOGY: CRITICAL INTRODUCTIONS AND REFLECTIONS
(co-edited with R. Lawthom)
ANOTHER DISABILITY STUDIES READER: INCLUDING PEOPLE WITH LEARNING
DIFFICULTIES (co-edited with G. van Hove)
Also by Bill Hughes
THE BODY, CULTURE AND SOCIETY: AN INTRODUCTION (with P. Hancock,
E. Jagger, K. Paterson, R. Russell, E. Tulle-Winton and M. Tyler)
Also by Lennard Davis
FACTUAL FICTIONS: THE ORIGINS OF THE ENGLISH NOVEL
RESISTING NOVELS: FICTION AND IDEOLOGY
LEFT POLITICS AND THE LITERARY PROFESSION (co-edited with M. B. Mirabella)
ENFORCING NORMALCY: DISABILITY, DEAFNESS, AND THE BODY
DISABILITY STUDIES READER
MY SENSE OF SILENCE: MEMOIR OF A CHILDHOOD WITH DEAFNESS
THE SONNETS: A NOVEL
BENDING OVER BACKWARDS: DISMODERNISM, DISABILITY, AND OTHER
DIFFICULT POSITIONS
COUNTRY OF LOST CHILDREN: A NATURAL HISTORY OF ARTIFICIAL
INSEMINATION

Disability and Social Theory
New Developments and Directions
Edited by

Dan Goodley
University of Sheffield, UK

Bill Hughes
Glasgow Caledonian University, UK

and

Lennard Davis
University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

Selection and editorial matter © Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and
Lennard Davis 2012
Individual chapters © their respective authors 2012
Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition 2012 978-0-230-24325-5
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this
publication may be made without written permission.
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Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication
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work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published 2012 by
PALGRAVE MACMILLAN
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registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills, Basingstoke,
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Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States,
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ISBN 978-1-349-31823-0
ISBN 978-1-137-02300-1 (eBook)
DOI 10.1057/9781137023001

This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and made from fully
managed and sustained forest sources. Logging, pulping and manufacturing
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country of origin.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Disability and social theory : new developments and directions /
edited by Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes, Lennard Davis.
pages cm
1. People with disabilities. 2. Discrimination against people with disabilities.
3. Disabilities. I. Goodley, Dan, 1972– II. Hughes, Bill, 1956– III. Davis,
Lennard J., 1949–
HV1568.D5638 2012
305.9'0801—dc23
2012012580
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
21 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12

The editors would like to dedicate this book to the memory of the
disability activist and pioneering theorist Vic Finkelstein
(1938–2011). While he may have disagreed with some of the
arguments in this text we are confident that he would have
supported the need for debate in understanding and challenging
the conditions of disablism

This page intentionally left blank

Table of Contents
Notes on Contributors

ix

1 Introducing Disability and Social Theory
Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis

1

Part I Cultures
2 Civilising Modernity and the Ontological Invalidation of
Disabled People
Bill Hughes

17

3 Commodifying Autism: The Cultural Contexts of ‘Disability’
in the Academy
Rebecca Mallett and Katherine Runswick-Cole

33

4 Disability and the Majority World: A Neocolonial Approach
Shaun Grech
5 Discourses of Disabled Peoples’ Organisations: Foucault,
Bourdieu and Future Perspectives
Theo Blackmore and Stephen Lee Hodgkins

52

70

Part II Bodies
6 Cyborgs, Cripples and iCrip: Reflections on the Contribution
of Haraway to Disability Studies
Donna Reeve

91

7 Theory, Impairment and Impersonal Singularities: Deleuze,
Guattari and Agamben
James Overboe

112

8 The Body as the Problem of Individuality: A Phenomenological
Disability Studies Approach
Tanya Titchkosky and Rod Michalko

127

9 Dancing with Disability: An Intersubjective Approach
Eimir McGrath

143

Part III Subjectivities
10 Nomadology and Subjectivity: Deleuze, Guattari and Critical
Disability Studies
Griet Roets and Rosi Braidotti
11 Jacques Lacan + Paul Hunt = Psychoanalytic Disability Studies
Dan Goodley
vii

161
179

viii

Table of Contents

12 Intellectual Disability Trouble: Foucault and Goffman on
‘Challenging Behaviour’
Karl Nunkoosing and Mark Haydon-Laurelut

195

13 Stalking Ableism: Using Disability to Expose ‘Abled’
Narcissism
Fiona Kumari Campbell

212

Part IV Communities
14 Lave and Wenger, Communities of Practice and Disability
Studies
Rebecca Lawthom (with Tsitsi Chataika)

233

15 Disability, Development and Postcolonialism
Tsitsi Chataika

252

16 Engaging with Disability with Postcolonial Theory
Anita Ghai

270

17 Recognition, Respect and Rights: Women with Disabilities in a
Globalised World
Carolyn Frohmader and Helen Meekosha

287

18 Conclusion: Disability and Social Theory
Bill Hughes, Dan Goodley and Lennard Davis

308

Glossary

318

Index

336

Notes on Contributors
Theo Blackmore is the Strategic Liaison Manager for Disability Cornwall, the
only pan-impairment disabled peoples’ organisation in Cornwall, UK. Theo is
interested in understanding inclusion, exclusion and disability, and his doctoral thesis at Exeter University – ‘Half My Friends Don’t See Me as Disabled:
What Can Field, Capital and Habitus Reveal about Disability, Inclusion And
Exclusion’ – explored this. Theo occasionally lectures in disability studies at
Cornwall College, and set up the Cornwall Disability Research Network to
investigate issues for disabled people living in rural areas.
Rosi Braidotti is Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and Director of
the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her
work is strikingly significant in the areas of feminist philosophy, epistemology, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis. Her books include: Nomadic
Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory
(Columbia Univ. Press, 1994).
Fiona Kumari Campbell is Associate Professor and Deputy Head of School
(Learning and Teaching Scholarship) Griffith Law School, Australia. She
was Convenor, Disability Studies concentration, School of Human Services
and Social Work Griffith University. Fiona has written on issues related
to disability – philosophy, law, and technology. Following the successful
publication of her book Contours of Ableism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), she
is working on two books: The Unveiling of (Dis)ability: Essays on Silence, Voice
and Imprints and Crippin’ the Law: Jurisprudential Narratives of Impairment.
Tsitsi Chataika is a postdoctoral research fellow at Stellenbosch University,
South Africa. Her research aims to explore possible pathways of including
disabled people in the national development agenda. She is also interested
in ways of building communities of trust between the Global South and the
Global North researchers and how development partners can build communities of trust. She has published in the area including disability and
development, and inclusive education.
Lennard Davis is Distinguished Professor of English, Disability and Human
Development, and Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago,
US. His work in disability studies has focused on issues around identity, normality and theory. His most recent books include Obsession: A History (University
of Chicago Press, 2008) and Go Ask Your Father (Random House, 2009).
Carolyn Frohmader is the Executive Director of Women With Disabilities
Australia (WWDA). Under Frohmader’s leadership, WWDA has received a
ix

x

Notes on Contributors

number of prestigious awards for its groundbreaking work including the
National Human Rights Award. Carolyn has a master’s degree from Flinders
University where she won the inaugural Michael Crotty Award for an outstanding contribution in Primary Health Care. In 2009, in recognition of her
human rights work, she was inducted into the Tasmanian Women’s Honour
Roll, joining her late mother Wendy, who was posthumously inducted into
the Roll in 2008 for services to education.
Anita Ghai is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Jesus and Mary
College, University of Delhi, India and a disability activist in the areas of
education, health, sexuality and gender. Currently she is Teenmurti Fellow at
Nehru Memorial Museum Library and President of the Indian Association for
Women’s Studies. She is on the editorial board of Disability and Society, Disability
Studies Quarterly and Scandinavian Journal of Disability. Her second book was
(Dis) Embodied Form: Issues of Disabled Women (Haranand Publications, 2003).
Dan Goodley is Professor of Disability Studies and Education at the
University of Sheffield, UK. His research and teaching aim to shake up
dominant myths in psychology as well as contribute, in some small way, to
the development of critical disability studies theories that understand and
eradicate disablism. His recent publications include Disability Studies: An
Interdisciplinary Introduction (Sage, 2011).
Shaun Grech is Research Associate at the Research Institute for Health and
Social Change (RIHSC), Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), UK.
His interdisciplinary research focuses on disability, poverty and international
development. Other areas of interest include post/neo-colonial approaches
to the study of disability across cultures, decolonising research methodologies and the application of critical disability studies to the majority world.
He has published in well-established journals, contributed to edited collections, and is co-editor of Inclusive Communities: A Reader (Sense Publishers,
2012). Shaun also established and organises the annual international conference series ‘Disability and the Majority World’, currently hosted at MMU.
E-mail: S.Grech@mmu.ac.uk.
Mark Haydon-Laurelut is a lecturer in Psychology at the University of
Portsmouth, UK and is a practising Systemic Psychotherapist. His work aims
at challenging disablement in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities through teaching, research and systemic practice.
Stephen Lee Hodgkins is Director of Disability LIB, London, UK, an informal network of disabled peoples’ organisations which challenges disablism,
promotes inclusion and embraces diversity. Stephen has interests in the
inclusion movement, community activism and disabled people’s politics
and culture. He lectures in critical psychology and disability studies at the
University of Northampton where he recently completed a Ph.D. titled
‘Discoursing Disability: The Personal and Political Positioning of Disabled

