Wilson, James C. and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, eds. Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2001.


This edited collection explores the intersection of rhetoric and disability studies, an intersection that the editors describe in their introduction as rooted in the lower status both fields have mutually experienced because of their relationship to the body. The foundation for this collection is built on the challenges the editors issue to both modernist ideals of the normative, able body and the dehumanized, monstrous other that Aristotle opposes to his ideal human speaker. In response to discourses of normative embodiment that deny all “others” both specificity and subjecthood, the editors emphasize the use of “disability” as a strategic term and the importance of recognizing the specificity of disability. The editors also forefront a postmodern understanding of rhetoric as a means of intervening into dominant scripts about disability, revise accepted histories, and denaturalize the ideal of the normative body so as to open up new spaces for agency. At the same time, they also call for increased attention to the material (economic) conditions that so often surround disability.

The collection is split into three sections that focus, respectively, on the disabled subject, disability and education, and cultural rhetorics of disability. Although the twelve essays included in the collection represent a variety of different approaches, a reliance on rhetorical analysis, archival work, and/or personal narrative characterizes much of the work included, highlighting the collection’s overall concern with issues of representation, historically-rooted understandings of disability, and what the editors refer to in the introduction as the “politics of experience” (11). Some of the key questions underlying work in the collection include:

  • Who can speak? How does disability affect one’s status as speaker and/or writer?
  • How is disability represented, both visually and textually?
  • What are the implications of the narrative of disability we rely on?
  • What theories of communication do we invoke when we teach disabled students?
  • How do extraordinary bodies change our understanding of the ordinary spaces we occupy (such as the classroom)?

Chapters of Interest

Catherine Prendergast’s “On the Rhetorics of Mental Disability” (45-60): Explores the way that mental disability often entails a denial of “rhetoricability,” a term Prendergast uses to describe one’s status as a speaking subject. Prendergast argues that our deeply embedded sense of language as a highly rational pursuit results in the assumption that the mentally disabled do not speak in any way that is worth hearing. Undoing this assumption would require a rethinking of language that many view as threatening as the challenge the physically disabled pose to ideals of normative embodiment.

G. Thomas Crouser’s “Conflicting Paradigms: The Rhetorics of Disability Memoir” (78-91): Crouser identifies five different narratives of disability that often characterize disability memoir’s. In addition to describing each different narrative and providing examples, he also traces their implications in terms of the way that the construct disability and the degree to which they either reinforce or resist hegemonic notions of disability. Crouser further troubles the degree to which autobiography might be seen as a potential vehicle for making non-normative experiences legible to the dominant culture by highlighting the politics that underly publishing and pointing out the physical and material conditions that memoir writing often depends on.

Brenda Jo Brueggemann’s “Deafness, Literacy, Rhetoric: Legacies of Language and Communication” (115-34): Differentiates between understandings of language as product and language as craft. The former refers to the idea that language is meant to convey discrete ideas while the former entails a more creative understanding of language in which meaning results through (rather than prior to) language use. Brueggemann argues that the overwhelming reliance on the idea of language as product in deaf education has effected deaf students’ success in higher education contexts that rely on an understanding of language as craft.

Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky’s “Putting Disability in Its Place: It’s Not a Joking Matter” (200-28): This piece is essentially a response to a general reluctance to change physical spaces to accomodate the disabled. The writers argue that the spaces we construct at once reflect and continually reconstitute an ideal group or cultural identity by distinguishing those for whom that space is intended (those who can access it easily) and those who have been excluded from the imagined group identity (those who have difficulty accessing the space). Language that frames disability as an individual misfortune attempt to remove themselves from the political responsibility of making spaces accessible, thus preserving the ideal group identity that the inclusion of the disabled (through significant changes in the space) might undo.

Quotable Quotes:

“The meaning of our bodies is produced in continuous, lifelong negotiations between how we see ourselves and how our culture sees us.” (Martha Stoddard Holmes 27)

“The problem of how a place is defined and how a self defines itself in relation to that place are always-already taken care of before the immersion of a self into a place. The idea of the ‘ready-made’ implies not only that any making of a place is no longer necessary but also that the making of an identity in relation to a place will be taken care of by the place into which the self is immersed. Thus, who we are is defined wholly by the ‘self’ which our place has ‘made ready’ for us to step into. […] But when our home and when our community of speakers is problematized, so is our process of self-definition. When the question of ‘belonging’ is raised, so too is the question of identity.” ( Rod Michalko and Tanya Titchkosky 206)