Hansen on Ellis and Garland-Thomson and Kent and Robertson, 'Interdisciplinary Approaches to Disability: Looking Towards the Future'

Katie Ellis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Mike Kent, Rachel Robertson, eds.
Nancy Hansen

Katie Ellis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Mike Kent, Rachel Robertson, eds. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Disability: Looking Towards the Future. Volume 2. Interdisciplinary Disability Studies Series. New York: Routledge, 2018. Illustrations. xxv + 299 pp. $155.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-48401-6.

Reviewed by Nancy Hansen (University of Manitoba) Published on H-Disability (January, 2020) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53919

This book is the latest in the Routledge Interdisciplinary Disability Studies series. The editors have adopted a truly intersectional approach to disability studies. They have drawn together a wide range of international contributors from varied disciplines and diverse backgrounds. Their group of thirty-eight authors is composed of established scholars and those about to make their mark.

The edited volume has its roots in a 2015 seminar. It is divided into five distinct sections: media and communication, arts and culture, complexity and innovation, place and experience, and the evolution of disability studies as a discipline. This is a somewhat esoteric work, and, on the face of it, it is unclear why the editors have chosen to divide the book in this manner. However, in their introductory chapter the editors lay the groundwork for an interdisciplinary approach to critical disability studies to place disability where approaches are rarely considered. Identifying connections and intersections helps naturalize the presence of disability issues within more “established” disciplines. In doing so, it is indicative of the next phase of disability studies in this all too often marginalized field of study.

Part 1 explores the relationship between social media and more “e-media” platforms. Part 2 examines art and culture depictions of the body and their impact on traditional disability studies. Part 3 looks at knowledge production and the way disability studies moves this production in new directions, questioning the nature of knowledge and research. Part 4 considers the nature of space, belonging, the meaning of inclusion, concepts of decolonization connected to disability studies, and various global intersections. Finally, part 5 delves into the frontline realities of disability and the ongoing evolution of disability studies.

In the contributions to part 1, Beth A. Haller and Matthew Wangeman trace the beginnings of disability studies as a discipline in North America. The authors move away from the traditional medical, biological focus of disability toward a more diverse community-based approach, highlighting the importance of electronic media as a means of facilitating access and community. In particular, they underscore the necessity to change teaching around disability in form and content. In doing so, their chapter moves seamlessly on to the contribution by Mike Kent, Katie Ellis, Tim Pitman, Leanne McRae, and Natalie Latter who examine disability in higher education and particularly the provision of mental health support. These authors address the historic barriers to postsecondary education, emphasizing the lack of support mechanisms and flexibility despite ever-increasing need. Their work has particular significance given the apparent continuing stigma that surrounds mental health issues. The authors’ key assertion is the overreliance on technology as a “quick fix” coupled with how a lack of awareness of mental health issues has helped maintain its “invisibility,” further hampering support access. 

In the fourth of the five chapters in this section, Simon Ledder explores disability and the phenomenon of electronic gaming. This is done on several fronts; recent minor improvements in form and content is noted, but for the most part, disability, when featured at all, is often synonymous with flawed, negative treatment. There have been small improvements in accessibility, but the underlying norm of ableism, coupled with the lack of accessibility within games, remains. Olivia Banner concludes this first part of the collection by presenting a cautionary tale that addresses the role played by algorithms in the creation of disability data and their relationship to the healthcare industry. Banner illustrates how majority understandings of disability provide the foundation for digital media platforms, consequently strongly influencing what is “known” about disability.

