Critical disability studies: rethinking the conventions for the age of postmodernity
As one of the newer disciplines in academia, disability studies has seen a remarkable expansion and development in little more than two decades that has moved it decisively away from the rehabilitation studies that previously marked its eﬀective limits to the status of an interdisciplinary subject that is as much at home with theory as with pragmatic solutions. It has become one of the places in which new ideas have evolved most rapidly, suggesting the kind of changes in ways of thinking that can have signiﬁcant material eﬀects in the everyday reality of people with disabilities. In recent years, the powerful emergence of what has come to be called critical disability studies (CDS) has added new force to the theoretical impetus already at the heart of the social model, taking it in innovative directions that challenge not simply existing doxa about the nature of disability, but questions of embodiment, identity and agency as they aﬀect all living beings. As I understand it, CDS is of crucial importance, no longer as some kind of putatively marginal interest, but to scholarship as a whole. Just as feminism, post-coloniality and queer theory have all successfully pushed out the theoretical boat, CDS is now the academic site to watch. What is exciting about each of those areas is that they have forced us to rethink everything. It is no longer a case of just ‘adding on’women or ethnic minorities to a pre-existing syllabus; the task is to ask how that changes our understanding of society in general. In the same way, a course on the philosophy or sociology of the body, for example, cannot simply consign disability issues to week 9, because any thoroughgoing consideration of the anomalous body introduces yet another arena of diﬀerence which once investigated has the capacity to change how we think about all sorts of other things. In short, our understanding of all bodies is aﬀected once we take the diﬀerence of disability into account. CDS emphatically cannot be sidelined, then, as primarily the concern of those with disabilities: insofar as each of us, however we are embodied, is complicit in the construction and maintenance of normative assumptions, it challenges every one of us to rethink the relations between disabled and non-disabled designations – not just ethically as has long been the demand, but ontologically, right at the heart of the whole question of self and other.