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Sensing Disability

Disability theory privileges masculinist notions of presence, visibility, material real-
ity, and identity as given. One effect of this has been the erasure of sensibility,
which, it is argued, inscribes, materializes, and performs the critique of binary
thought. Therefore, sensibility must be re-articulated in order to escape the neces-
sary error of identity implicit in accounts of cultural diversity, and to dialogue
across difference in ways that dislocate disability from its position of dis-value in
feminist thought.
In times that are increasingly characterized by concerted attempts to global-
ize knowledge, the issue of difference is highlighted. In trans-Atlantic com-
merce, those of us who work in disability studiesor, indeed, in feminist
philosophyare constantly reminded of the difculties of thinking globally.
Not the least of these difculties is how we use and understand language
without falling into the epistemic trap of universal truths. Language does not,
as a rule, travel well, and meanings frequently get lost in errors of translation.
Written primarily from a British perspective, this essay will explore some of the
difculties of addressing ontological difference in the context of the dominant
view in disability theory that bifurcates the given of biological anomaly or
limitation (impairment) and the mutability of oppressive social conditions of
or responses to normativism (disability).
The bifurcation of impairment and
disability is analogous to the traditional feminist bifurcation of sex and gender,
which was conceived as a way of focusing attention on the social nature of
womens oppression. Traces of such a bifurcation can often be found at the
level of ontology, as can be observed in the tendency to view both impair-
ment and disability in terms of simplistic, collective accounts of ontologically
diverse experiences that assume such experiences to be incommensurable. Such
accounts are frequently founded on dualisms between mind and body or
deafness and blindness, for example.
Hypatia vol. 16, no. 4 (Fall 2001) by Mairian Corker
Mairian Corker 35
However, postessentialist feminists
have criticized this bifurcation on the
grounds that it retains the excesses of masculinist thought and thus contributes
to womens oppression. The binary between the given of stable material
facts and the mutability of interpretation is seen to reinforce masculinist
dichotomies such as reason/emotion, nature/culture, presence/absence, and
universalism/relativism. At the heart of these dichotomies is the assumption
that the nature of knowledge is determined by theories, methodologies, and
data that are legitimated by dominant, masculinist world-views. Thus, binary
thought is seen to perpetuate gender stereotypes and symbolic constructs of
the womans body that constrain how social differentiation is conceptualized,
and which leave outdated masculinist notions of identity intact. These notions
of identity inscribe narrow forms of social practice that reduce the productive
inuence of difference in ways that obscure or disregard important dimensions
of womens experience.
Feminists, both disabled and non-disabled, have criticized the dominant
views of disability theory and feminism for their failure to take account of
disabled womens experiences, and for their failure to problematize impair-
But, with some exceptions that, interestingly, tend not to be located
within mainstream disability studies literature,
these critiques emphasize that
disability studies should become a universalizing discourse of difference
inscribes and retains the categorical status of (a visible and present) disability.
There has been a reluctance to fully address concerns that a universalized
discourse of disability conceived in these terms operates in ways that limit
how we think collectively from disabled peoples lives, and therefore places
constraints on how we theorize the relationship between disability, impair-
ment, and normativism.
Indeed, it could be argued that existing critiques of
normativism within disability studies are themselves based on disablist
of emancipation from normativism that presuppose and reinforce the domina-
tion of particular disabled ontologies. This process initiates a descent into
injustice, which should be of concern to feminists and disabled people alike.
Hence, there remains a need to develop an ethical and philosophical framework
in which the meaning of difference can be negotiated in ways that are not
limited by a normative bias regarding what constitutes the disabled body, the
proper function of disabled peoples mental ability, and communication.
Since impairment, as it is dened in the dominant discourse, in feminism,
and in disability theory, is not of disabled peoples lives but a series of labels
and their signiers derived from scientic positivism,
there is similarly a need
to understand impaired ontologies. To achieve this understanding, disabled
feminists must embrace both a critique of normative bias and a critique of onto-
logical imperialism that understands and reects their mutual constitution.