Notes on Contributors

xi

People’, an abridged version of which was published in Disabilities: Insights
From Across Fields and Around the World (Praeger, 2009).
Bill Hughes is Professor of Sociology and the Dean of the School of Law
and Social Sciences at Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland, and is a
sociologist ‘to trade’. His research interests include disability and impairment, social theory and the body. He is co-author of The Body, Culture and
Society: An Introduction (Open University Press, 2000). He has published in
the journals Sociology and Body and Society and is a regular contributor to and
a member of the Editorial Board of Disability and Society.
Rebecca Lawthom is Associate Professor in Community Practice at
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. Her research and teaching focus on
the connections of feminist and community psychologies with a particular
interest in issues of marginalisation and discrimination. Her recent publications include Critical Community Psychology: Critical Action and Social Change
(BPSTextbooks, 2011, with Mark Burton, Paul Duckett and Asiya Siddiquee).
Rebecca Mallett is Senior Lecturer in Disability Studies and allied to
the Cultural, Communication and Computing Research Institute (C3RI)
at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. Her main areas of research include
‘disability’ in popular culture, the constitution and regulation of interpretative strategies within cultural disability studies and, more recently, the commodification of impairment.
Eimir McGrath is a psychotherapist and a dance practitioner, working with
children and adults with physical and intellectual disabilities. She is also a
trainer, lecturer and workshop facilitator, specialising in play therapy and disability. Her interest in dance as a means of integration came about through
her work in education, where dance often provided a common ground in
bringing diverse groups together. McGrath is completing a doctorate in
dance and disability research at London Metropolitan University, England.
Helen Meekosha is Associate Professor in the School of Social Work,
University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Her research interests
cross boundaries of race, ethnicity, disability and gender, and she has
recently become interested in developing theories of disability that include
those who live in the Global South or the majority world. In 1996 she was
instrumental in establishing The Social Relations of Disability Research
Network, a group of Australian interdisciplinary scholars, which resulted in
the establishment of the Disability Studies and Research Centre at UNSW
in 2008. She has been active in the disability movement for nearly 30 years
and has been closely involved with Women With Disabilities Australia, both
as President and as a Board member since its inception.
Rod Michalko teaches disability studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies
in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. His current research centres on
disability studies’ conception of disability and its subsequent requirement

xii

Notes on Contributors

of non-disability. He has written four books, including The Difference that
Disability Makes (Temple, 2002) and most recently co-edited with Tanya
Titchkosky, Rethinking Normalcy: A Disability Studies Reader (2009).
Karl Nunkoosing is Principal Lecturer at the Department of Psychology,
University of Portsmouth, UK. He teaches the social construction of disability,
qualitative methods and critical discourse analysis and the ‘dark stuff’. His
research includes the experiences of fathers of disabled sons and daughters,
discourse of intellectual disability and the academic attainments of black and
ethnic minority students in higher education. He is also interested in stories
and narratives, gender, culture and in the serious business of playfulness.
James Overboe is Associate Professor in Sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University.
His research affirms life expressed, particularly aspects associated with a preindividual or impersonal registry especially within the context of disability
studies. Recent publications include ‘Affirming an Impersonal Life: A Different
Register for Disability Studies’, in ‘Deleuze, Disability, and Difference’, Special
Issue of Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies (2009).
Donna Reeve is Honorary Research Fellow with the Centre for Disability
Research (CeDR) and Applied Social Science at Lancaster University. Her
research and writing interrogates the phenomenon of psycho-emotional
disablism and attempts to unpack the interconnections between disablism,
impairment, identity and culture.
Griet Roets is a postdoctoral researcher affiliated to the FWO and based
at the Department of Social Welfare Studies, Ghent University, Belgium.
Her doctorate is in educational sciences. Her research interests are critical
disability studies, poverty, gender, critical social work, and narrative and
ethnographic research.
Katherine Runswick-Cole is Research Fellow in Disability Studies and
Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. Her research and
publications focus on disability, childhood and family from a critical disability studies perspective. She has just finished working on an Economic
and Social Research Council funded project titled ‘Does Every Child Matter
Post-Blair? The Interconnections of Disabled Childhoods’.
Tanya Titchkosky is Associate Professor of an interpretive sociological ilk
at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University
of Toronto, Canada. Her current research examines conceptions of the
(anti)human that are underscored, yet overlooked, by various institutionalized attempts to address disability and other social differences. Her most
recent books include, The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning (UTP,
2011) and Rethinking Normalcy: A Disability Studies Reader (2009) co-edited
with Rod Michalko.

1
Introducing Disability and Social
Theory
Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis

Introduction
Theorising disability lies at the heart of many recent social scientific engagements with the body, subjectivity, culture and society. Disability studies
have developed across, through and with disciplines of the social sciences
and humanities. The extent to which disability illuminates and puts into
practice social theory and, moreover, the potential of social theory to add to
our understandings of disability are key themes of this book. This text aims
to further examine social theory and disability as resources for thought,
action and activism.
Social theories of disability have been around for decades, with more critical approaches emerging around 40 years ago. The awareness of disability
theory continues to lag behind that of other transformative arenas such
as feminism, queer theory and postcolonialism. To some degree, disability
theory has not had the sweep and global interest of these other areas due to
the stigma that disability still carries, despite years of legislation and struggle. It still is not fashionable to be disabled. As a consequence, disability
politics have been virtually ignored not only by dominant institutions of
society but also by other politicised arenas. The disabled people’s movement, while now global in scale and reach, continues to push for some of
the most basic rights to education, life and health. At the time of writing,
The United Nations’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is still
being ratified (or not) by some nations of the world. Disability studies continue to be slighted in many university courses and disability theory is often
absent from readers on social theory. Our aim, as editors of this book, was
to invite contributors from a broad range of social sciences and ask them to
inject their chosen theoretical perspectives into disability studies. This is not
to say that there have not already been many exciting theoretical developments throughout the history of disability studies. Many of our heroines
and heroes in disability studies have long pushed for social theories that

1

D. Goodley et al. (eds.), Disability and Social Theory
© Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis 2012

2 Introducing Disability and Social Theory

respond to the ambitions of disabled people and understand and challenge
the conditions of disablism.
That said, at times, some scholars who were responsible for the early writings in disability studies have questioned the relevance and application of
recent theoretical work (e.g. Oliver, 2009). Their concerns appear to centre
on the dangers seemingly inherent in theoretical work, namely, obfuscation,
over-abstraction and ‘extravagant flights of academic fancy’ (Barnes and
Mercer, 2003: 83). Such criticisms of contemporary theory ignore the fact
that even the early writings of disability studies necessarily drew upon theoretical ideas to enhance their potency. In Britain, for example, neo-Marxist
theories were key to the development of the materialist social model of disability. Those of us who have had the pleasure of reading Marx and Engels
will recall the challenges and, at times, difficulties of deciphering the key
tenets of their arguments. The hard work was worth it, though, when we
were able to view the analytical possibilities of employing such theories to
probe the conditions of disablement (e.g. Oliver, 1990). It therefore seems
contradictory for some of these scholars to reject the style of contemporary
theoretical work (even if they are ideologically opposed to it) when it was
precisely the use of their own preferred elliptical and even cryptic social
theories that allowed them to develop understandings of the material,
political and historical foundations of the exclusion of disabled people that,
consequently, gave birth to the arena of disability studies.
We should, therefore, not be afraid of the inherent tendency of theory to
challenge our thinking through complex and difficult prose. Instead, our
concern should be whether or not social theory enhances our understandings of disability, culture and society. We should demand theory to provide
us with ideas, concepts and resources that can be used in scholarly, professional, political and personal capacities. We should allow ourselves to be
courted by theory, perhaps seduced, though ever mindful of the political
origins of many people’s engagement with disability studies in the first
place. Disability studies have developed in some national contexts in ways
that appear to be more inviting to the deployment of theory. Both Thomas
(2007) and Goodley (2011a) have argued that, in comparison with British
disability studies, North American, Canadian, Australian and Nordic disability studies boast a more interdisciplinary and theory-friendly approach to
the study of disability. The editors of this collection have aimed to capture
a number of theoretical interventions that are committed to the politics of
disability in the hope that theory and praxis can be seen as interrelated. We
know that social theory can change everyday norms, social policies, institutional arrangements, professional acts, family practices and personal values,
because when social theory works at its best it demands us to reconsider the
assumptions, discourses and taken-for-granted ideologies that undergird the
exclusion of some people and the accentuation of the social roles of others.
Perhaps, following Braidotti (2003), social theory allows us to identify and

Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis

3

then deconstruct the tendency of contemporary society to uphold the lifeworlds of ‘the same’ over those of ‘many others’.
Disability studies, particularly in Britain, have tended to occupy a strong
disciplinary base in sociology and social policy, often, though not exclusively,
with a focus on materialist, neo-Marxist and structuralist perspectives (Barnes,
Barton and Oliver, 2002; Barnes and Mercer, 2003). However, recent texts have
deliberately blurred disciplinary walls and national boundaries in order to
assess the material, cultural and psychological features of living as a disabled
person in an exclusionary society (Hales, 1996; Albrecht, Seelman and Bury,
2003; Swain et al., 2004; Swain, French and Cameron, 2003; Shakespeare,
2006). Increasingly there has been work on the intersections of disability with
other identity categories and multiple locations of marginalisation and resistance associated with feminism, critical race, queer and class analyses (Morris,
1996; Thomas, 1999; Davis, 1997; Kristiansen and Traustadóttir, 2004; Ghai,
2006; Sherry, 2004, 2007; Linton, 2005). There is no doubt that disability
studies are branching out in many different exciting theoretical directions
encompassing, for examples, post-structuralism (Corker and French, 1999;
Corker and Shakespeare, 2002; Tremain, 2005), psychoanalysis (Olkin, 1999;
Marks, 1999; Goodley, 2011b), medical sociology (Thomas, 2007) and critical psychology (Watermeyer et al., 2006; Goodley, 2011a). North American
and Canadian disability studies have merged disciplines, with social scientists forming close alliances with the humanities (Snyder, Brueggemann and
Garland-Thomson, 2002; Devlieger, Rusch and Pfeiffer, 2003; Michalko, 2002;
Titchkosky, 2003; Snyder and Mitchell, 2006). It is important to acknowledge that debates about inclusive education have been heightened through
an engagement with disability discourse (Gabel, 2005; Danforth and Gabel,
2007; Barton and Armstrong, 2007). Dominant ideas from powerful disciplines such as physiotherapy and psychology have been destabilised through
importing a disability studies agenda (Swain and French, 1999; Goodley and
Lawthom, 2005). Indeed, the intersectional character of disability is one of a
number of reasons why we conceptualise the contemporary state of the field
as critical disability studies. Critical disability studies start with disability but
never end with it: disability is the space from which to think through a host
of political, theoretical and practical issues that are relevant to all (Goodley,
2011a). The emergence of a critical approach to the analysis of disability may
be put down to a number of developments in the ‘noughties’ (Meekosha and
Shuttleworth, 2009). Perhaps, most significantly, critical disability studies is
characterised by what Thomas (2007) defines as the trans-disciplinary potential
to break down boundaries between disciplines, to speak across national and
regional borders and to take the responsibilities of social theory seriously to
reinvigorate disability studies critically. Such boundary-breaking allows different disciplines to speak to and with one another through theoretical language
around disability. In effect, disability studies works best when it forms bridges
between disciplines. As Shakespeare (2010) argues, disability studies will lose

4 Introducing Disability and Social Theory

its radical potential to subvert, disrupt and deconstruct were it to collapse into
a discipline in its own right.
This book aims to provide a sustained and coherent analysis of critical
disability studies in relation to a host of disciplines and emerging theories,
including perspectives from psychology, psychoanalysis, education, social
and critical pedagogy, community work, sociology, philosophy, geography,
critical race, development and women’s studies. The contributors to this
book each come with their own passionate interests in social theory. Behind
all of their contributions is a shared opposition to the conditions of disablism and ableism that continue to marginalise disabled people from the
everyday realities of social life. This book draws on a host of social theory
and associated concepts and claims. We have supplemented the application
of theory that you will find in each chapter with a glossary at the end of the
book that draws out and summaries key concepts.
Theory should do some things in the social world: enhance our awareness
of inequality and, wherever possible, permit new ways of thinking affirmatively about disability. Theory can shift our focus away from the perceived
pathologies of disabled people on to the deficiencies of a disabling society
and an abliest culture. We agree with Margrit Shildrick when she argues that
‘it is crucial that non-disabled people need to interrogate their own cultural
psycho-social location as non-disabled’ (Shildrick, 2009: 9). A strong theme
of this text, then, is to explore theoretical ideas and concepts that may be
used by disabled people and ‘the non-disabled’ in order for both groups to
interrogate and subvert conditions of exclusion. Disability is therefore not
a stigmatising embodiment of an individual but a social portal that leads to
an investigation of exclusionary practices in society at large.
This book builds on previous efforts that have brought together disparate
theoretical writings with the shared aim of theorising disability (Barton, 2001;
Corker and Shakespeare, 2002; Davis, 2002, 2006b; Barnes and Mercer, 2003;
Swain et al., 2004). Following Meekosha and Shuttleworth (2009) and Shildrick
(2009) this text contributes to the development of critical disability studies
theory (Davis, 2006a; McRuer, 2003) where disability links together other identities as a moment of reflection that Davis (2002, 2006b) calls dismodernism, and
impairment and disability are interrogated as phenomena enacted at the levels
of the psyche, culture and society. Critical disability studies recognise the complexity of disability’s intersections with poverty, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality
and national location. In the current climate of economic downturn and recession we clearly need sophisticated social theories that allow us to make sense
of – and challenge – complex conditions of oppression and marginalisation.

Summarising the book
Part I of the book, ‘Cultures’, considers the cultural imaginaries and semiotic
constructions that exist around disability. These chapters share the aim of

Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis

5

reconceptualising disabled bodies-and-minds as social sites of power, language, discourse and action. Disability is not only culturally mediated but
is constituted through culture. Hence, cultures of modernity gave rise to
versions of disability and ability through which the contemporary position
of disability is ontologically felt and epistemologically rooted. In addition,
if we accept that we are living in an era characterised by the postmodernisation of life itself (Hardt and Negri, 2000), then what possibilities for resistance and change are permitted for cultural members? Does the disparate
nature of knowledge and discourse allow disabled people to challenge grand
narratives of science and progress that originally marked them as lacking,
deficient, repugnant and uncivilised? This part of the book also considers the kinds of cultures that we might analyse. These include cultures of
disablism; cultures premised on the myth of ableism; disability cultures
that have emerged through the agitations of disabled people as alternatives
to disablism and ableism. We are also encouraged to consider the ways
in which these varying cultures are reliant upon one another. Disability
culture is a necessary response to disablism. Disablism emerges as a consequence of the prominence of ableist worldviews. Cultures also infect one
another. Questions are raised about the extent to which disability culture is
hijacked by, for example, nation states whose constitutions are based upon
a host of disablist ideas. Disability culture might, perhaps unknowingly,
appropriate some of the standards of ableism – such as autonomy, control,
independence – that lead to the exclusion of some disabled people who are
unable to match up to these ableist ideals.
In Chapter 2, Bill Hughes draws on the work of Norbert Elias to propose
that the treatment of disabled people in the modern period is a barbaric
sideshow in the long march of the ‘civilising process’. The ‘personality structure’ of non-disability in modernity transforms its own ontological precariousness into aversion for and disposal of disability. The negative response
to biological and intellectual difference in modernity is strongly influenced
by the tendency embedded in the ‘civilising process’ to incrementally deride
the value of physical and intellectual difference and promote a sanitised
norm of human behaviour and appearance. The social policy response to
disability in the modern period cannot be separated from the emotional
aversion to impairment characteristic of non-disabled hegemony. Hughes
utilises Elias’s concepts of psychogenesis and sociogenesis to explain that the
story of disability in modernity is one that develops towards the social and
ontological invalidation of disabled people’s lives.
Chapter 3, by Rebecca Mallett and Katherine Runswick Cole, addresses
autism as a cultural phenomenon through which they aim to understand
better the ways in which ‘impairment’ is packaged and consumed within
academia. In this chapter they are interested in approaching autism
critically. They seek to understand the cultural contexts in which autism is
made present and think through the associated implications. By positioning

6 Introducing Disability and Social Theory

academia as part of contemporary consumer culture, they borrow from
Marxist-inspired theories to conceptualise the processes by which seemingly
the most enigmatic of conditions have become produced, traded and consumed within the social sciences. They discuss the role of ‘desire’ and use
the concept of commodity fetishism to explore what we buy (into) when
autism is purchased. Through this theorising, they end by arguing that the
persistent presence of autism as a largely unproblematised entity within
contexts such as academia, and within the study of disability in particular,
works to jeopardise the emancipation of disabled people.
In Chapter 4, Shaun Grech moves the analysis of culture up a notch, by
examining the global reach of disability studies. This chapter is inspired by
post-structuralism as well as Latin American writings on coloniality and
neocolonialism to explore and discuss critically some of the gaps left wide
open in attempting to articulate a critical debate around disability in the
‘majority world’. The chapter takes on the call to decolonise the methodologies of disability studies in order to constitute a new theoretical space: critical global disability studies. While pre-empting some of the debates that are
explored in Part IV of the book, Grech draws attention to the nuanced ways
in which disability and disablism emerge in specific Global South contexts.
His analysis considers the varying ways in which disability is defined across
and within cultures; the dangers of homogenising the disability experience
as one ultimately of oppression; the recognition of hybrid spaces and lives
that emerge in poor countries in responses to coloniality; the very ‘real’
effects of impairment and bodies of pain and the importance of faith and
religion in some cultural locations. The chapter warns against a critical disability studies that remains located in, and then is exported from, a Western
European and North American register.
In Chapter 5, Theo Blackmore and Stephen Lee Hodgkins use ideas
from Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu to explore the rise of the British
disabled people’s movement, the development of disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) and, as they suggest, their recent colonisation by government
and service agendas. Such an analysis is crucial if we are to theorise disability culture in what might be seen as a post-new social movement period of
history. They ask: to what extent have the radical discourses of disability
politics become part of everyday currency and discourse in welfare, educational and community settings? Writing as activists and members of DPOs
they consider the ways in which disability politics is at risk of moving from
the radicalisation of new social movements to new forms of organisation
that are more in tune with governmental and professionalised concerns.
Through employing notions of power and resistance (from Foucault) and
capital, field and habitus (adapted from Bourdieu), they identify opportunities and challenges for DPOs. These are critically considered in terms of the
implications for the project of impairment-management, inclusion and the
preservation of the cultures of disabled bodies, minds and identities.

Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis

7

In Part II of the book, ‘Bodies’, we develop further recent analyses that
have challenged a previous tendency for somatophobia (fear of body) in
disability studies writings. Our analysis of bodies considers their place in the
world. As Margrit Shildrick (2009: 2) puts it: living in the disabled body lays
bare the psycho-social imaginary that sustains modernist understandings
of what it is to be a subject. Disabled bodies are often viewed as disrupting
what it means to be a natural/ normal body. The body has always occupied
a platform of debate in disability studies. For some, disability studies have
failed to engage with the realities of impairment (Shakespeare, 2006). For
others, disability studies has not gone far enough in recognising the cultural formations of impairment (Tremain, 2005). While other scholars have
inserted the physicality of the brain and body into a dynamic relational
model of individual and society (Traustadóttir, 2004), in this part of the
book the body emerges as a complex site for the (re)constitution of culture,
technology, performance and of life itself. Never simply biological, nor a
cultural entity, the body raises more questions than it answers.
Chapter 6 permits Donna Reeve to revisit Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg
Manifesto and to ask: what can the cyborg offer disability studies? Opinions
in disability studies are currently divided; some argue that cyborg theory
cannot offer solutions for the material disadvantage faced by disabled people in society, others see the cyborg as providing a way of understanding
the lack of a fixed boundary between disabled and non-disabled people. As
well as presenting these debates, the chapter also considers other ways of
using cyborg theory to make sense of the lived experience of impaired people who have intimate relationships with technology, for example, people
with prosthetics, implants or who use assistive devices such as wheelchairs.
After presenting a summary of Haraway’s key work, Reeve looks at the lived
experience of impaired cyborgs and then briefly touches on cultural representations of disability and cyborgs within science fiction. Finally, she discusses
the notion of the iCrip – a term she has coined to represent new ways of
being which are (non)disabled and (ab)normal.
In Chapter 7, Jim Overboe locates and examines the impaired body in the
‘inhuman register’. He notes that since the 1960s, with the advent of identity
politics, marginalised groups stake out their claim of legitimacy under the
rubric of citizenship. Disability activism and by extension disability studies
has followed feminism, queer movements and racialised people in adopting
this method of social change. Yet, he suggests, this model of self-actualised
individuals within a group membership with its reliance upon liberalism to
some degree disavows impairments that coexist with the disabled identity.
Overboe is interested in reclaiming the ‘vivacity of our impairments’ while
being mindful of the dangers of the seductive lure of liberalism that denigrates those with impairments. Drawing on the theoretical works of Gilles
Deleuze, Felix Guattari and Giorgio Agamben allows us, he argues, to shift
our thinking away from the personal registry associated with humanism

8 Introducing Disability and Social Theory

(and liberalism) to the impersonal registry associated with the inhuman
(which affirms impairment). Through an analysis of pain, crippled life and
the scandal of impairment, he argues that these impersonal singularities of
impairment can affirm impairment because they break in, thieve, steal away
and cause havoc in the normative human register and, ultimately, express
life in productive ways. The point of this chapter is to illumine how impersonal singularities of the inhuman actually affirm impairments and thus
lead to a fuller life expressed.
In Chapter 8, Tanya Titchkosky and Rod Michalko question the ‘facticity’ of
the ‘problem-of-disability’. They make use of a phenomenology-based disability studies approach in order to conceive of the oft-used, over-deterministic
and under-theorised frame ‘disability is a problem in need of a solution’ as
itself a solution to some implicit problem. Drawing on the work of theorists
such Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty permits them to ask, what
sort of a problem do contemporary times need disability to be? And, what is
the meaning of human embodiment that grounds the unquestioned status
of disability as a problem? They further draw out these issues by conducting
an exploration of how the phenomenon of disability-as-problem composes
university life while teasing out how the language of the problem reflects the
educational world views that arise through the lived bodies that we are. They
note that disability may participate in normalcy, but it can never be normal let
alone be valuable, enjoyable or necessary. In the doing of this phenomenological form of description, they offer a reflection regarding what a phenomenological approach does in order to do what it does and to say what it says and
then show this at work in the university milieu. The phenomenological subjectivity is exposed as a possible space to think between disability and ability.
In Chapter 9 Eimir McGrath examines the disabled dancing body. Firstly,
she considers the place of the disabled body in relation to Western theatre
dance and the ‘legitimate’ dancing body. Secondly, the disruption of this
understanding of a legitimate dancing body is examined, by tracing the
changes that took place during the twentieth century which eventually
facilitated the inclusion of differently abled bodies within professional
dance. Thirdly, she argues that when the disabled dancing body is viewed
through the lens of contemporary attachment theory, then this allows us
to view dance as part of a process that facilities change. This approach, she
suggests, allows us to view dancers of differing corporealities as bringing
about a state of empathic attunement, where the humanity of the dancer
is foremost and corporeal difference becomes merely an element of that
dancer’s embodied presence.
In Part III of the book, ‘Subjectivities’, we consider in more detail the psychological, psychical and ontological questions of disability. Appropriating
Shildrick (2009: 89) one of the tasks of critical disability studies is to retrace
the constitution of the normative subject and to reclaim other modes of
being and/or becoming. There will be obvious overlap in this part with

Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis

9

others – for example ‘Cultures’ and ‘Bodies’ – because any discussion of
subjectivity cannot be divorced from wider sociocultural and political factors nor issues of embodiment. In this part of the book we stay with a broad
notion of subjectivity to consider how the ‘inner self’ might be understood
as a relational product (that is a constructionist phenomenon) rather than
a simplified individualised entity held in the heads of people (as advocated
by the constructivist tradition) (Corcoran, 2009). As Shildrick (2009: 33) has
noted, disability is not so much strange as all too familiar. We (whoever ‘we’
are) already know disabled bodies because they come to embody psychical
fantasies of dependency/nurture that are part of the collective unconscious
of the body politic. Disability, therefore, speaks of a ‘trans-historical ontological anxiety operating at a psychic level’ (Shildrick, 2009: 52): ‘it is as
though each one knows, but cannot acknowledge, that the disabled other
is a difference within, rather than external to, the self’ (Shildrick, 2009: 58).
Disability is a particular enunciation of specific identifications, and revealing the assumptions behind how we take notice of the appearance of
embodiment through our reading and writing thus allows us to grapple with
the meaning of disability (Titchkosky, 2009: 34). This part of the book deals
with the ontology of disablism and disability: the subjective be/comings and
goings that emerge around disability.
Chapter 10, by Griet Roets and Rosi Braidotti, sets out a version of disability studies as a project of affirmative politics. While their focus is fundamentally directed on the ways in which we do and can view subjectivity
as it relates to disability. Their focus is on the lives of people with the
label of intellectual disabilities (and their work as self-advocates) whom
they represent as affirmative activists that challenge a dominant view of
impairment-as-disability as mourning and melancholia. Inspired by Deleuze
and Guattari they draw on their approach of nomadology in order to
explore (i) notions of ontology and epistemology as they relate to disability,
(ii) an expansion of our understanding of subjectivity as both embodied and
non-dualistic, and (iii) a methodology that involves another way of forming
subjectivity as transversal connections or assemblages with multiple others
which makes our praxis nomadic.
Chapter 11, by Dan Goodley, aims to account for the subjectivities of the
‘non-disabled’ through the theories of the French psychoanalyst Jacques
Lacan and the account of one of Britain’s most famous disability activists
Paul Hunt. Goodley argues that the non-disabled or ableist individual and
collective unconscious produce precarious subjectivities which inevitably
lead to a relationship of disavowal with disability. Using Lacan’s phases of
real, imaginary and symbolic, it is suggested that the non-disabled psyche
becomes haunted but also fascinated by the fragmented nature of disability
and the non-disabled failure to match up to ableist ideals of autonomy and
mastery. Faced with such realities, a disablist subjectivity finds fault and
fascination with disability. The lessons from Lacan are further illuminated

10 Introducing Disability and Social Theory

through the work of Paul Hunt’s classic 1966 text A Critical Condition which
might be read as a politicised and psychoanalytic reading of disabling
culture.
In Chapter 12, Karl Nunkoosing and Mark Haydon-Laurelut draw upon
insights from Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault to make sense of some
aspects of the lives of men and women with intellectual disabilities who
live in residential group homes. They demonstrate how the contemporary
group home is still engaged in the same project of the total institution
that Goffman wrote about in the 1960s despite more recent changes in
its composition. The subjectivities of both the staff and the intellectually
disabled men and women they support are constructed in the productionconsumption of these discourses and associated ‘technologies’; people have
to learn and be taught how to be intellectually disabled and how to be a
worker in services for people with intellectual disabilities. By analysing the
referrals written by group home workers, it is demonstrated that the subject
of the referral is constructed as mentally suspect or bad, his/her reasoning is
doubtful or that he or she is in need of surveillance-therapy-treatment.
In Chapter 13, Fiona Kumari Campbell stalks ableism through an analysis
of the ways in which dis/abled bodies and minds – their subjectivities – are
culturally and often quite literally fused together. She defines ableism as a
network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind
of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect,
species-typical and therefore essential and fully human. Disability then is
cast as a subjectively diminished state of being human. Ableism denotes the
meaning of a healthy body, a normal mind, how quickly we should think
and the kinds of emotions that are okay to express. She notes that we all
live and breathe ableist logic, our bodies and minds daily become aesthetic
sculptures for the projection of how we wish to be known in our attempt
to exercise competency, sexiness, wholeness and an atomistic existence. It
is harder to find the language and space to examine the implications of
a failure to meet the standard or any ambivalence we might have about
the grounds of the perfectibility project. First, she outlines an approach
to expressing ableism (its theoretical features and character), and second,
provides an example of how ableism works globally in the knowledge production of disability. Finally, she discusses the possibility of disabled people
turning their backs on emulating abledness as a strategy for ontological and
theoretical disengagement.
Part IV of the book, ‘Communities’, asks questions about the place of critical disability studies theory. Disability emerges in different ways in particular institutional, national and supranational spaces (Lawthom, 2010). The
United Nations’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the
World Health Organisation’s (2001) International Classification of Functioning,
Disability and Health are just two examples of the supranational location
of disability that seeks to speak of disability across nations, cultures and

Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis

11

economies. While these developments are crucial, questions are also raised
about the potential for universal conceptions writing over more localised
experiences and dynamics of disability. Furthermore, as Stone (1999), Gabel
and Danforth (2008) and Meekosha (2008) have demonstrated, there are
real dangers of erasing the accounts of disability emerging in poor, Global
South nations if disability studies theory is written from the rich metropolises of the Global North. With these critical ideas in mind we consider the
community location of disability.
Rebecca Lawthom (with Tsitsi Chataika) tackles a theorisation of community head on in Chapter 14. The theoretical framework of communities
of practice developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger is outlined. This
approach, which has been largely ignored by disability studies, is considered in terms of its historical origins and its contemporary usage. Next
this approach is considered alongside the work of a British organisation
Breakthrough UK Ltd (run largely by and for disabled people) that aims to
promote the independent living and employment opportunities of disabled
people. Identity ownership and contestation has been a key issue for the
disabled people’s movement and for those who stand inside and outside it.
Unpacking how disabled people may come to understand and situate their
own identity and that of others is key to this identity project and the development of inclusive communities.
Chapter 15, by Tsitsi Chataika, provides a postcolonial critique of disability studies research of the Global North. Her chapter unpacks the political
struggle in the disability, development and postcolonial discourses. The
struggle, she suggests, is about challenging oppression, voicelessness, stereotyping, undermining, neocolonisation, postcolonisation, ‘them and us’ and
bridging the gap between Global North (rich income, traditionally known
as ‘developed’ countries) and Global South (low income so termed ‘developing’ countries) spaces in the disability and development research agenda.
She seeks to bring together debates around disability and development and
how they intertwine with postcolonialism. The intention of the chapter is to
create a platform that is accessible to the usually marginalised Global South
research communities by enabling them to make use of indigenous knowledge and building communities of trust with Global North comrades in
ways that enrich a critical postcolonial disability studies research agenda.
Chapter 16 is written by Anita Ghai in the context of India. She begins
by exploring the relationship between disability and karma which, she suggests, permits a sense of desolation and hope to be entertained together.
This hybridisation of disability discourses is taken further in her analysis
of gender and disability in the postcolonial context. She argues that an
assimilation of postcolonial thinking into the critical disability studies
enriches our understandings. Briefly, she examines the social framing and
ideological work of disabled characters in a recent film Black. Using this
film she underscores the dialectic between coloniser (read ‘able subject’) and

12 Introducing Disability and Social Theory

colonised (read ‘disabled subject’). Although cinema resists simple ‘answers’
to the question of how gender intersects with disability in the postcolonial
world, films also offer stimulating instances of the transgressive potential of
‘different’ bodies.
In Chapter 17, Carolyn Fromader and Helen Meekosha argue that a precondition of women with disabilities achieving equalities experienced by
their non-disabled peers is recognition and respect by wider society. Lack
of recognition constitutes a form of harm. Following the work of Axel
Honneth, they suggest that denial of recognition is a form of disrespect that
can be injurious to women with disabilities, particularly in relation to their
positive understandings of themselves. Mindful of the tensions that exist
in relation to the lack of recognition of disabled women from the Global
South, they demonstrate how disabled women experience all forms of disrespect in their daily lives by examining three issues: violence, sterilisation
and the denial and shame attached to their perceived inability to parent.
Using their own organisation, Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA),
as a case study, they look at the challenges and successes over the past two
decades that have confronted the organisation and its members in trying to
bring about change for women with disabilities. The lives and experiences
of women with disabilities have been hidden from history and we are only
just emerging as political actors in the struggle for human rights.
Our final chapter, Chapter 18, makes a case for the celebration of social
theory and its contribution to the development of critical disability studies.
In bringing together the contributors represented in this text our ambition
was always to energise our thinking around the complexities of disability.
We therefore hope that the ensuing critical disability studies analyses demonstrate the ways in which theory can bring to life this complexity in ways
that further enable us all to challenge the often contradictory and always
moving conditions of disablism.

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13

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Part I
Cultures

2
Civilising Modernity and
the Ontological Invalidation of
Disabled People
Bill Hughes

Introduction
Elimination and/or correction have been the primary social response to disabled people in modernity. The primary form of experience (of disability),
during the same period, has been one of invalidation. Invalidation carries
a ‘dual meaning’ as both ‘confinement through incapacity’ and ‘deficit of
credibility’ (Hughes, 2000: 558). This (latter and more crucial) claim is based
on the view that in the non-disabled imaginary disability is an ‘ontological
deficit’ – a reduction of ‘leib’ to ‘korpor’, human to animal, subjectivity to
flesh, identity to excessive corporeal presence. It is this deficit of credibility
that provides the spurious rationale for the disposal of disabled bodies by
means of elimination (inter alia extermination or segregation) or correction
(inter alia sterilisation or rehabilitation). These are the social practices that
have been used to erase both the psychological aversion and the problematic social difference that disability has come to represent.
In this chapter, I will argue – using Norbert Elias as a touchstone – that the
treatment of disabled people in the modern period is a barbaric sideshow
in the long march of the ‘civilising process’ (Elias, 2000). The ‘personality structure’ ableism (see Kumari Campbell (2001) and in this volume) in
modernity transforms its own ontological precariousness into aversion for
and disposal of disability. The negative response to biological and intellectual difference in modernity is strongly influenced by the tendency embedded in the ‘civilising process’ to incrementally deride the value of physical
and intellectual difference and promote a sanitised norm of human behaviour and appearance (Elias, 2000). The social and social policy response to
disability in the modern period cannot be separated from the emotional
aversion to impairment characteristic of non-disabled hegemony. I will
utilise Elias’s concepts of psychogenesis and sociogenesis1 to explain that the
story of disability in modernity is one that develops towards the social and
ontological invalidation of disabled people’s lives.
17

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© Dan Goodley, Bill Hughes and Lennard Davis 2012

18 Civilising Modernity and Disabled People

The sociogenisis of disability is, in practice, twofold: it can be ‘anthropoemic’ or ‘anthropophagic’. The first refers to social processes that rootout and eliminate people: if error and imperfection are the anti-heroes of
modernity, then one might expect to find examples in which the desire for
truth and purity is exercised through the root and branch elimination of
those who offend against this moral universe. Locking disabled people into
a ‘zone of exception’ (Agamben, 2004) in which they are subjected to the
eugenic gaze and categorised as inhuman or sub-human is one strategy for
dealing with disability (Reave, 2008). ‘The real solution to heresy’ suggested
George Canguilhem in his discussion of the normal and the pathological
(1991: 280) ‘is extirpation’, meaning to destroy totally or exterminate. In
modernity medical ideas and practices have been a fertile source of radical
solutions to impairment. Medical solutions also embrace anthropophagic
strategies. They deal in the correction and rehabilitation of ‘abnormal bodies’. Cure/rehabilitation stands at the heart of the medical doctrine of salvation (soteriology) and it is a prospect often held up to disabled people by
optimists who fetishise scientific progress and promote biological solutions
to impairment.
Both strategies – to kill or to cure – transmit the same core cultural message:
disabled people represent ‘what not to be’ and are, therefore, ontologically
invalid or ‘uncivilised’. Social responses to impairment, in modernity, are
underpinned by the processes that constitute the psychogenisis of disability.
These include the emotional aversions and intolerances of impairment that
derive from the civilising process. The ontological invalidation that disabled
people experience in their everyday encounters is mediated primarily by the
emotion of disgust (with fear and pity in tow). At an existential level the
presence of the disabled body is unsettling for non-disabled people who are
often in denial about their own vulnerability. This is the psychological and
emotional component of what disability scholars call ableism. The standard
resolution to this ‘problem’ of non-disability in modernity has been to have
the object of discomfort – the disabled person – removed or corrected. The
sociogenesis of anthropoemic and anthropophagic strategies for dealing
with impairment are rooted in the emotional dispositions of non-disabled
people as they develop their civilised protocols for behaviour and bodily
comportment.
In what follows, I will focus on the ways in which the ‘civilising process’
invalidates impairment and demonstrate how opportunities to escape this
ontological dead-end usually require the erasure of disabled identity. In the
first section that follows I will give some examples of the way in which
one can read disability as a product of the civilising process. In the section,
thereafter, I will examine the psychogenesis of disability relating it to the
disgust response to impairment and to the development of ableism, the
complex of processes that exclude disabled people from the ‘psychic habitus’ (Elias, 2000: 367) of modernity. In the remaining two sections, I will

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19

examine the sociogenesis of disability in modernity by focusing on the two
major ‘civilising’, social responses to impairment, namely elimination and
correction.

