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The Rhetorics of Disability

Workshop Leaders: Rachel Adams, Columbia University; Michael Berube, Penn State University

Workshop Leaders:

Rachel Adams (Columbia University)
Michael Bérubé (Penn State University)

When it comes to disability, words matter in very real, immediate ways. It makes a difference whether we call someone a moron, a retard, or a person with an intellectual disability; whether we use the term crippled, handicapped, or disabled; even whether we call someone a disabled person or a person with a disability. This workshop will move beyond the usual discussions of “positive” and “negative” rhetorical representations to a more nuanced and historicized understanding of how the study of disability and rhetoric can influence each other.

With this in mind, our workshop will address the following questions:

How and why might it be useful to historicize the evolution of the rhetorical formulation of disability?

What is the significance of reclaiming terms such as crip, gimp and freak? How do such projects intersect with the reclamation of terms such as bitch and queer?

Moving beyond the study of individual terms, how might attention to disability shape rhetorical analysis of literary and cultural texts?

Can a more nuanced understanding of rhetoric offer new insight about problems and challenges within disability studies?

How are certain persons enabled or disabled by an emphasis on spoken and/or written expression?

What would it mean to apply rhetorical analysis to disabled forms of expression such as collaborative autobiography, facilitated communication, or augmentative communication devices?

What is the place of technology in understanding the relationship between rhetoric and disability in the contemporary world?

Preliminary discussions in our workshop will draw on pre-circulated readings that will create a shared fund of knowledge. Readings will include the special section of the Modern Language Association’s Profession 2010 on “Disability and Language,” as well as criticism by Michael Davidson, Simi Linton, Robert McRuer, Lennard Davis, Petra Kuppers, Tobin Siebers, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Michael Berube. We may also look at fiction and poetry by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Mark Haddon, Kenny Fries, Cheryl Marie Wade and Jim Ferris. These discussions will form the basis for collaborative discussions of each participant’s project in the later sessions. To facilitate a meaningful exchange, participants and workshop leaders will be expected to submit a 5-6 page extended abstract/excerpt from a current research project or equivalent work in other modalities prior to the workshop, which will be circulated among the group along with the readings. Those interested in participating in the workshop should send a CV and a two-page statement outlining how their current research and/or teaching would be enriched by participation in the workshop.

Session Organizers:

Rachel Adams is Professor of English and American Studies, and director of “The Future of Disability Studies” project at Columbia University. She is the author of Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2001) as well as essays on gender and disability. She is finishing a memoir about raising a child with a disability called Aiming High Enough to be published by Yale University Press.

Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State University. He is also the author of Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child (Pantheon, 1996) and numerous essays on disability and disability studies in both academic and popular journals. His most recent project is Narrative and Intellectual Disability.

Questions should be directed to Michael Bérubé  at

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