Clearly there are many strands to such a critique, which is necessarily
informed by feminist, postessentialist perspectives. In this essay, I will focus on
the erasure of disabled peoples sensibility by the normative bias of ontologi-
36 Hypatia
cal imperialism. Sensibility is taken primarily to be the set of individual and
collective dispositions to emotions, attitudes, and feelings that are relevant
to value theory, including ethics, aesthetics, and politics. But since I will be
arguing that an important material aspect of sensibility is sensation, sensibility
is also used as a metaphor for the embodiment of these dispositions, specically
in people who sense the world differently. Further, sensibility must, by its very
nature, take biological difference and socio-cultural difference to be mutually
constitutive, rather than to regard either or both as given, and this troubles
the impairment/disability binary. When we understand that the contributions
made by biological conditions such as deafness and blindness to our lived
experience are constituted in and through social interaction, we can then turn
to exploring these embodiments. In conclusion, it is suggested that such a
methodological and theoretical turn enables the development of responsible
and responsive ways, or sensed ways, of thinking collectively that can be
used to balance the political project of emancipation from oppression with the
struggle for inclusive societies.
Dis-Abling Sensibility
The difculties of communicating and theorizing across cultural, ontological,
and epistemic difference within the disability collective are particularly marked.
There are two main reasons for this that operate respectively at different levels
of communication and understanding: what is immediately recognizable or
visible, readily accessible, and easily understood, and what can be understood
only by addressing the complex set of signiers that are concealed, often
through normative practice.
The rst reason is that unifying disabled people is problematic because we
are geographically dispersed and socially and culturally diverse, in addition
to being one of the most powerless groups in society. As such, we are often
relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy of the oppressed in social systems built
on structural inequality. Whereas feminists are increasingly recognizing the
importance of social and cultural diversity among and within women, these
particular conceptualizations of difference, and the way they are employed in
theory and practice, erase the experience of disabled women, whose difference
remains dened in terms of biological anomaly and limitation. In feminist texts,
disability is commonly placed in the category of the undened otherthe
and so on . . . who, in this reading, has no cultural status.
From a disability studies perspective, this erasure locates feminism within
an oppressive normative bias which must be resisted by disabled people. Thus,
Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997, 22) and others argue for a universalized
disability discourse that draws on feminisms challenge to the structural system
of gender. She aims to develop a perspective on disability that advocates
Mairian Corker 37
political equity (1997, 23). But this perspective prompts questions about what,
precisely, is meant by positive, given that positivity and negativity are socially
constructed value judgements and their history tends to be authorized.
In common with what I see to be the prevalent eshy concerns of feminist
philosophy and social theory, Thomsons standpoint politics foregrounds vis-
ible disabilities
(1997, 141 n. 12) and freakery. She seeks to imagine disabled
bodies as extraordinary rather than as deviant and to shift the conception
of disability from pathology to (positive) identity (1997, 137). But the way in
which she attempts to do this leads me to the conclusion that she interprets
identity largely in terms of recognition; or, to go back to my earlier distinc-
tion, identity, when conceived in this way, is located at the surface level of
communicating difference. However, I would question the assumption that the
claiming and honoring of physical markers of exceptionality as identity is less
troublesome, and less normativizing, than the notion of impairment as given
in the context of binary thought founded on notions of presence/absence and
It is commonly argued within both disability studies and feminism that
identity is a necessary error
that is needed to challenge the normative bias
that produces stereotypical versions of disabled people and women. However,
there is considerable evidence that identity, when it asserts itself in the name
of cultural singularity and control over life and environment, can fragment
collective expression. Moreover, when a system is designated as pluralist, the
only identities that are likely to enter the plurality are those that are able to
t within the overall rationality that approves and controls the consensus.
Put another way, the regulative power of universalizing discourse constitutes
minoritizing expressions of difference.
The privileging of the visible and the present in many ways reects the
rational consensus of disability theory and politics,
and, as Thomson (1997,
143 n. 6) notes, her position is similar to that taken by feminist texts in the
postmodern, materialist tradition.
But the embodiment of rational consensus
in the material body demands a turn against the constitutive historicity of
disability, and, as Judith Butler (1993) suggests, if it is accompanied by an
erasure of performativity, such a move can be profoundly undemocratic, often
exclusionary. It therefore risks disembodying collective thought in ways that
problematize Thomsons claim that disability is dened not as a set of observ-
able, predictable traitslike racialized or gendered featuresbut rather as any
departure from an unstated physical and functional norm (1997, 24).