The chapters that form part 2 begin with Gretchen E. Henderson’s exposition of how space and place for disabled people is determined both by how disability is understood and how cultural space is used. She postulates how artistic space can be reframed and interrogated, along with art itself, to become inclusive of disability. Next, Anne Waldschmidt discusses the subjective arbitrary nature of what constitutes disability and non-disability. To do this, she documents the history and development of the social model of disability, focusing on the sociocultural impact of the social model approach and the need for an interdisciplinary approach to naturalize difference while also emphasizing the importance of cultural context. Next, Suzanne Ingelbrecht considers disability, performance, and privilege and their relationship to non-disability. The marginal creative space that disabled bodies often occupy is studied in conjunction with embedded negative perceptions grounded in misconceptions of vulnerability. Theresa Miller challenges Western concepts of both disability and care as commonly portrayed in literature. Miller posits that key absences have resulted in simplified understandings of disability because of their limited grounding in reality or the lived experience of disabled people. Amanda Cachia investigates creative ways of providing access to cultural collections for disabled people with all types of bodies, by using in-depth explorations of nontraditional forms of curatorial practice that promote substantive inclusion. Finally, Saili S. Kulkarni interrogates teacher education and the theoretical disconnect with special education concepts of disability studies. She advocates moving beyond traditional deficit binaries to challenge current knowledge construction in favor of incorporating social justice, oppression, and interdisciplinary approaches to disability.

Louisa Smith and Leanne Dowse launch part 3 by exploring the relational complexities between power and voice. They do this by underscoring how individuality is lost when people are reduced to diagnostic labeling and block identities. Louise Hickman and David Serlin document the dehumanizing approach to historical disability research and experimentation. The authors highlight the underlying objectification, the privilege, and the overarching normalcy trope of traditional research. Brian Goldfarb and Suzanne Stolz then interrogate how speed, space, and time are defined in non-disabled terms. These understandings determine who “fits” where, and the necessity to reconfigure concepts of community and vulnerability. Natalie Spagnuolo then documents how disability and history are both socially charged. Traditionally, disabled people have been historically absent as is common with other marginalized groups. But the narrative, she suggests, is slowly changing, owing to a more nuanced understanding of disability. Travis Chi Wing Lau explores normative concepts of functioning, disability, and health with a particular focus on the nineteenth-century roots of current radicalized theoretical concepts of disability, while Sarah Jean Barton concludes the section by examining the relationship between disability and theology, concluding that the experience of disability and the diversity of humanity-related complexities results in mixed binary messages.

In part 4, Negin Hosseini Goodrich highlights the need for global perspectives in disability studies. Currently, as she observes, Western sociocultural understandings dominate the discipline, and she underscores the need to move beyond ethnocentric assumptions by adopting a broader worldview. Pursuing a similar argument, Stephen Meyers examines the extent to which North American and western European culture and political values dominate the discipline of disability studies and its approach to disability. Mirjam Holleman, meanwhile, highlights how statistics do not give a complete picture of disabled people’s inclusion, lived experience, context, or culture, while Hersinta, focusing on autism, uses this to posit that a lack of awareness has led to serious information gaps and the need to move from deficit to difference. Najma Al Zidjaly, contrasts Western cultural privilege with disability in the Middle East and shows how perspectives from oral cultures are often overlooked. This chapter is an important addition to the collection as it argues that disability studies must move beyond Western perspectives to more fully reflect the global diversity of disability experience.

The four chapters that form part 5 begin with a piece by Jillian Pearsall-Jones, Caris Jolla, and George Hayden exploring indigeneity and disability in an Australian context and highlighting the added complexities when disability is incorporated within an already disadvantaged group. Their chapter illustrates the difficulties encountered when people must work within a culture and system not of their own making, nor of relevance to them. Again, the theme of privilege is brought to the reader, given further resonance by Eliza Chandler and Esther Ignagi who explain how privilege affects cultural values and influences the aesthetic worthiness of disability. Tatiane Hilgemberg discusses how perspectives on disability and sport are slowly changing to a broader frame of reference beyond medical or tragic bravery models, while Pamela G. Macias highlights resistance that she has found in Deaf history, education, and the historical privileging of written and oral cultures.

This collection of twenty-six chapters demonstrates that academic researchers do not have to identify as disability scholars in order to make important contributions to disability studies. The volume provides important insights into the continuing growth and development of the disability studies discipline. In particular, the strength of this book is demonstrated in two key areas, namely, mental health issues in the academy and the richness that global perspectives add to disability studies. 

Citation: Nancy Hansen. Review of Ellis, Katie; Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie; Kent, Mike; Robertson, Rachel, eds., Interdisciplinary Approaches to Disability: Looking Towards the Future. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53919

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