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Expert comment: A Brief History of Literary Disability Studies

David Bolt 150 x 150 Wednesday 18 January 2017

David Bolt, Associate Professor Department of Disability and Education, looks at the history of literary disability studies.

What is literary disability studies? I have answered this question many times and yet still find myself at a loss for a concise reply. My preferred approach is via another question: what is disability studies? Encompassing experience, activism, representation, theory, language, legislation, education, and much more besides, disability studies is an academic discipline that engages with disability in the past, present, and future. In itself an interdisciplinary concern, it extends into many other interdisciplinary directions, one of which is literary disability studies. This field has been advanced by scholars who engage with disability studies with a focus on literary representation, literary theory, and literary criticism, the result being a relatively new approach to literary studies that deconstructs normative assumptions in a way that parallels, among other things, the feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial work of the last half century.

So much has happened in such a relatively short period of time that when reflecting on the current state of research in literary disability studies it can be helpful to conceive of three phases in its recent history. These phases moved from the foundational 1990s to the formative first decade and the focused second decade of the 21st century. There are far better and more complex ways of reflecting on this history but it is my proposition here that a foundational phase started in 1995 with the publication of Lennard Davis’s monograph Enforcing Normalcy; the formative phase started in 1999 with the launch of David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Corporealities book series; and the focused phase started in 2012 when Julia Miele Rodas, Elizabeth Donaldson, and I edited The Madwoman and the Blindman.

The Foundational Phase

Although literary disability studies can be traced back further – one example being social scientists who investigated the attitudes of authors to their blind characters, as did Jessica Langworthy in the 1930s, Jacob Twersky in the 1950s, and Donald Kirtley in the 1970s – the foundational phase began when, in 1995, Lennard Davis’s Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body recognised disability as a term that should have expanded the race-class-gender triad. The contention was that while many “progressive intellectuals” decried racism, sexism, and class bias, it did not occur to most of them that the very foundations on which their information systems were built, their very practices of “reading and writing, seeing, thinking, and moving” were “laden with assumptions about hearing, deafness, blindness, normalcy, paraplegia, and ability and disability in general” (Davis 4-5). This work brought poststructuralist cultural history to the concept of disability and in so doing gave “disability studies greater historical and theoretical depth” and poststructuralism a “much-needed specificity with regard to theories of the ‘normal’ body” (Bérubé x). Monographs about disability were published by other literary scholars, such as Thomas Couser, Brenda Brueggemann, and Georgina Kleege in the late 1990s, but Davis was singled out when the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism juxtaposed excerpts from Enforcing Normalcy with the work of Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and many other established cultural figures.

Completing what I have elsewhere termed the “classic trilogy of literary disability studies” (Bolt 754), the publication of Davis’s monograph was followed by that of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature in 1997 and David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Narrative prosthesis: Disability and the dependencies of discourse in 2000. These three frequently quoted foundational monographs explored and explained the ways in which literary narratives posited disability in a representational enforcement of the normative subject position. Their influence was such that even today, some twenty years on, I find myself reading or indeed writing citations of the classic trilogy on a daily basis.

As well as these monographs, edited collections also made an important contribution to the foundational phase of literary disability studies. In 1996, the success of Enforcing Normalcy was closely followed by that of Davis’s Disability Studies Reader. Currently celebrating its fifth edition, the book set out to place disability in a political, social, and cultural context. What is more, in the same year Rosemarie Garland-Thomson edited Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body; in 1997 David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder edited The Body and Physical Differences: Discourses of Disability; in 2001 James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson edited Embodied rhetorics: Disability in language and culture; And in 2002 Sharon Snyder, Brenda Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson edited Disability studies: Enabling the humanities. Along with those early monographs, these edited books, and others besides, provided the foundations for research in literary disability studies.

The Formative Phase

As the late 1990s advanced into the 21st century the formative phase began. Some of the authors who had been anthologised in the foundational edited works went on to publish their own monographs and in so doing were joined by other scholars who recognised the importance of the field.[1] The phase was exemplified in the late 1990s by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Corporealities: Discourses of Disability. Published by the University of Michigan Press, this was the first book series that endorsed a broad range of work on representational meanings of disability.[2] In providing a venue for major, book-length projects on cultural disability studies, the Corporealities series was formative because it was influential in the shaping and development of the field. What is more, this series led the way for comparable projects such as Stuart Murray and Robert McRuer’s Representations: Health, Disability, Culture (Liverpool University Press), which set out to make interdisciplinary research on cultural representations of health and disability more widely accessible.