An example may help at this point. Deaf people who use sign languages
represent a powerful embodiment of the rational consensus of visibility and
presence, and so their entrance into the collective voice of disability politics is
accommodated in spite of the Deaf
communitys emphasis on Deaf identity
and the political goal of social coexistence. Historically, traces of normativism
38 Hypatia
in this identity have produced a troubled relationship with the physical fact of
deafness, or hearing impairment, and therefore with impairment in general (see
Corker 1998; 2000). Additionally, the self-afrming goals of minority language
rights and social coexistence in some ways put Deaf identity at variance with
disabled peoples universalizing expressions of difference, which have the
political goal of social inclusion. A common way of justifying these goals is
that because no two cultures or languages can be perfectly transparent to
each other, there is always an excess of meaning that will not be reached in
dialoguing across difference. But within the Deaf experience, this excess is
taken as meaning that Deafness is incommensurable
or untranslatable vis--
vis disability: a binary is established between Deafness and disability that is
reproduced in totalizing concepts of difference.
Susan Wendell (1996) suggests that particular theoretical focuses and stand-
points both derive from and are limited by knowledge. In The Rejected Body,
she writes, for example, of the necessity of recognizing that the claim to speak
for oneself does not relieve one of responsibility not to overgeneralize on the
basis of ones experience and not to construe issues narrowly in the interest of
promoting ones own viewpoint. However, she also says that her focus on physi-
cal disability arises because she knows much more about physical disabilities
than . . . about mental disabilities, and because (she is) particularly interested in
attitudes towards the body (1996, 5). As Ofelia Schutte (2000, 55) notes,
what we hold to be the nature of knowledge is not culture-free but is deter-
mined by methodologies and data legitimated, in this case, I would argue, by
the rational consensusThomsons politics of visibility underpinned by the
unstated norm of physicalism. Moreover, even if we were to disagree with the
view that bodily concerns are privileged in the mind/body dualismas might
some philosophers who concur with Marx that philosophy is concerned primar-
ily with (mental) interpretations of the worldthe outcome, for sensibility, is
the same under conditions of binary thought. However, Schutte further suggests
that we might map the statements of the culturally different other according
to three categoriesreadily understandable, difcult to understand, and truly
incommensurable (2000, 56). In everyday language, what this means is that
the naturalness of peoples differences are constituted in comments such as
Yeah, that is different, which closes communication at the level of Schuttes
rst category. Moreover, when the degree of difculty in understanding the
position of the culturally different other is determined by the rational consensus,
this also tends to close communication at the rst level.
For example, in my book Deaf and Disabled or Deafness Disabled? (1998), I
wrote of my own experience of struggling to make meaning in the context of
an embodied uncertainty, instability, and transience that is characteristic of
deafness as communicative difference in a hearing-speaking world. I suggested
that though I seemed to speak the same language as English-speaking hearing
Mairian Corker 39
people on a surface level, communicating at this level brought a loss of self
because at the deeper level of signication my language was very different.
As an example, I used the term discussion, which for me signies the social
practice that is legitimated by the dominant hearing-speaking culture of the
universities in which I work. The hearing-speaking way of discussing is a
practice that I nd oppressive because to function, I am necessarily embodied
in a third party who has the role of translating across cultures in both direc-
tions, often failing to keep the inuence of their own culture in check. In bell
hookss terms, discussion in the hearing-speaking way represents an absence
of choices (1984, 5). However, I did not on this occasion describe it in quite
this way, with the result that much was left unsaid.
In a subsequent review of the book, Anita Silvers (1998, 32) commented: I
am persuaded that Corker accurately portrays the differences in the experience
of deaf and hearing people in situations that are dominated by speech. But this
sort of difference does not imply that deaf and hearing people give different
meanings to discussion, any more than Corker and I mean different things by
downstairs, even though my experience of descending the stairs in my power
wheelchair is sure to be very different from Corkers experience of a graceful
and surefooted descent. In this commentary, Silvers was perhaps reminding
me of Wendells concern about overgeneralizing. At the same time, in making
this comment, Silvers appears to take referring to be the primary component
of meaning: that is, discussion and downstairs are regarded as signs that
appear to signify some commonality of meaning at the deeper level of signica-
In the physical material world, it may be that downstairs, and even discus-
sion, can be used mainly as referents to describe real objects. However, I
would argue, rst, that we cannot use the same frameworks for describing mean-
ing in the social world, and second, that it is primarily the social world that marks
sensory ontologies. The reason for this claim lies in Silverss later observation
that the population of the class constructed of individuals substantially limited
by physical or mental impairments shifts, because whether each individual is a
member is a transient fact (2000, 126; emphasis added). It is nevertheless the
case that a state of embodied transience is not ontologically secure, and it is in
the interests of such security that steps are often taken to render transience
more predictable and manageable. But whether and how such steps can be
taken is not uniform.
