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Disabling reading

December 3, 2013

Blind athletes at Overbrook, Pa.  (LOC)
When we talk about “disability” we often mean bodily, intellectual or sensory impairment. However, it is more widely accepted now that when we talk about disability we are talking about the social and cultural beliefs or environmental conditions that dis-able, that is make those with an impairment unable to fully participate in the opportunities that those of us who do not have an impairment take for granted. For example, it is not that someone may have an impairment that requires me to use a wheelchair that makes them disabled, it is that stairs are built rather than ramps and so making it impossible for a wheelchair user  to enter a building that disables; it is the environmental conditions of the majority of buildings having stairs that impedes  entry to a building and so a capacity to be part of whatever activity takes place in that building. Similarly, it is argued that when novels include people with an impairment that this act of representation can disable. So many of the tropes of impairment are ones which equate impairment with deficit, and by this I mean more than just being less able physically or intellectually but lesser in some moral sense. Metaphors of impairment abound in language, particularly English, for example:  “blind as a bat”, “deaf as a post”, “a lame duck”. Indeed, as the academic Naomi Schor has argued, some of these metaphors are so entrenched in our thinking that it is difficult to unlink them.  Thus as it is impossible to think of or describe the thing that holds up a table as anything other than a leg, so it is difficult not to think “ignorance” when using the word “blind”.

Writers need to find a balance between using impairment merely as a tool for narrative tension, character conflict or as a way of heightening the emotional response to a story, and simply making impairment invisible, either by not writing about it at all or dismissing it as having any importance to the story.  The dilemma for writers is how to write about impairment without falling into ways of writing about those characters which doesn’t rely on long standing beliefs about the deficiencies of impairment either consciously or unconsciously.  We are aware now that creating and writing about a  character with an impairment comes with a great responsibility because the representation, transmission and accumulation of beliefs about impairment that comes about from the vast array of books that feature characters with an impairment can make the lives of those living with an impairment so much more difficult. In a very real sense, it is much harder to move an entrenched idea than it is to move a staircase.

Martin Mantle

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