My first stop on my disability studies list was the Disability Studies Reader, Lennard Davis’s omnibus field-in-a-box forth edition that amasses major debates and approaches from the last four decades of disability scholarship. Feeling like I have a fair scope of the landscape, I have now decided to dig in to the “classics” of the field, and I could think of no better place to start than Simi Linton’s iconic Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998).
Linton is on the shortlist of disability scholars everyone cites; I knew from reputation alone that her work was foundational in establishing academic disability studies in the liberal arts. She brings together knowledge from disability activism and argues for its place in the academy, calling into being the field we know today as disability studies. And in so doing, she also critiques the segregation of academic disability knowledge-making within applied fields that have traditionally held exclusive expertise on disability and impariment, especially fields that train nondisabled people to “care for” disabled people. Mining her own insights as a disabled person and employing the social model of disability, Linton critiques the deterministic way that most academic fields that discuss disability approach it as a problem to be solved, a tragedy to be remediated, and–as much as possible–an unfortunate occurrence to be avoided. Her book calls for a new kind of academic study of disability, one that investigates disability as a social and cultural phenomenon, one that resists the medicalization of disability, and one that seeks to educate disabled and nondisabled people alike to support a future in which disabled people might participate actively and be respected and valued for their unique personhood.
One important assertion of Linton’s argument is that disabled people’s perspectives on disability have been systematically ignored in favor of how nondisabled people imagine them to be. Perhaps in response and as a kind of corrective, Linton–who outs herself as disabled early in the book–speaks fiercely from her own perspective in her critiques. For instance, on the topic of doctor-assisted suicide, she plainly calls it murder, rather than hedging her argument in politically correct relativistic thinking about differing cultural opinions about the value of life. Likewise, when evaluating the quality of other discipline’s knowledge about disability, she sees any model that inadequately comprehends the social or cultural manifestations of disability as insufficient (largely without presenting evidence of this insufficiency). In this way, the book takes on a polemical quality that decries institutional injustices in a confrontation fundamentally rooted in self-assertion: Linton’s own claiming of disability, then, becomes the powerhouse of theory and critique.
I don’t mean to claim that the book is poorly argued, though I feel that it does present many perspectives we must accept as true without their being proven. I do not think this work would convince people within the applied fields she discusses to change their medicalized understandings of, or paternalistic approaches toward, disability. The main work of this book is to articulate the exigence of forming a new field of Disability Studies whose mission it would be to integrate perspectives from disability activism into the work of the university. She claims that this field’s work could have larger positive effects on the lives of disabled (and nondisabled) people outside university walls, but proving this is so is not the work of her argument, I think.
I don’t know how useful Linton’s work will be to my own scholarship going forward. While many of the topics she discusses are useful to the topics of learning disabilities and education, her focus in this book tends to lean toward talking about disabled people with mobility or sensory impairments. Her discussion of overcoming narratives in her second chapter caught my interest, though I will likely find more in-depth confrontation with overcoming narratives elsewhere. Likewise, her discussion of the disability politics involved in distinctions between special education and inclusive education models, while compelling, speaks in broad strokes about education schemes and possible alternatives. She seems to be calling for further investigation by the field she conjures in this book, and in that it presents more openings than it does answers.