Disability and the civilising process
The gods of Olympus showered heavenly mockery on deformity while
those with earthly authority condoned infanticide for children born with
impairments. The disabled pharmakos or scapegoat provided the communities of Antiquity with the opportunity to project their transgressions onto
those who – by virtue of their physical or intellectual difference – existed on
the margins of the polis. Such cultures of exclusion took new forms in the
Christian Middle Ages. The Lord of the Old Testament feared that anomalous bodies might ‘profane his sanctuaries’. Flesh and sin became so inextricably bound that any waywardness of the former became a sign of the latter.
Disability was positioned as a moral and ontological pollutant.
Modernity brings a new set of challenges to the place of disabled people in
the world. As cultures of superstition give way to the age of reason and rapid
social change rips through the stasis of the long established courtly tradition, a cultural process marked by the march of ‘civilisation’ introduces new
manners and technologies that slowly re-adjust Western self-consciousness,
making anew, simultaneously, its personality, its emotional values and its
organisational structures (Elias, 2000).
Yet the refinement of morals and manners that marks the civilising process is not without barbaric consequences. Civility segregates, creates social
distance between those who embody refinement and those who do not,
creating a new binary of bodies and minds and a new ‘tyranny of normalcy’
(Davis, 1995) predicated on the articulation of disgust for physical and
mental ‘inappropriateness’. As the quotidian demand for bodily delicacy
and emotional refinement advanced, so too did the ‘threshold of repugnance’ (Elias, 2000: 98–9, 414–21) and so too did intolerance of impairment. ‘A characteristic’, wrote Elias (2000: 103), ‘of the whole process that
we call civilization is this movement of segregation, this hiding “behind
the scenes” of what has become distasteful’. The deepening of emotional
control and new stricter demands around bodily comportment reduces the
social distance between social classes but creates an underclass of outsiders,
a new stratum of marginal men and women who were beyond the pale of
polite communion. In civilising modernity, the cultures of exclusion that
taint disabled people’s lives begin with pronouncements on etiquette that
condemn the ‘animalic’ element of humanity and proceed to the construction of stark, institutional spaces, camps of confinement and death. These
become places of internment for disabled people.
As civilising modernity plods along, it creates a new model of ‘cultural’
citizenship and, simultaneously, a framework for conduct that clarifies those

20 Civilising Modernity and Disabled People

who are eligible to embrace this cherished status. To do what is fitting, to
be fit and to be fit to do what is fitting with respect to the intricacies and
intimacies of social interaction is, increasingly, tailored and constrained.
The detail of appropriate conduct and emotional control is developed at
the quotidian level of everyday behaviour. Contempt and reserve is directed
towards those who do not appear to represent the embodiment of the civilised citizen. The unfit fail the test of fitness for citizenship. Disabled people
fail it every day, in the moralised environment where judgement of conduct
takes place.
Elias (2000: 159) notes that ‘The trend of the civilising movement towards
the stronger and stronger and more complete “intimization” of all bodily functions, towards their enclosure in particular enclaves, to put them
“behind closed doors”, has diverse consequences’. However, what these consequences might be for disabled people remains a mystery. Although Elias
recognises that the civilising process is a charter for segregation, he pays
scant attention to what life is like behind the doors that have been closed.
He describes the production of a secret world, an escalation of taboo and
the acquisition of techniques of emotional and physical self-control that are
developed to expiate disgust, shame and embarrassment. But what of those
who live in the shadows of this secret world, forced by the intolerances of
civility, to live behind its veil of righteousness? What of those who hide who
and what they are because the dead weight of accumulated social convention will not let them be? What is life like for those who have been socially
invalidated by the ever advancing ‘threshold of repugnance’? Elias does not
tell their story. However, he gives some clues about how it might be told.
The rest of this section gives examples of the ways in which the civilising
process configures disability.
As the idea of citizenship developed in modernity – particularly in the
quotidian spaces of everyday conduct – disability played a crucial role.
Garland-Thomson (1997: 42) argues that modern American citizenship is
constructed on the fabled idea of self-governing individualism which implies
a particular kind of body, one that is ‘a stable, neutral instrument of the
individual will’. The ideal citizen of the thrusting mid-nineteenth century
Republic – drawn in fine detail for example in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work,
particularly his portrait of Henry Thoreau (1862) – possesses the physical
and intellectual capital that is conspicuously absent in the ‘cripple’ and the
‘idiot’. The distinction between the normal body and its broken counterpart
is sharpened and naturalised by both literary representations – for example
the disabled and non-disabled characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin – and by
certain cultural and social practices that draw the line between the dead
world of the Rabelaisian grotesque and new civilised (yet as Elias points out,
mythical and theoretically naive) world of homo clausus. Crucial among
these cultural practices was the nineteenth-century ‘freak show’ which is
based on the ‘cardinal principle of enfreakment’, that is, the abrogation of

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‘the freak’s potential humanity’ (Garland-Thomson, 1997: 44). The emotion
of disgust – repugnance is Elias’ preferred term – mediates the freak show.
Not only does the emotion of disgust embody a ‘curious enticement’ but it
also embodies ‘a certain low evaluation of its object, a feeling of superiority’
(Kolnai, 2004: 42–4). The ‘show’, of course, simultaneously serves the parallel ‘positive’ purposes of confirming the spectator’s normalcy and humanity:
manifest, most compellingly in the difference between the civilised spectators and the baroque creatures on display.
The freak shows and the ‘lunatic exhibitions’, common in early modern
Germany, England and France in which asylum ‘inmates were shown as
caged monsters to a paying populace’ (Winzer, 1997: 100), highlighted the
difference between citizen/audience and exhibit/monster and consequently
pushed the status of disability towards the animal. It is however, precisely,
the drives of the body and the lowly impulses of nature that the civilising
processes seek to subvert. Disability finds itself pushed away from the norms
of conduct by the tide of civility, a tide that pushes ‘the more animalic
human activities … behind the scenes of people’s communal and social life’
and colonises these activities, indeed, invests our ‘whole instinctual and
affective life’ with ‘feelings of shame’ (Elias, 2000: 365).
Medicine as it grew in power and prestige, during the nineteenth century, replaced this carnival of normalisation and dehumanisation with a
science of much the same, introducing new categories, such as pathology
and abnormality, to sustain the ontological boundaries that kept disabled
and non-disabled people compartmentalised. The architecture of modern
Western citizenship is defined against the background of the ruin of disability, the broken timber of humanity that become candidates for the spaces of
exclusions, those whose rights were spelt out in a declaration of dependency
that was never written down.

Ableism and disgust: Psychogenesis and disability
The stratifying binary of disability/non-disability and the antagonism of the
latter towards the former is mediated and maintained, principally, by the
emotion of disgust. Disgust is the bile carried in a discursive complex that
Campbell (2008: 153) calls ‘ableism’: ‘a network of beliefs, processes and
practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal
standard) that is projected as perfect, species-typical and therefore essential
and fully human’. The body produced by ableism is equivalent to what
Kristeva (1982: 71) calls the ‘clean and proper body’. It is the body of the
‘normate’, the name that Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (1997) gives to the
body that thinks of itself as invulnerable and definitive. It is the hygienic,
aspirational body of civilising modernity. It is cast from the increasingly
stringent norms and rules about emotional behaviour and bodily display
that mark mundane social relations in the lebenswelt (lifeworld).

22 Civilising Modernity and Disabled People

This curious non-disabled body/self has no empirical existence per se. On
the contrary, the body of ableism is a normative construct, an invulnerable
ideal of being manifest in the imaginary of ‘modernist ontology, epistemology and ethics’ as something ‘secure, distinct, closed and autonomous’
(Shildrick, 2002: 51). It embraces ‘human perfectibility as a normative physical or psychological standard’ and involves ‘a curious disavowal of variation
and mortality’ (Kaplan, 2000: 303). It is what we are supposed to aspire to,
to learn to be but can never become. It has no grounding in the material
world. It is a ‘body schema, a psychic construction of wholeness that …
belies its own precariousness and vulnerability’ (Shildrick, 2002: 79). It is a
‘body divorced from time and space; a thoroughly artificial affair’ (Mitchell
and Snyder, 2000: 7), the epitome of civilisation, closed off from any connection with the animal side of humanity and from the ways in which our
bodily nature wallows in its carnal improprieties. It is a body aghast at the
messiness of existence.
Disability is the opposite of this ideal body, its ‘inverse reflection’
(Deutsch and Nussbaum, 2000: 13). The disabled body is or has the propensity to be unruly. In the kingdom of the ‘clean and proper body’, disability
is the epitome of ‘what not to be’. As a consequence the disabled body can
be easily excluded from the mainstream ‘psychic habitus’ (Elias, 2000: 167).
The ‘clean and proper’ – a normative body of delicacy, refinement and selfdiscipline – has powerful social consequences most manifest in its normalising dynamics. It is the standard of judgement against which disabled bodies
are invalidated and transformed into repellent objects. It is the emblem
of purity that by comparison creates existential unease. It apportions the
shame and repugnance that underwrite the civilising process (Elias, 2000:
114–19, 414–21).
Through ableism, modernity has been able to structure disability as
uncivilised, outside or on the margins of humanity. One of the great books
of the science of natural history published under the title Systema Naturae by
Linnaeus in 1735 distinguishes between homo sapiens and homo monstrosus.
In this classification impairment – at its extreme and highly visible end – is
excluded from the human family. The distinction is, in itself, an act of
violence and invalidation, an object lesson in transforming difference and
‘defect’ into the abominable. The distinction mobilises the aversive emotions
of fear and disgust. Ableism is a cruel teacher. It embodies violence at many
levels: ‘epistemic, psychic, ontological and physical’ (Campbell, 2008: 159).
It is at its most bellicose when it is mediated by disgust: a mediation invoked
mostly in the social fabrication of taboo and most compellingly in a context
when the human/animal boundary is under threat.
Ableism rests on the effort to eliminate from awareness, chaos, abjection,
animality and death: all that civilisation seeks to repress. It encourages us to
live in the false hope that we will not suffer and die, to adopt a perspective
of invulnerability, to confuse morality with beauty and to see death, pain

