Written By: Ally Carbutti
This is a question that I faced when engaging with works on disability studies. Disability studies is a field that has been growing and changing a lot in recent years, but the discussion about what constitutes as disability is a very complex one.
The generally accepted definition of disability is in accordance with the ADA as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity…”— but even this definition includes a preface that it is for use as a “legal term rather than a medical one.” So, if American society is viewing disability through this specific legal context, then doesn’t it fail to recognize a broader definition of disability through a social context?
I began to see a correlation between this legal view of disability and themes in literature while taking Disability in American Literature and Culture last semester. I was very surprised to realize that the majority of our course material fell under creative writing, such as memoirs or creative nonfiction, opposed to a textbook on disability. The creative works we looked at broadened the legal definition of disability that I was familiar with to portray more of a lived experience in a social context. Because of this, I found myself reevaluating what is typically considered to be educational material in the classroom.
This was one of the most insightful classes I’ve ever taken, not just from what I learned, but also how I learned it. It makes perfect sense to me now that in order to learn about disability studies you have to listen to and understand the perspective of people struggling with a limited or lack of ability. If I had learned through academic journals or textbooks that simply categorized disabilities within the ADA framework, then I wouldn’t have empathized with the people writing the memoirs or shorter nonfiction pieces.
Now I can’t help but think that more works of creative writing need to be present within the classroom. A lot of the academic world is based on research and specifically formatted writings that take a more objective approach in discussing a range of topics. This objective lens works fine for subjects like math or science that are based on concrete factual knowledge. However, I believe that subjects concerning human emotion such as psychology, disability studies, sociology, etc. could benefit from the inclusion of memoirs or creative works regarding the subject material. This would expose students to more intimate perspectives of the situations being discussed.