Dolmage, Jay. “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island.” Cultural Critique 77 (2011): 24-69. Print.



Drawing on Roxanne Mountford’s discussion of rhetorical spaces, Dolmage looks at the experience of Ellis Island for immigrants, focusing specifically on the way that the space and processing procedures at Ellis Island rhetorically constructed disability. Dolmage also highlights the ways in which constructions of disability were used to construct race at Ellis Island as well. Throughout the piece, Dolmage analyzes documents from Ellis Island, maps of the island, and photos of people moving through the space. As people moved through Ellis Island, immigrant bodies were literally marked during initial inspection for further medical testing. The decision to make these marks was based on visual cues that the space of the entrance to Ellis Island was designed to elicit, and the language of determining who to mark was laden early on with the language of eugenics. Dolmage argues that this literal marking taught unmarked immigrants to be wary of their own difference and to mark the difference of others.  Responding to “whitewashed” visions of Ellis Island that view it romantically as a rite of passage into American citizenship, Dolmage argues that Ellis Island functioned as a significant point of origin for eugenics. He further argues that the “human test” used at Ellis Island to identify disabled bodies–a test that assumes that one can visually determine “defects” of body and mind–spilled out of that rhetorical space and has become “one of the most pervasive social attitudes about disability” (45).


Dolmage emphasizes early on in the piece that he is focusing on the body as a rhetorical, rather than social, construction–a difference he argues is important because understanding the body as a rhetorical construction emphasizes the process of construction over the product. I find his discussion of the body as a rhetorical construction compelling and a more helpful lens for talking about rhetoric and the body than social construction.

Key Quotes:

“The social processing that Ellis Island engendered was all about identifying and sometimes manufacturing abnormal bodies: these elements are out of place; these bodies are disordered. […] At Ellis Island, the categories of defect and disability that adhere today were strongly grounded if not created, as was the diagnostic gaze that allowed for the nebulous application of the stigma of disability as we know it today. The space of Ellis Island circumscribed certain patterns of movement and practices of visualizing the body. The product was, often, the spectacle of Otherness. And all who passed through Ellis Island also became subject to–and then possessor and executor of–a certain gaze and a certain bodily attitude.” (26)

“The disabled body becomes a loose, flexible, and magnetic symbol easily layered over insinuations of deficiency of all colors, shapes, and locations. In this negative sense, disability functions rhetorically. Eugenic rhetoric, seeking to identify inferior genes, necessarily constructed deviant phenotypes, creating investigatory techniques, a visual shorthand for identifying and marking out undesirable elements.” (39)