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and disability as the repulsive woes of mortality rather than as the existential basis for community and communication. Kolnai (2004: 74) reminds us
that, ‘in its full intention, it is death … that announces itself to us in the
phenomenon of disgust’. Disability, in modernity, has been produced in
the ontological household of the abject, as the antithesis of communication and community, in a place that we might on occasion peer into only
to ‘choke’ on the unsavoury sights that greet us. Disability is put out, put
away, hidden, segregated or transformed into its opposite, covered up by
whatever medical or aesthetic techniques are available to achieve this end.
Any opportunity that disability might have to take its place at the heart of
communication and community is thwarted by the ablest sensibilities that
push it back down among the disgusting, the sick, the dead and the dying.
In fact, as Elias (2000) suggested, the making of ‘civilised’ community and
communication in modernity proceeds by exclusion and interdiction, by
cutting out and hiding away whatever causes or might come to inspire angar
(choking) or anguista (tightness).
It is important to understand ableist disgust as an emotion that attests
to the failure of non-disabled people to fully recognise their own vulnerabilities and imperfections particularly as these relate to their mortal selves
and to the death and decay that is the fate of all. Although it appears as an
aversion to ‘the other’, it is a form of self-aversion or a means by which we
hide from the bodily basis of our own humanity (Nussbaum, 2004). Indeed,
disgust begins close to home and is derived from our discomfort with our
own bodily functions, our oozy, sticky ‘leaky selves’ (Shildrick, 1997; Kolnai,
2004), the fact that we cannot contain ourselves within our own boundaries
and the shame and embarrassment that the ‘civilising process’ brings to bear
upon us if our leakiness is exposed to others. Because modernity is a charter
for anal retentiveness, we cannot forgive ourselves for our physical impurities. We hold ourselves ransom to the myth of the ‘clean and proper’ body;
the perfect body of ableist culture is a myth that we use to screen ourselves
from the visceral realities of our own lives. The ableist body ‘helps’ non-disabled people cope with their fears about their own corporeal vulnerability.
It does so by invoking its opposite, the disabled body, a foreign entity that
is anomalous, chaotic and disgusting. Modern history helps to make this
object of disgust more tangible. Civilising processes clarify stigma and make
biological differences into socio-moral categories. Disgust provokes the civilising sensibilities. It warns them of the presence of possible contaminants
(Miller, 1997). Consequently, psychological and social distance between
disability and non-disability expands. Disgust in ‘it’s thought-content’ is
‘typically unreasonable, embodying magical ideas of contamination, and
impossible aspirations to purity, immortality, and non-animality, that are
just not in line with human life as we know it’ (Nussbaum, 2004: 12).
Disgust is an emotion that has a central role in our everyday relationships
with our bodies, our patterns of social interaction and – most pressingly

24 Civilising Modernity and Disabled People

from the perspective of this chapter – in processes of social exclusion.
Disgust is the emotional fuel of ableism.
The threat posed by ourselves to ourselves (and projected onto others), the
threat of our ‘bodiliness’ and the shame and anxiety associated with it is a
product of ableism, of the ‘tyranny of perfection’. Ableism makes the world
alien to disabled bodies and, at the same time, produces impairment as an
invalidating experience. It is manifest in our cultural inclination towards
normalcy by way of correction, towards homogeneity by way of disparagement of difference. What this means for disabled people is that they are
‘expected to reject their own bodies’ and ‘adjust to the carnal norms of nondisabled people’ (Paterson and Hughes, 1999: 608). The ‘corporeality of the
disabled body’ is, according to Campbell (2008: 157), ‘constantly in a state
of deferral’ awaiting the affective response that will demean it or the travails
of sociogenesis that will either do away with it or ‘make it better’.

Sociogenesis and the elimination of disability
Disabled people have to make a significant effort to establish their human
worth. This effort is a struggle against the civilising process and its tendency to marginalise disability at an ontological level. This can be exemplified by the case of intellectual disability. Stainton (2008: 486) argues that
‘the basic association of reason, personhood and human value has been
at the heart of the exclusion and oppression of people with intellectual
disabilities throughout western history’. The hypostatisation of reason
traps disabled people in the cusp of the human–non-human/animal divide
which is, according to Giorgio Agamben (2004), the fundamental division
that underpins the very possibility of politics. The world of man is ‘open
to formation’ intentional and free. By contrast, the animal is ‘poor in the
world’, captivated by dependency on its instinctual armoury (Heiddeger,
1995). ‘The animal’, according to Heiddeger (1993: 230), ‘is separated from
man by an abyss’. The history of the exclusion of disability is (explicable
through) the history of the human effort to efface its own animality, to
close the door to the brute in its own breast, to disavow its unreflexive self,
to expel messy nature from its core. The psychologist Paul Rozin argues
that the things that disgust us deeply do so because they remind us of our
animal origins (see, for example, Rozin and Fallon, 1987). Elias reminds
us (2000: 365) that the civilising process is a struggle against the ‘more
animalic human activities’, against those, for example, who are attributed
with wounded reasoning.
In the early modern period, disability registered most strongly at the
cultural level as corporeal excess, defect and monstrosity (Deutsch and
Nussbaum, 2000). ‘Freaks of nature’ began to shed supernatural explanation
and became objects of study for secular medical science. Teratology – the
science of monsters and a matter of much philosophical and theological

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speculation during the early modern period – became, by the end of the
nineteenth century, a sub-discipline of embryology (Park and Daston,
1981). Fiedler (1978: 24) argued that the ‘freak ... challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal
and human’. On this view, encounters with spectacular forms of physical
difference are emotionally powerful because they challenge the ‘normal’,
stable view of embodied self. Putting emotional, physical and social distance
between one’s self and the cause of this kind of visceral identity shock can
be achieved by an act of reclassification that dehumanises the aberrant
body. Medieval ideas that linked monstrosity to, for example, copulation
with animals began to decline in the wake of the rise of scientific explanations that ‘proclaimed the biological fraternity of men and “monsters”’.
However, ‘the surveillance and policing of humans with congenital anomalies made them “less than human”’ (Snigurowicz, 2004: 174). Indeed the
Eugenics movement of the late Victorian and Edwardian period came hard
on the heels of the ‘discovery’ of so-called objective, scientific and medical
explanations for disability. Today, debates about selective abortion, pre-natal
screening, euthanasia and physician-assisted death are intimately linked
with sentiments that question disabled people’s right to life (see, for example, Preistley, 2003: 35–60 and 166–88). It is not difficult to demonstrate a
eugenic sensibility at the heart of the new genetics.
When people have their identity reduced to something less than human,
to the animal in humanity, to objects of hatred and disgust like the Jews in
Nazi Germany or disabled people during the Edwardian craze for Eugenics,
or – to use Agamben’s example – the prisoners in Guantanamo bay, they
become reduced to ‘bare life’, become candidates for exclusion, torture,
enslavement, extermination and genocide. In this liminal social space –
what Agamben (2004: 79) calls ‘a zone of exception’ – that is the repulsive
borderland between the animal and the human, the possibilities for cruelty
are, as history has taught, all too imaginable. This ‘zone of exception’ may be
(relatively) ‘benign’ as in the case of people with achondroplasia who were
sometimes kept as pets by Roman Patricians (Garland-Thomson, 1995: 47)
but it can be and has been transformed – under the Third Reich – into a
slaughterhouse. Physical disability has been defined as a ‘disruption in the
field of the observer’ (Davis, 2000: 56). Historically, there have been times
when the observer has decided to clear the field.
From the perspective of non-disability, disability signals the presence of
impairment, unreason, sickness, monstrosity, abjection and death, all the
‘repulsive’ embodied characteristics that civilisation refuses, point blank, to
celebrate and seeks, desperately to disavow. Disability invokes too much of
the natural and the animal in man to sit comfortably in a culture that has
been intent on keeping an ‘abyss’ between them. The issue of distinction
and categorical clarity is at the heart of Mary Douglas’s (1991) analysis of
pollution and taboo. On this view the abominations of Leviticus – those