The formative phase also advanced when the need for a specialised periodical was addressed in 2007 by the launch of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies (JLCDS). Published by Liverpool University Press, part of the Project MUSE collection, and based in Liverpool Hope University’s Centre for Culture and Disability Studies, JLCDS furthered progress in the field with a number of general and special issues. Given that the journal celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2016, the areas covered are far too numerous to mention here but one outstanding issue was Cripistemologies, which was guest edited by Merri Lisa Johnson and Robert McRuer in 2014.[3] This work fills two issues and posits ways of knowing that appreciate non-normative experience. As such it contributes to recent work in disability studies that redefines disability along the lines of affirmation, gain, complexity, and positivity.        

The Focused Phase 

Amid this progress the focused phase of literary disability studies began. In 2012, Julia Miele Rodas, Elizabeth Donaldson, and I edited The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability. Our premise was that when Charlotte Brontë challenged the role of women in Victorian society by writing her best known novel, she secured a place in the literary canon. Accordingly, Jane Eyre was subject to examinations from numerous perspectives, but no such scholarly book drew on disability studies. Conversely, this was the first time a volume on disability examined only one literary work, as Lennard Davis asserted in the foreword, which is why he called it “a coming of age moment for the study of disability” (ix). Indeed, the collection met with much critical acclaim for the ways in which authors such as Chris Gabbard, Essaka Joshua, Susannah Mintz, Martha Stoddard Holmes, and Margaret Rose Torrell revisited Brontë’s novel with a focus on disability.

Following this success, and inspired by David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s Corporealities, Elizabeth Donaldson, Julia Miele Rodas, and I started a new book series called Literary Disability Studies. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, this series was the first to focus on the exploration of literature and literary topics from a disability studies perspective. It was described as a “platform for the kinds of new conversations that will expand the field in years to come” (Stanback 114). Starting in 2015 with Patricia Friedrich’s monograph The Literary and Linguistic Construction of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, books already published include Chris Foss, Jonathan Gray, and Zach Whalen’s Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives and Michael Bradshaw’s Disabling Romanticism, and many more are under contract. 


In sketching out this very brief history of literary disability studies I contextualise the current state of the field. However, the foundational, formative, and focused progression does not reflect the ways in which many projects, editors, and authors have worked on many levels, nor how they have often crossed the tentative conceptual boundaries. Moreover, some highly influential authors and works are not mentioned at all, for the history could easily fill a heavy academic volume rather than this short reflective column. My aim here is only to capture a little something of how the field of literary disability studies has emerged from and indeed with cultural disability studies. This being so, although other scholars would undoubtedly posit a different history, I must conclude that the future of the field seems very hopeful. The informed critical engagement with literary representations of disability is helping to change social attitudes and this very change helps to inform the critical engagement.  

Works Cited

Bérubé, Michael. Foreword. Bending Over Backwards: Dismodernism and other Difficult Positions. Lennard J Davis. London: New York UP, 2002. vii-xii. Print.

Bolt, David. “Pretending to be a Normal Human Being: Peep Show, sitcom, and the momentary invocation of disability.” Disability and Society 31.6 (2016): 745-757. Print.

Davis, Lennard J. Enforcing normalcy: Disability, deafness, and the body. London: Verso, 1995. Print.

Davis, Lennard J. Foreword. The Madwoman and the Blindman: Jane Eyre, Discourse, Disability. Ed. David Bolt, Julia Miele Rodas, Elizabeth J Donaldson. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2012. ix-xii. Print.

Stanback, Emily. “Literary Disability Studies: The Series and the Field.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 8.1 (2014): 109–115. Print.



[1] Petra Kuppers, Robert McRuer, Stuart Murray, Felicity Nussbaum, Ato Quayson, and David Serlin were all among this number. Thomas Couser continued to contribute significantly to the field, too, as did the authors of the classic trilogy.

[2] The titles in this series include books by Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum; Henri-Jacques Stiker; Susan Crutchfield and Marcy Epstein; Linda Hamilton Krieger; Allen Thiher; Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander; Bradley Lewis; Michael Davidson; Tobin Siebers; Martha Stoddard Holmes; Carol Poore; Terry Rowden; Edward Wheatley; Margaret Price; David Gerber; Martha Rose; George McKay; Karen Bourrier; Shelley Tremain; Jenell Johnson; Anne McGuire; and so on.

[3] Other special guest editors have included Jim Ferris, Michael Davidson, Lucy Burke, Georgina Kleege, Petra Kuppers, James Overboe, Sharon Snyder, David Mitchell, Clare Barker, Stuart Murray, Elizabeth Donaldson, Catherine Prendergast, Thomas Couser, Ria Cheyne, Siobhan Senier, Tom Coogan, Rebecca Mallett, Stella Bolaki, Chris Gair, Alice Hall, Tobin Siebers, Tammy Berberi, Christian Flaugh, and Sören Fröhlich. It should be stressed that among the work on cultural disability studies in the special and general issues a high proportion had a literary focus.


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