Davis, Lennard, ed. The Disability Studies Reader. 3rd Ed. New York: Routledge, 2010.


This reader is comprised of key articles and excerpts from key works in disability studies that frame a variety of disability studies issues, perspectives, and debates. The book is organized in seven parts: Historical Perspectives, The Politics of Disability, Stigma and Illness, Theorizing Disability, Identities and Intersectionalities, Disability and Culture, and Fiction, Memoir and Poetry. This reader would be a great text to use in a disability studies class.


The two pieces I found most useful, personally, were Davis’ “Constructing Normalcy” and Wendell’s “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability.” Davis’ chapter provides a helpful account of the historical construction of the normal, as well its implications—making this a really foundational piece that I’m sure I’ll return to over and over again. In Wendell’s piece, I was struck by her comment that while able-bodiedness allows people to ignore their bodies as they look towards an embodied ideal that they hope to attain, her disability makes clear that striving for this ideal (under any circumstances) is empty pursuit. Instead of ignoring her body while she keeps her eye on an unattainable prize, she has learned to acknowledge and honor her body as it is.

Davis’ critique of identity politics in “The End of Identity Politics” offers a compelling and useful analysis of the instability of disability as a category, but the “dismodern view” he advances which acknowledges difference as a core of life inches a little too close to talking about difference to the point that difference becomes depoliticized. Tobin Sieber’s response to critiques of identity politics in Disability Theory provides a really useful counterpoint.

Chapter Highlights

  • Lennard Davis, “Constructing Normalcy”: This piece is a historical tracing of the concept of the normal as it first gets taken up with the rise of statistics, then eugenics, and then as it is engaged as a frequent trope in literature. Davis argues that the norm is wrapped up in “a notion of progress, of industrialization and of ideological consolidation, of the the power of the bourgeoisie” (17). The norm functions as a bell curve that creates deviants and puts pressure on bodies to become the same. The norm solidifies itself ideologically by looking at the figure of the deviant in order to recover itself. The norm is never just physical, but also regarded as moral.
  • Colin Barnes, “A Brief History of Discrimination and Disabled People:” This piece is a historical survey of disability in Britain focused on ideologies, policies, and practices of discrimination surrounding disability. He tracks the movement from early ideas that disability was evil in a religious sense to the integration of people with disabilities into work life with some government support. The rise of industrialization meant that the pace of work became too fast for many workers with disabilities, and the later rise of eugenics led to increasing institutionalization. After WWII, the rise of the welfare state meant an emphasis on paternalistic aid that has created cycles of dependency. Reflecting on the current ideologies and practices of discrimination surrounding disability, Barnes offers a 5-pronged critique of the medical model of disability.
  • James C. Wilson, “Disability and the Human Genome:” In this piece, Wilson discusses genome mapping as a kind of textual process aimed at being able to identify and rewrite (correct) “errors” in the body/text. He argues that the genetic model reinforces the idea of disability as negative and creates a “genetic Other.” Wilson wants to reframe genetics as difference in accordance with disability theory, arguing that “Perhaps the focus should be not on how to eliminate, but instead on how to accommodate variation. Rhetoric that casts disability as burden stigmatizes people with disabilities and makes this accommodation much more difficult” (59).
  • James Charlton, “The Dimensions of Disability Oppression:” Charlton is responding to academic analyses of disability oppression focused on deviance and stigma with a Marxist analysis that links disability oppression with other historic oppressions through a logic of domination reified by the values of individualization and profit that drive global capitalism.
  • Bradley Lewis, “A Mad Fight: Psychiatry and Disability Activism:” Lewis is looking at the Mad Pride movement and tracing its similarities and possibilities of coalition with disability movements in the struggle against individualization, medicalization, and ableism contained in conventional conceptions of disability. Lewis argues, “Mental illness is not an objective medical reality but rather either a negative label or a strategy for coping in a mad world” (165). Mad Pride as a movement argues that psychiatry is limited, argues that there should be no forced treatments, and advocates for greater patient control, including access to alternatives to medical treatment.
  • Susan Sontag, “AIDS and Its Metaphors”: Sontag’s article is a critique of the metaphor of “full-blown AIDS,” which implies that HIV infection is an automatic death sentence. Sontag argues that this metaphor collapses infection and illness and makes the infected a social pariah, making people reluctant to get tested and reinforcing fear of the disease.
  • David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, “Narrative Prosthesis”: In this piece, the authors use the term “narrative prosthesis” to refer to the way disability is used in literature “as a stock feature of characterization” and “as an opportunistic metaphorical device” (274). They argue that literature frequently invokes disability as a useful metaphor–not to capture the experiences of people with disabilities. The disabled body is used consistently as a trope for exploring the mind/body split and is used to challenge ideals surrounding this split, but disability as a trope is used in ways that essentialize disability.
  • Lennard Davis, “The End of Identity Politics: On Disability as an Unstable Category”: In this piece, Davis applies critiques of identity politics to disability. Despite claims that disability is just coming together as an identity group, Davis argues that we need to recognize that it is an unstable category with very porous boundaries. Davis advocates a “dismodern view” that recognizes disability (in the sense of abnormal embodiment) as at the core of oppressive politics since the eugenics movement. According to Davis, dismodernism encourages us to recognize difference as core and to develop a new ethics of care about the body.
  • Susan Wendell, “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability:” This piece theorizes disability looking through a feminist lens, paying careful attention to areas of overlap between disability studies and feminism (especially feminist concern for the body). Among these areas of overlap, Wendell discusses problems with definitions of disability, the social construction of disability, the idea that the oppression of the disabled body is tied up with the oppression of all bodies, the treatment of people with disabilities as Other, and the ways in which the particular knowledge of people with disabilities is consistently silenced.
  • Chris Bell, “Is Disability Studies Actually White Disability Studies?”: In this piece, Bell argues that disability studies is not inclusive, but would more appropriately be called “white disability studies.” Bell provides an analysis of the whiteness and failure to account for racial and ethnic difference in key texts in disability studies. He follows this analysis up with a satirical list of 10 things not to do if people want things to stay the same in disability studies. Davis argues that if nothing else, disability studies at least needs to acknowledge its failures at inclusivity and be honest about the limited, white experience of disability it speaks to.


“The concept of a norm, unlike that of an ideal, implies that the majority of the population must or should somehow be part of the norm. The norm pins down that majority of the population that falls under the arch of the standard bell-shaped curve. […] Any bell curve will always have at its extremities those characteristics that deviate from the norm. So, with the concept of the norm comes the concept of deviations or extremes. When we think of bodies, in a society where the concept of the norm is operative, then people with disabilities will be thought of as deviants.” (Lennard Davis, “Constructing Normalcy,” 7)

“Indeed, as we have seen, the genetic model of disability as defective or corrupted text reduces people with disabilities to the level of spelling mistakes, typographical errors that need to be eliminated by genetic editors.” (Wilson 57)

“When you listen to this culture in a disabled body, you hear how often health and physical vigour are talked about as if they were moral virtues. People constantly praise others for their ‘energy,’ their stamina, their ability to work long hours. Of course, acting on behalf of one’s health can be a virtue, and undermining one’s health can be a vice, but ‘success’ at being healthy, like beauty, is always partly a matter of luck and therefore beyond our control. When health is spoken of as a virtue, people who lack it are made to feel inadequate. […] [J]ust as treating cultural standards of beauty as essential virtues for women harms most women, treating health and vigour as moral virtues for everyone harms people with disabilities and illnesses.” (Wendell 343-44)