In the social world there is a contingency to meaning at the level of signica-
tion that in many ways determines the degree of mutuality that can be reached
in social interaction. This contingency is universalized in the xity of the mate-
rial or the physical, because as I suggest in my book (1998, 8489), navigating
the social world is an altogether different and more complex cognitive task
than navigating ones way around the physical material world. It is possible to
40 Hypatia
map the latter to assist ones navigation, and one can even use the maps of
others with some reliability, but for the former there can be no translation
manual (Malinowski 1965) in any sense of the word. Further, social meaning
must be understood and described within contexts of cultural reality often
radically different from our own. Social languages are not parcelled out in
rationally consistent conceptual schemes: they overlap, interact, fuse, form, and
are deformed. The social is transience. And, as Gloria Anzalda (1987) suggests
in her study of borderlands, these relations reect shades of linguistic meaning
rooted in historical conict and in oppressive social relations, communicated
in accent, intonation, gesture, as well as in semantic content.
In such circumstances, I would suggest that the juxtaposition of physical or
mental impairmenta dualism that is also employed by Wendell and, indeed,
one that is prevalent in institutional discourseand the notion of transience
seems untenable. The conjunction or references an incommensurable relation-
ship that, in this case, elides sensation. Since sensation lies at the interface of
mind, body, and world, and is therefore a critical part of ontology, its elision
disembodies disability theory. Simply adding the term sensory to this phrase
does not change its underlying pattern of signications. This is perhaps an
important reason why, in terms of accommodative outcomes, building ramps for
those who use wheelchairs is not the same as providing bilingual education and
sign language interpretation for those who are deaf. In an accessible physical
environment, physical disability can disappear. But the social environment can
never be rendered immutable in a way that accomplishes the disappearance
of sensory disability, and this, I would argue, is complicated by the alternative
ways of understanding the basic elements of reality necessarily employed by
people with sensory impairments. The sensorially impaired body is always in a
state of dys-appearance because the normal/disabled binary remains intact.
Thus, Silverss error in equating physical and social offers additional evidence
about the important contribution that can be made by attending to sensibility.
However, it also highlights Anzaldas (1987) view that if language raties and
expresses social hierarchies, it must also provide a medium for liberation as
new meanings are created at points of language conict. For example, people
who are deaf are frequently assumed to live their lives between Deaf and
hearing worlds, occupying marginal positions to both. This is sometimes a
direct consequence of the rigidity of minoritizing identity politics that produces
spaces of in-betweenness, populated by ontologies that are similar to the non-
dualistic mestiza consciousness described in Third World feminist writing
(Anzalda 1987; Mohanty 1991). What I was emphasizing, therefore, was
Schuttes point about levels of understanding, and the limits that focusing
understanding on what is immediately recognizable and readily accessible places
on articulating difference and on understanding oppression. Put another way,
I wonder where the comparison of downstairs with discussion is located
Mairian Corker 41
in relation to the rational consensus of physicalism (or mentalism), and what
the outcome would be if this comparison were taken to a deeper level of
understanding outside of the constraints of dualistic thought.
Attempting to answer this question seems to lead directly into the second
difculty in communicating and theorizing across difference: that the politi-
cal class of disabled people, and the owners of the rational consensus, may
themselves have negative attitudes about impairment, and limited knowledge
in respect of people with impairments dissimilar to their own (French 1993).
