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Accessible Stories: Response to G. Thomas Couser’s Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (2010)

G Thomas Couser’s Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing documents the rise of disability life writing as a popular genre over the last thirty years. Whereas in the past the memoir market was dominated by celebrities, particular movie stars, athletes, and politicians, the last three decades or so have seen the proliferation of the disability memoir, which Couser names the “autosomatography” (11). Often written by people who have no previous claim to fame, disability memoirs present the reading public with stories about the experience of life with anomalous bodies (nobodies writing about bodies, he terms “nobody / some body memoir” [3]). These works force readers to “face the body” (5), to confront illness and disability not through cultural myth alone but also through the lived experience of those writing from the other side of culture’s heavily policed border between able and disabled.

Couser claims that all disability memoir provides a potential good because it offers “mediated access to lives that would otherwise seem opaque and exotic” to mainstream audiences. However, he is also careful to distinguish between disability memoirs he sees as politically empowering and those he sees as reifying of negative stereotypes about disabled life.

He draws connections between the rise of disability memoirs and the rise of disability rights activism across American culture. He claims that memoir has historically served an important political function across a range of civil rights movements. Analogies here are easy to come by: feminism, black civil rights, and gay pride movements have all embraced life writing as a genre in order to fight dominant cultural stereotypes that justify oppression. Utilizing the politics of the personal, memoir allows individuals to counter stigmatizing stereotypes and represent their lives as they themselves experience them, reframing the terms for what it means to be black or a woman or a person with AIDS, for instance. Life writing, as a popular genre, doesn’t tend to require the same kinds of literary conventions that novels or poetry rely on, and as a result, unlettered people with important stories to tell have had access to a reading public that would normally be accessible only to those with advanced literary training.

In these respects, disability memoir has a potential to serve a counter-hegemonic function within broader culture: the genre creates a counter-discourse, by enabling disabled people to represent their own lived experience to argue back against stereotyped myths about disability and the overall cultural imperative to deny disabled people live complex, interesting lives.

On the other hand, Couser admits that many (it seems, most) disability memoirs do not live up to this counter-hegemonic potential. In his third chapter, “Rhetoric and Self-Representation in Disability Memoir,” he presents a taxonomy of different rhetorical stances toward disability that characterize most memoirs. He charts a range of popular memoirs–stories of supercrips overcoming the limitations of their impairments and leading “normal lives”; stories of blind or crippled authors mourning and accepting their tragic impairments; nostalgic stories about pre-impairment days now gone; stories of impaired people seeking cures or enduring horrific treatments. Most of these narratives focus exclusively on the experience of impairment (the individual experience of loss or injury), rather than disability (the social/cultural experience of discrimination and inaccess). They employ rhetorics of horror, pity, inspiration, and in each case cast disability as a personal problem to be overcome by those strong enough to endure.

Opposed to these conventional images of disability as tragic or inspiring impairment, Couser offers on two categories of anti-hegemonic narratives: on the one hand, he discusses “emancipatory” accounts of disabled lives that focus on the disabled person as oppressed by medical authority and institutionalization (for example I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, about a woman who was imprisoned in a mental institution under wrongful diagnosis); narratives like these function similar to slave narratives, Couser claims, drawing attention to unjust systems of oppression that control people’s lives.

On the other hand, he offers a range of “disability studies memoirs,” such as  Simi Linton’s My Body Politic and Steven Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind (which I’ve read before but clearly need to add to my lists for its discussion of his college years). These memoirs are distinct in that they do not focus on the lived experience of impairment exclusively, but instead investigate the social and cultural experience of disability. They examine the effects of stigma and stereotype, often by documenting the author’s own development of a politically engaged and affirming disability identity. In this way, they bare resemblance to coming-out narratives, wherein the disabled person stops hiding her disability, rejects negative beliefs about herself, and comes to accept her disability as an important and potentially emancipating aspect of herself. These memoirs tend to acknowledge the influence of civil rights legislation on the lives of disabled people as well, connecting the personal quite explicitly to the political.

As I was reading Couser’s book, I often stopped to think about the implications of disability memoir for people with Learning Disabilities. While Couser’s main focus seems to be on disabilities written on the body–illnesses, mobility or sensory impairments, stories that make us “face the body”–he seems also to suggest that disability memoirs about invisible, mental disabilities serve important functions too. Certainly LD memoirs like Mooney’s The Short Bus take a disability studies perspective to tell stories about slow learners that fight misconceptions, and it certainly offers political context for understanding cognitively embodied differences. But there’s something unique that’s likely happening in terms of the politics of education that LD memoirs can tell us, which wouldn’t be the focus of most other kinds of disability memoirs.

Here’s an interesting passage from a comp/rhet perspective, and one that potentially has unique implications for LD:

Writing a life is an aspect of accessibility that may seem secondary, but it is pertinent here because it is peculiar to disability: despite important recent developments in assistive technology (such as voice-recognition software), the process of composition itself may be complicated by some impairments. People who are blind, Deaf, paralyzed, or cognitively impaired are disadvantaged with regard to the conventional technologies of writing, which take for grated visual acuity, literacy in English as a first language, manual dexterity, and unimpaired intellect and memory. For people with may impairments, the process of drafting and revising a long narrative may seem dauntingly arduous. (32)

Here Couser suggests that the genre of long-form memoir writing offers particular challenges to many people with disabilities. I wonder about the possibilities for other modes of life writing that employ nontraditional literacy practices, like web publishing, multimodal composing, and collaborative storytelling. This may be somewhere my own pedagogical experiments explore. I wonder, too, about the unique challenges LD memoirists face in performing literacy in this way, and how a meta-cognitive awareness of the self as an LD or dyslexic author might influence the genre. Couser’s models for disability memoir offer some useful framing for the political and rhetorical possibilities of disability memoir, but I will have to do some considerable work on my own to figure out the unique valencies of academic disability memoir. That’s my work this semester, I think.

Next up: Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures; Mike Rose’s articles on cognition, basic writing, and academic discrimination; and Howard Gardner’s theories of Multiple Intelligence.

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