Disability Studies Dissertation Abstracts RDS Information RDS Subscription Form Forum: 2009 Pacific Rim Conference, Disability Studies Strand Forum Editor Introduction
Megan A. Conway, Ph.D. & Norma Jean Stodden, Ph.D.
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa
Aloha! We are pleased to present a forum comprised of four of the papers presented at the 2nd Disability Studies Strand of the Annual Pacific Rim Conference on Disability held in May, 2009, in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. This year’s conference will be held April 12-13 and we are excited to see the Disability Studies Strand grow and develop with every year.
The articles presented in this forum are a wonderful mix of perspectives and cultures, representing a sample of the diversity that is Disability Studies today. In Disabled Literature: Disabled Individuals in American Literature, Miles Beauchamp and Wendy Chung provide insight into the vast topic of the portrayal of disability in both modern literature and literature from the past. Rachel Carling Jenkins traveled from Australia to present A Way Forward: Presenting a Post-Modern Framework for Disability that explores the history of disabled people in Australia and the current struggle to shift perspectives about disability in that country. Akira Ruddle-Miyamoto and Ron Amundson provide a fascinating look at the link between treatment of Native Hawaiians and the settlement of persons with Hansen’s Disease on the Moloka‘i settlement of Kalaupapa in Holier Than Thou: Stigma and the Kokuas of the Kalaupapa Settlement. Finally, Lisa Boyce et al discuss innovative approaches to supporting children with disabilities and their families in their article Family Bookmaking: An Approach to Support Parent-Child Language Interactions in Natural Environments.
We hope you enjoy this forum and we also hope to see you at this year’s or future conferences in lovely Honolulu!
Forum Disabled Literature—Disabled Individuals in American Literature: Reflecting Culture(s)
Miles Beauchamp, Ph.D. & Wendy V. Chung, Ph.D.
Alliant International University, California, USA
Alijandra Mogilner, Ph.D.
Faucon International, California, USA
Portions of this paper were previously presented at the 2009 Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Abstract: In American literature, disabled characters are often portrayed as “that other” and used to generate fear, pathos, and hatred. This affects how variously-abled individuals are perceived and accepted by society. While writers are being more inclusive and broadening their inventory of characters, many characters are simply a negative plot tool.
Key Words: literature, superstition, evil, stereotypes, disabled, culture
The manner in which disabled individuals have been portrayed in modern and contemporary American literature has, for the most part, shown disabled women and men, girls and boys as feared, reviled, misunderstood, or pitied. Disabled characters have been used primarily, if not only, to elicit pathos, fear, or hatred, with the disability eliciting the feeling as much as the character.Literature affects, not just reflects, society and its views of disabled individuals; so how were disabled characters portrayed, what did they say, do, or become? What was reality-based and what was simple plot-driven necessity? During the later part of the 20th century and certainly into the 21st, especially with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, through the efforts of the Head Injury Foundation and other people with disabled rights-centered organizations, how disabled people are seen has been changing.
The dominant feelings held by nondisabled persons toward disabled persons are so very often sympathy, fear, or distaste; these reactions are often accompanied by avoidance or patronization. These terms also describe how disabled people are treated in American literature—that is, the subject of disability is avoided or the individuals are generally presented in a stereotypical, and often negative, manner. Disabled people are portrayed as helpless, super-abled (pure and good), or evil monsters. While these portrayals may seem unimportant—after all, literature isn’t “real life”—research has shown time and again that portrayals are extraordinarily important and influence culture(s) for decades and beyond.
The attitudes towards disabled individuals are as diverse as people are diverse. Some of those attitudes, however, can be grouped together: attitudes of fear, attitudes of revulsion, and attitudes of pity are just three of the more horrific ones. These attitudes have not only been displayed by people, they have also been imposed upon people—often disabled people. Historically, these attitudes resulted in practices of exclusion and confinement and defined whole people as wholly ill. Sterilization, especially of people with cognitive disabilities, was common in the United States and Europe at one time. Segregation denied people a wider voice, and their experiences, thoughts, and insights were ignored (Pirofski, n.d.).
In the contemporary United States, mainstreaming in schools, physical access to public sites, and technology have all improved access. Access, in turn, made people with disabilities visible and allowed more participation in society and in decision making. Those publicly seeking rights for disabled individuals have been active since the 1940s and have become particularly effective since the 1960s. As a result, in the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, there has been movement toward an acknowledgement of the normalcy of disability. Our literature (contemporary United States in this case) is starting to reflect that movement, albeit slowly and sometimes grudgingly. The literature of the nation is making its way from the two-dimensional portrayals of disabled individuals as monstrous, evil, inhuman, or cloyingly pitiful to characters that are fully functional. Those changes in characterization have grown out of a new sociopolitical consciousness about disability, particularly among disabled people themselves, and then from their push to not be characterized as the “other” by everyone else. Reading about the normal-disabled has joined the mainstreamed school and workplace in making America more inclusive (see Pirofski, n.d.).
There is another aspect to the appearance of disabled people in literature: to allow nondisabled people to deal with their own fears and become more aware of their own prejudices. Murphy explains:
“The kind of culture the handicapped American must face is just as much a part of the environs of his disability as his wheelchair. It hardly needs saying that the disabled, individually and as a group, contravene all the values of youth, virility, activity, and physical beauty that Americans cherish however little most individuals may embody them. Most handicapped people, myself included, sense that others resent them for this reason: we are the subverters of an American ideal, we become ugly and repulsive to the able-bodied. We represent a fearsome possibility” (1995, p. 143).
Among other things, reading about disabled people reveals to us disquieting truths about our response to traditionally stigmatized segments of the population, making clear that, beneath the benign tolerance that the more “enlightened” among us profess to feel, primal terrors beset us even as they do the least “enlightened.” Reading novels, poems, and plays will not, let us be clear, exorcise those terrors, but by raising the issues to the level of full consciousness, these works can deliver us from hypocrisy and make us aware of how little is altered by mere verbal changes: that superficial re-labeling of which we tend to be so foolishly proud (Murphy, 1995).