On the surface, this seems to be especially signicant for a collective politics
that must, if it is to avoid being exclusionary, deal with the transience of
disability and with the disabled subject whose difference is invisible. But if,
as Liz Stanley argues, the act of knowing must be examined as the crucial
determiner of what is known (1990, 12), how then, given everything that has
been said so far, are we to gain this knowledge if we operate within paradigms
of (assumed) incommensurability? Is it possible that incommensurability can
become the occasion for creativity and protest as new hybrid concepts emerge
from clashes between dissonant and incommensurable ontologies in such a
way that impairment itself is destabilized?
To explore this possibility further, I want to turn to the cluster of concepts
that are at the heart of what I will call sensibility. By sensibility, I do
not mean how we perceive the world around us, but the set of individual or
collective dispositions to emotions, attitudes, and feelings that are relevant to
value theory, including ethics, aesthetics, and politics. Sensibility, however,
undoubtedly incorporates the subjective aspect of perception that philosophers
call sensation, and thus, I would argue, it troubles particular understandings of
our access to a xed mental or physical reality. Sensibility engenders ways of
being in and knowing our world that are materialized in contradictory bodies
in process, and performed in shifting aesthetic, ethical, and political values.
In short, sensibility is the rubric of and so on described by Price and Shil-
drick (1998), that constantly inscribes the excessive domain of what Butler
(1993) calls unintelligibility, and that depends on the joining of reality
and imagination.
Sensationseeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tastingis formed of a
union of the senses to the point where they often seem indistinguishable
(Classen 1993): we can do something only as we are able to make sense of it
(Spivak 1992, 158). Sensation and sensibility are therefore not situated at the
surface level of reception and interpretation of reality, but active processes
that are the product of social and historical forces (Haraway 1988). A view
of identity that privileges the present and the visible, as in Thomsons work,
risks disembodying sensibility if it assumes that sensation is a direct line to
reality and truth. More importantly, as implied in the critique of Silverss
and Wendells use of the mind/body binary, a disability theory that bifurcates
42 Hypatia
the given of biological anomaly or limitation (impaired sensation) from the
mutability of oppressive social conditions of or responses to normativism
(sensibility), to the point where it constructs them as incommensurable, dis-
ables sensibility. This is especially so given that sensation, as the example
of deaf people shows, is already compressed within the binary opposition of
physical or mental impairment. Nevertheless, the dis-abling of sensibility
effects a closure on valuable, insightful, and imaginative ways, sensed ways of
being and knowing that can make collective expressions of disability more
responsive and responsible.
Sensing Disability
Though rational discourse is limited by incommensurable differences, ratio-
nality is traditionally a normative, masculinist concept that, in a disabled
feminist reading, only has salience in universalized expressions of difference if it
acknowledges its relation to the disabled, feminist imaginary who stretch[es]
the limits of imagination(s) towards responsive and responsible local sensitivity
both close and far from home (Code 2000, 68). Schutte suggests that a
more useful way of thinking about incommensurability is to look at nodes in a
linguistic interchange or a conversation in which the others speech, or some
aspect of it, resonates as a kind of strangeness or displacement of the usual
expectation (2000).
Returning to my discussion with Silvers and Wendell,
I interpret this to mean that a sensed disability thinks and acts out of its
transience. That is to say, because transience operates at a more complex and
under-theorized level of thought that has potentially deeper impact on our
understanding of difference, dialogues across difference must take place from
positions of absence or limitation, as well as from positions of assumed and present
To illustrate this point, and to bring a concrete focus to this analysis, I want
to look at some embodied examples of interaction involving sensory ontologies
that are marked as different from the norm. In the context of feminist preoc-
cupations with vigilance against epistemic imperialism that reach beyond the
concerns of the white, middle-class, female subject, the choice of examples that
draw on the voices of disabled children is no accident. Childhood philosophers,
like disabled philosophers, rarely gure within the traditional canon of philo-
sophical writing, and both are marginalized by perceptions that label them
as immature and irrational. Nevertheless, as Andrea Nye (2000, 102) sug-
gests, often self-questioning and redenition [of philosophy] have come from
outside what is considered philosophy proper. Moreover, she continues that
the urgethe motiveto philosophize comes from awe, awe at the mystery
and complexity of human existence (2000, 108). Awe goes hand in hand
with sensibility, and I would suggest that, if anything, awe is the (potential)
Mairian Corker 43
condition of childhood. But childrens sense of awe tends to be forced into
ready-made boxes by the interpretive limits of adult imaginationswhat I
described above as disabled sensibility. In this context, and returning to
Schuttes point above about linguistic interchange, it is particularly important
to record encounters between identities that, though seemingly commensu-
rable on the surface, weave together and syncretize different standpoints and
sensibilities, as the following examples show.
