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What Literature Tells Us About How We Treat Disability

January 12, 2018

The controversy over Toby Young’s appointment to, and then resignation from, the Office for Students, and especially his comments about wheelchair ramps in schools, dyslexic students and accessible assessments, indicates how rife disability oppression remains in our cultural and educational institutions. There is a direct connection between negative writing about disability – stereotypes, prejudices, hate speech – and the treatment of disabled people in society. Reading literature provides one window on to the narratives about disability that circulate across cultures and throughout history.

King Richard’s soliloquy at the start of Richard III is one of the most dramatic openings of any piece of literature. From the play’s very first lines, Shakespeare stresses that his central character is vengeful, vindictive and morally vacuous. Richard tells us that he is “determinèd to prove a villain”, and everything that follows, it is made clear, will be part of the pursuit of this determination. But Richard spells out specific details that help us understand his hatred. He is, he observes, “not shaped for sportive tricks”, but rather is “rudely stamped”, “deformed, unfinished”, “scarce half made up” and “cheated of feature by dissembling nature”. Richard is disabled, and the fact of his disabled difference is given as an explanation for his desire to be “subtle, false and treacherous”.

Many literary villains are disabled, providing a metaphorical shortcut to ideas of deviance, bitterness or desire for revenge. So Richard’s soliloquy is not actually signalling that the play is a text about a man with disabilities. Here an “unfinished” body is more about Richard’s character than any real sense of embodied experience. It is treachery, rather than disability, that his “deformations” signify.

Disability is everywhere in literature, across all periods and genres, whether in medieval saints’ narratives, the sentimentality of the 19th-century novel, modernist obsessions with eugenics or contemporary preoccupations with mental health. Often in these stories disability appears in the same way as it does in Richard III, namely as a narrative device that illuminates what appear to be more “important” elements of plot or character. Often it exposes the anxieties or preoccupations of the historical moment. So, for example, Tim Cratchit, the disabled child in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, facilitates that novel’s meditation on greed, wealth and charity even though he barely features. Likewise, Bertha Mason, Charlotte Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic” in Jane Eyre, has been read as expressing the outrage of gender- and race-based oppressions, while Rochester, who loses a hand and is blinded at the end of the novel, allows for the exploration of questions of romance and care. Captain Ahab’s prosthetic leg in Melville’s Moby-Dick is not simply the sign of a historical encounter with the great white whale; it is far more meaningful as a marker of the mania and obsession that will lead Ahab to pursue his quarry to the point of his own death.

In these texts and others disability is fundamentally transparent, something to be looked through to discuss other concerns. The lens that disability provides might make readers think more about “being human”, or provoke ideas of shock, fear, deviance or pity, but at heart these are understood as “universal” issues rather than anything specific about disability experience. In Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Clifford Chatterley’s paralysis and wheelchair use are both a commentary on the barbarity of the first world war and the sterility of the Chatterleys’ marriage that licenses Constance’s explorations; Clifford’s actual experience of his wheelchair is less important than the wider contemplations it makes possible.

Disability has so often been represented in such metaphorical terms that it can seem almost invisible. Every crime novel with a scarred villain, or melodrama whose sentimentality relies on a “retarded” child, doesn’t require an actual engagement with the details of such difference. Readers, well attuned to the conventions of genre, understand that the lives of such characters are not as important as what they symbolise. As such, literature can mirror and perpetuate those social processes by which people with disabilities are marginalised and excluded.

But just as the end of the last century saw the rise of disability rights movements, so it heralded changes in the ways literature presented physical and cognitive difference. Life writing about disability and mental health formed a major part of the memoir boom of the 1990s, while fiction, drama and poetry embraced the narrative possibilities that came with disability viewpoints. Writing from within first-person disability perspectives is not a contemporary phenomenon: people with disabilities have always written about them – think of Milton or Joyce on blindness, and indeed the very shift in our thinking about literature that comes from seeing these two writers as having disabilities; while Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is a famous example of experimental disability writing from the 1920s.

But it has become a more common technique in the last few decades. Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, for example, is narrated by a performer in a freak show, enabling a subversive and satirical commentary on the exclusions and prejudices of American society. Arguably the best known text that uses cognitive difference to shape its narrative viewpoint is Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The novel, recounted by its protagonist, is full of alternative perspectives and ways of seeing the world that autism, a condition seemingly beyond biomedical knowledge for most of the 20th century, is now understood to possess. In such writing, disability is conceived as difference and not deficit. It is not seen as a tragedy to be overcome or a disaster to be feared. In the best contemporary writing about disability, such difference is shown to be often mundane and ordinary. A disabled life is one among many.

Representation matters. In a time when the logic of austerity demands endless efficiency, and with Brexit threatening to reshape everything from local economies to human rights legislation, it is more important than ever to think about how disability is represented in our society: in the media; in fiction; in television and film; in political discourse and public policy. People with disabilities are frequently used as scapegoats, blamed for being a drain on stretched resources in order to mask insufficiencies in health, education and welfare provision. Media hysteria around the idea of benefit scroungers has fuelled a resurgence of Victorian ideas about the undeserving poor. People with disabilities are unproductive, cheat the welfare system, are a burden and should not be supported by the state. In the spirit of nationalist pride, we are invited to celebrate the achievements of our “supercrip” Paralympians while (as many activist athletes point out) “ordinary” disabled people are losing their income and their housing to cuts.

These ideas, and the policies they underpin, are not new. Literature gives context for understanding such confused and conflicting contemporary discourses. It helps trace where stereotypes and oppressions have come from and how they have evolved. Dominant ideas about disability don’t necessarily reflect the reality of lives and capabilities, but fit the political agendas of particular times and places. We can find in literature endless examples of the prejudices that surround disability, but we can also encounter the complexity of the world of people with disabilities and the rich and vibrant histories they make. Reading, as an engagement with imagined possibilities, makes for better understanding of the shades of human difference that disability highlights.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2018 11:28 am

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  2. January 13, 2018 12:57 am

    My essay might be of interest. Hephaestus: Disability Studies: Disability In Literature http://illnessandcivilization.blogspot.ca/2009/08/disability-in-literature-by-samuel.html

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