Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2008. Print.



In this book, Siebers is theorizing disability with three primary goals: 1) making an intervention into critical and cultural theory, 2) responding to critiques of identity politics by “classifying identity as an embodied representational category” (3), and 3) theorizing disability as a minority identity. Throughout this discussion, Siebers highlights and unpacks what he refers to as the “ideology of ability,” or the cultural ideology that has determined ability as the key marker of what constitutes the human. Siebers’ defense of identity politics in the face of critiques from cultural and critical theory is part of an overarching argument that the only way to productively respond to the ideology of ability is for disability to become seen as a politicized minority identity. In response to critiques of identity and identity politics, Siebers defines identity as shifting, social, contextual, and embodied–“a politicized identity possessing the ability to offer social critiques” (22). Siebers argues that claiming a group identity is what enables groups to fight for greater control over their lives, making the critique of minority identities (because these critiques always attack minority identities) conservative and deeply problematic. Because the ideology of ability makes it difficult for people with disabilities to claim disability as a minority identity, Siebers argues for shifting the emphasis in theory away from social construction and towards theories of philosophical realism, which open up room for daily, lived experiences of disability and of disability oppression to become a powerful locus of knowledge, coalition building, and political action.


While Siebers’ defense of identity politics is both useful and compelling, I find most useful his discussion of the ideology of ability. As he fleshes this concept out throughout the book, it becomes clear that this is a more useful framework than ableism (which is still a useful term, but more limited in scope) to capture how deeply cultural bias against disability runs. The key assumption of the ideology of ability—that ability is the basis for being seen as human—also helps to explain why the fear of disability is so acute. It also helps us understand disability not just as something created by inaccessible built environments, but as being at the core of systems of Western thought.

Chapter Summaries:

  • “Tender Organs, Narcissism, and Identity Politics:” This chapter responds to the accusation of narcissism frequently launched against disability studies and disability activists. Siebers looks at how psychoanalytic discussions of narcissism have proliferated outwards to become a reaction against disability rights movements in which critics argue that disability rights don’t make sense because we can’t possibly accommodate highly individual differences. Siebers argues that we need a critique of the individualization of disability because it unravels the accusation of narcissism and shows how individualization harms by making it difficult to build coalitions for political action.
  • “Body Theory:” This chapter responds to conventional representations  of pain which either individualize pain or treat it romantically as something the gives strength or becomes a new form of pleasure. Despite theoretical objections to discussions of reality, Siebers argues that we need more honest portrayals of the reality of daily life with disabilities to counter these problematic representations, open up further possibilities for political alliance, and counter the ideology of ability.
  • “Disability Studies and the Future of Identity Politics:” Here, Siebers discusses the difference between social construction and philosophical realism, ultimately arguing that we need to reimagine political identity outside of the terms of individual psychology and self-interest. He defends identity politics as important political work performed by a coalition defined by ideology, history, place and time. He argues that we need a redefinition of the human that does not depend on 18th c definitions of rationality, but rather makes recognizing the humanness of others a condition for our own humanness.
  • “Disability as Masquerade:” In this chapter, Siebers shifts ongoing discussions of passing to talk about masquerade, or acting in ways that exaggerate stigma for some effect such as not having one’s disability questioned. Siebers offers six fables/narratives that illustrate the possibilities and problems with masquerade, which argue that masquerade can be a powerful form of communication about disability, challenge assumptions about disability and intervene in systems of disability oppression. However, masquerade also functions in narratives of disability (including narratives where able-bodied people do “drag” performances as people with disabilities) to reinforce the ideology of ability.
  • “Disability Experience on Trial:” Here Siebers is responding to poststructural critiques of using experience as evidence and argues that we need to think about the political implications of our theorizing and focus on critique and emancipation.
  • “A Sexual Culture for Disabled People:” Siebers thinks about disability and sexuality together in this chapter, arguing that imagining a sexual culture for disabled people defamiliarizes how we currently think about sex, broadening definitions of sexual activity, highlighting the ways in which the ideology of ability determines how we imagine sex, highlighting the very tenuous nature of the distinction between the public and the private, and theorizing patterns of victimization faced by sexual minorities.
  • “Sex, Shame, and Disability Identity:”
  • “Disability and the Right to Have Rights:”


“When minority identities are pathologized by association with disability, the effect is never, I claim, merely metaphorical–a simple twisting of meaning a degree or two towards pathology. The pathologization of other identities by disability is referential: it summons the historical and representational structures by which disability, sickness, and injury come to signify inferior human status. The appearance of pathology, then, requires that we focus rigorous attention not only on symbolic association with disability but on disability as a reality of the human condition.” (6)

“Thus, identity is not the structure that creates a person’s pristine individuality or inner essence but the structure by which that person identifies and becomes identified with a set of social narratives, ideas, myths, values, and types of knowledge of varying reliability, usefulness, and verifiability. It represents the means by which the person, qua individual, comes to join a particular social body. It also represents the capacity to belong to a collective on the basis not merely of biological tendencies but symbolic ones–the very capacity that distinguishes humans from other animals.” (15)

“Physical pain is highly unpredictable and raw as reality. It pits the mind against body in ways that make the opposition between thought and ideology in most current body theory seem trivial. […] Pain is not a friend to humanity. It is not a secret resource for political change. It is not a well of delight for the individual. Theories that encourage these interpretations are not only unrealistic about pain; they contribute to the ideology of ability, marginalizing people with disabilities and making their stories of suffering and victimization both politically impotent and difficult to believe.” (64)