Translation of video-taped interview with Linda, aged 15 years,
conducted in sign language:
77. Mairian: So what do you think about disabled people?
78. Linda: About disabled people . . . I like them. It must be hor-
rible to be disabled but there is nothing wrong in it. I certainly
wouldnt think or say what Glenn Hoddle
said. I wouldnt do
that. Its horrible, and the teasing, its not nice.
79. Mairian: Do you think youre disabled?
80. Linda: No!
81. Mairian: No?
82. Linda: Someone did say to me that deaf is disabled, is that
true or not?
83. Mairian: Im asking you . . . what do you think?
84. Linda: No.
85. Mairian: You dont think so?
86. Linda: No . . . what about you?
87. Mairian: . . . Um . . . disabled . . . has many meanings and
maybe when I use the word disabled, I mean something different
from you. But . . . I would say yes, I think I am disabled.
88. Linda: (laughs) Why, you dont look disabled. You can walk
naturally. Disabled people have funny walks, you knowlike
Kevin. They have a funny walk and they are disabled and you
are deaf and are not disabled. Other people have said that you
are deaf so that means that you are disabled but I think I am
deaf but Im not disabled. If you have a funny walk then you
are and I am not. If I was disabled that would really upset me
I think I would always wish that I could walk properly. So not
being able to walk or see is disabilitynot me.
In this interaction, I see Linda as acting out of spontaneous consciousness
or what Harding (1991, 295) describes as the awareness she has of her individual
experience before any substantial self-reection on that experience or any
consideration of the social construction of her identity. This consciousness
is nevertheless mediated by the dominant cultural texts that surround her.
I feel she looks to me as the sympathetic outsider who comes with a set of
44 Hypatia
critical, comparative questions that can develop her sensibility. I see myself
as someone who has the prerogative of critical self-reection that allows me to
choose between different senses, and who wishes to expand that prerogative
to include Linda. Though both of us are deaf, and both of us use the same
approach to communication in informal settings, Linda is growing up in the
closed environment of a special school for Deaf children whereas my life has
been spent in the tension-ridden spaces between Deaf and hearing worlds.
Linda recognizes and demonstrates an aversion to disabling practice in relation
to other disabled people, coupled with a rejection of the label disabled when
applied to herself, to Deaf people as a group, and to me as a deaf person. Thus
the distinction between Deaf and deaf becomes blurred in the process of
social interaction. But, in the last example, it is interesting that disability
is associated with how I look, with different kinds of visual performance,
and with tragedy, and, in Lindas view, I dont t any of these perceptions.
When I suggest that I am disabled, these same presentist assumptions are used
to contest my self-perception.
A sensitivity to the diverse ontologies and experiences of deafness leads
me to interpret our interaction in a number of ways. But which interpretation
prevails depends on which part of the interaction we, separately and together,
can make sense of, and whether all senses are equally accessible to both of us. If
we process the part that says Deaf people are not disabled, as an adult who is
academically trained, I could argue that this ts both with the traditional Deaf
Studies view of Deaf identity as given, and with the social model perspective
that bifurcates impairment and disability. But because Linda is acting out of
spontaneous consciousness this would have little meaning for her. It would
close down dialogue in exactly the same way as the researcher who, in response
to Lindas insistence that Deafness is not disability, says Yeah, that is different.
In this case, as Harding (1991) suggests, experience lies, but whose experience
lies? However, if we consider how Linda contests my disabled sensibility with
reference to her own way of making sense, an alternative interpretation is
suggested. Certainly, Linda displaces impairment from Deaf experience. But
how and why she does this is not as simple as Deaf identity would have us
believe, when we remember that Lindas experience is both centered on sensual
histories and geographies of vision and space, and marginalized on the basis
of these same things within normative discourse. Linda remembers that some
unidentied person had suggested that deaf is disabledand, again, it is not
clear which meaning of D/deaf is being employed herebut she still wants
clarication from me. In her world, disability is not named, though disabling
practice is referred to. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Linda emphasizes
that my visual appearance is at odds with her individual sensed experience of
disability. In her world, she cannot exercise the prerogative to step outside of a
visual experience that says a picture is a factthe fact being that because
Mairian Corker 45
disabled people look like freaks, I cannot therefore be disabled because I
dont look like a freakunless she thinks from absence. For this to happen,
absence must be lled from the knowledge of Others. What is important here
is that Lindas interpretation of disability shows the limitations of Thomsons
arguments. This example also indicates that the depth that critique gives to
understanding is elided when we focus on the surface level of interpretation.