26 Civilising Modernity and Disabled People

biblical beatitudes on hygienic propriety – make sense only when we
understand that ‘holiness’ or purity ‘requires that different classes of things
shall not be confused’ which ‘means keeping distinct the categories of creation’ (1991: 53) particularly the animal and the human. This is testimony to
the unsettling and disturbing nature of the anomalous. It helps to explain
the sociological processes that consign disabled people to the marginal role
of the stranger (Hughes, 2002). The animal represents the unrestrained and
impulsive in man, and it is these very characteristics that civilisation seeks
to abrogate. Elias (2000: 384) notes that ‘offences against the prevailing pattern of drive and affect control, any letting go’ by members of a civilised
society is unacceptable and meets with strong disapproval.
The ontological insecurities of modernity become projected onto disabled
people and, therefore, the positivity, wisdom and strength that Nietzsche
recognises in the – so called – ‘unfit’ become obscured. Socially, disabled
people come to represent those who cannot practice self-restraint and,
as the ‘threshold of repugnance’ (Elias, 2000: 97–9) narrows, they are
‘rounded-up’ and ‘herded’ into institutions. The confinement of disability –
in the nineteenth century – marks the supreme moment of its passage into
interdiction, when the desire for social homogeneity – so characteristic
of modernity – finally admits to itself that its civilising tendencies must
be marked by clear corporeal prohibitions and that certain categories of
bodies/minds must be removed from polite society so that it can realise
the hygienic utopia inscribed in the civilising process. The punitive norm
embodied in the hegemonic drive towards an homogeneous and hygienic
culture demands many sacrifices. By the middle of the nineteenth century
any ’thing’ and every ’thing’ anomalous was a potential lamb to the slaughter. Cora Kaplan (2000: 302) describes how the ‘history of defect’ in the
early part of the twentieth century became ‘a pretext for genocide’, and she
notes that disability has proved a significant challenge to the ethic of tolerance that underlies modern liberalism. In this context, Georges Bataille’s
(1985) argument for a ‘heterology’ – a science that rescues the victims of
homogenising modernity – might have been written as a manifesto for disabled people. They, after all, have had to put up with the ‘civilising process’
in which the embedding of ever more prescriptive norms of bodily comportment confirms disability as a social contaminant, calling, more or less
explicitly, for a ‘disgust response’ to its presence. Consequently, disabled
people are ‘sacrificed’ (to use a term much loved by Bataille) on the grounds
that they are devoid of the kind of comportment that is a pre-requisite
for appropriate social participation. The residue of disgust – the angar and
anguista – that is a product of the civilising process is, thereby, mobilised as
social policy. It forms a kind of Dickensian clean-up operation that sweeps
disabled people off the streets and into the carceral spaces that soon come
to be dominated by medical custodians and their strategies for bodily or
mental correction.

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27

Sociogenesis as correction
There is another way to deal with disability, a technical (usually) medical
solution designed to assuage the excess of corporeality, the ‘surplus of life’
(Kolnai, 2004) that upsets the ‘civilised’ observer. This is the anthropophagic
strategy, the possibility of rescuing disability from the abyss of unacceptable
difference, through correction, rehabilitation, through finding ways to conceal or heal the ‘ontological deficit’ (Hughes, 2007). The quest to correct the
disabled body is about making disability and non-disability identical, about
transforming the pathological into the normal.
In ableist culture, the bodily forms of disabled people are marked, not just
by constitutional pathology but also by aesthetic unruliness. Disability represents deficit in competence and beauty. ‘Eugenics’, for example, ‘promised
to make humanity not just strong and smart but beautiful as well’ (Pernick,
1997: 91). The ontological disparagement of disability in the modern period
is a double-edged sword. It thrusts and slashes in the quotidian spaces of
the civilising world. Medical and aesthetic prejudice work in combination
to produce the view that disabled people’s ‘inabilities’ and ‘deficiencies’ are
products of the natural distribution of competence and beauty rather than
the social organisation of opportunity. Insofar as one cannot exchange what
one has not got or (easily) transform a deficit into a credit, the disabled body
is blocked in its possibilities to acquire cultural, economic or symbolic capital (see Blackmore and Hodgkins in this volume). Correction/rehabilitation
involves the attempted erasure of deficits of credibility that are simultaneously mechanical and undesirable. To be ‘what not to be’ is to be a stakeholder at the margins of the human community with few opportunities to
escape misrecognition and exile. ‘Correction’ offers a tangible promise of
redemption, through – to steal a phrase from Bourdieu (1984: 251) – ‘ontological promotion’.
Making able (rehabilitation) offers an alternative to long-term or permanent incarceration in quasi-medical institutions. Henri-Jacques Stiker
(2000: 128) argues that rehabilitation ‘marks the appearance of a culture
that attempts to complete the act of identification, of making identical’ and
that, ‘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’. The dynamic of the disgust response – down to the removal
of the aversive object – is, in a concrete way, reproduced in the practice
of rehabilitation. Modern professional therapeutic practice is designed to
normalise in the name of sameness. Aside from the positive value that it
can and does have for many, it represents an assault on bodily difference
and embodies an assumption that the norm (of wholeness) is redemptive.
Winance (2007: 627) notes that in France from the 1950s onwards, ‘the
term handicap’ relates to ‘divergence from a norm … of social performance’ and refers to a disabled person who, through medical means, is ‘to

28 Civilising Modernity and Disabled People

be re-adapted’. Rehabilitation also signifies betterment indicating a moral
element to correction. Rehabilitation is an offer of ontological promotion,
an invitation to join the community of civilised persons.
Assumptions about civilised bodily performances are clearly evident in the
field of therapy and rehabilitation. Aides that facilitate the ‘up-right’ stance
and comportment of people with mobility impairments are regarded as tools
for enhancing physical capital. The difference between homo erectus and
‘his’ slouched, primate predecessors might have a quite a lot to do with our
disdain for those who do not ‘walk tall’ as well as with the pervasive (nondisabled) view that a wheelchair is a place of confinement rather than a
vehicle of liberation. The medical term prosthesis is derived from the Greek
word meaning ‘addition’, suggesting nature in deficit. ‘In a literal sense’,
note Mitchell and Snyder (2000: 6), ‘a prosthesis seeks to accomplish an illusion’, perhaps a deceit. It covers-up. It attempts to represent what an individual is – at the level of biology and ontology – so that she can be embraced
by a community that will not tolerate her as she is. Therapies improve and
correct, some cure. The goal of speech and language therapy, for example,
is to transform ‘deficit communicators’ by providing them with the tools to
develop ‘civilised’ speech patterns. Recipients of the therapy are taught – like
the heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion –to embody the protocols of
‘competent communication’ and be able, therefore, to participate effectively
in civil social encounters. The person with the speech impairment is presented as a portent of social mess. To offend against protocol attracts aversion. Yet, these protocols are themselves carnally informed and arise from
the ways in which non-disabled bodies leave their imprint – the imprint
of normalcy – on the forms of communication that come to be defined as
acceptable. Impairment, in these normalised social spaces, is always an ontological lack. Rehabilitation – from the Latin ‘habilitare’, ‘to make able’ – is a
corrective, a pedagogical solution to our aversion for the disruption caused
by an ontological splinter in the otherwise perfect fleshy fabric of a slick
social encounter. Speech impairment is treated as a creeping unruliness that
threatens civility. From a ‘non-disabled’ perspective, the corrupting presence
of ontological deficit is a source of moral apprehension.
Disabled people can attempt to erase their difference by ‘passing as normal’ (Goffman, 1969) – a form of ontological bluff that is profoundly precarious. In equating social competence with the concealment of corporeal
difference, disabled people trade pride in who they are for the rewards of
assimilation. Elias understands this all too well. Passing, from his perspective, can be explained by ‘fear of degradation and is underpinned by the
alignment of one’s super-ego with’ the social demands for ‘self-constraint’
(Elias, 2000: 414). Given the pervasiveness of ableism and the ‘tyranny of
normalcy’, one can understand why this can be regarded as an attractive
bargain. The ‘right side’ of civility is an attractive place to be. One of the
ways to sustain credibility as a disabled person seems to be by convincing

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others that one is not what one is. Yet the cost of this civilising, ontological
strategy can be high. Its attraction hinges on the extent to which its protagonist internalises – as shame – the disgust response that, she assumes, she
will invoke if her impairment is not ‘corrected’ by concealment. However, if
the concealed impairment is exposed and the protective mantle of ‘passing’
collapses, the individual is caught in a deceit that may have profoundly
negative consequences for her social relationships.

Conclusion
Elias (2000: 118) refers to the ‘weeding out of the natural functions from
public life’ and in this regard, those who do not have their affects moulded
to a degree acceptable to their peers will be regarded as objects of disgust and
reduced to objectifying categories such as the ‘sick’, the ‘pathological’ or the
‘perverse’ (Elias, 2000: 120). This categorical ensemble forms the modernist,
negative medical and moral evaluations that have, like stray dogs, followed
disabled people around barking out testimonials to their ontological failures
and indiscretions.
Modern life has become troubled, increasingly –according to Elias – by
whatever reminds us of our animal origins and our visceral dispositions and
by those objects and events that trigger disgust. Disgust thrives on difference
because it is provoked by what is ‘opposed to (the) norm, direction or plan
of life’ (Kolnai, 2004: 72). Difference can be corrected, tidied away and if it
proves to be more troublesome, then a more radical strategy (of elimination)
can be deployed (Bauman, 1989). The holocaust is the obvious and most
extreme example of the ‘disposal of contaminants’ but the desire to eliminate difference in general or disability in particular can register in all sorts of
unexpected places. As this passage from the Diary of Virginia Wolf indicates,
the eugenic sensibility can manifest itself in the most ‘progressive’ minds:
On the tow path we met and had to pass a long line of imbeciles.
Everyone in that long line was a miserable shuffling idiotic creature, with
no forehead or no chin and imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare. It
was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed.
(Bell and McMellie, 1982: 13)
Of course, one need have no qualms about killing these wild, repulsive
creatures. It is clear that they exhibit no tangible sign of humanity to
trouble the conscience of a would-be executioner. Wolf, appalled by her
sister’s ‘imbecility’, by the shadow of a sibling presence that she could not
embrace, sees only an anthropoemic solution. Minor correction will suffice
for Eliza Doolittle just as speech therapy will help to tidy up the social mess
associated with speech impairment, but for the more disturbing proximity
of ‘imbecility’, a more radical solution is required. We use social policy to

30 Civilising Modernity and Disabled People

decontaminate and cleanse the social body in a host of different ways, and
we can correct individual bodies to make them more tolerable, sanitised and
even virtuous. And all in the name of civility!
In modernity the response to disability has been based on either the
anthropoe