Further, it is not difcult to see how this interpretation, deprived of sensibility,
can fail to problematize the naturalized, taken for granted status of the category
Deaf. In the absence of strategic interventions of the kind I sought to effect,
dis-abled sensibility, if ritualised, materializes an exclusionary visual-visceral
politics of looking like what you are (Walker 1993).
These limitations are further exposed when, in attempting to think collec-
tively, we place deafness in conversation with blindnesssensibilities that are
constructed as incommensurable in binary thought. There are many examples
of insightful and imaginative thinking that takes place from diverse ontologies
of blindness in both the disability studies literature and the philosophy
I will focus on one from Rod Michalkos book The Mystery of the
Eye and the Shadow of Blindness, because it involves an interaction that has
similar parameters to my interaction with Linda. That is, it is an interaction
between an adult who has lived with both sightedness and blindness and a
child who cannot know sightedness directly.
I spent some time speaking with a three year old blind boy,
Mark, at his home. We sat on the oor, legs spread in front of us,
rolling a ball back and forth. At one point, the ball hit Marks
foot and bounced away from us. Mark immediately began trying
to locate the ball. He began looking for the ball by stretching
his arms out very quickly in as many directions as he could.
After a short time, Mark stopped looking and said, My
mommy could nd the ball. Really? I replied. Yeah, Mark
said, cause she can see. I asked, How do you know that?
Without any hesitation, Mark answered, Cause shes got really,
really, really long arms! (Michalko 1998a, 79)
Rod, himself a legally blind person, suggests that Marks nal remark evokes a
mixture of cuteness and pathos. Whereas the cuteness may mature into an
adult experience that enhances blind sensibility, normative discourse hears only
the pathosthe privatizing nature of blindness created by an exclusion from
the world known through sight (1998a, 80). Normative, rational discourse
insists that blind children must have the opportunity to understand their
privatizing experience as illusion (1998a, 8081). Thus, pathos traps disabled
sensibility in an association with the world of the private discrete individual.
However, in his responsive reading of Marks sensibility, Rod offers a way in
46 Hypatia
which blind sensibility can sense a community consciousness that displaces the
opposition between public and private life. From a position that says you look
like what you arewhich, in a visio-spatial world, bears traces of the Cartesian
proof of self-identity, I think therefore I amLinda would contest Marks
observation that his mother has really, really, really long arms. Thus she
reinforces the rational consensus that dis-ables blind sensibility. However, if
Linda were to read Marks observation from a position of absence, she would
see how it makes sense, how it imagines a world in which sight doesnt gure
in the traditional sense. But for this imaginary to enter the plurality, Linda, as a
stakeholder in the rational consensus that privileges the present and the visible,
must value absence by re-constructing the unity of sensory embodiments.
Deconstructing Value
To draw the various threads of this argument together, I want to return to the
denition of sensibility as the set of individual and collective dispositions to
emotions, attitudes, and feelings that are relevant to value theory, including
ethics, aesthetics, and politics. In binary thought, the reasons for choosing
one account or the other function as values that can be differently applied,
individually and collectively, by those who make the choices (Kuhn 1996).
Philosophical concern with value and dis-value has traditionally focused on
three connected issues. First, on what sort of property or characteristic of
something its having value or being of value is. Second, on whether having
value is an objective or subjective matterwhether value is intrinsic to the
object or is a matter of how we feel towards it. And third, on trying to say what
things have value and are valuable. The idea that disability can be valuable is
commonly greeted with a philosophical cynicism that argues that those who
self-attribute value know the price of everything and the value of nothing,
to quote Oscar Wilde.
However, my reading of feminist accounts that attempt to transform pathol-
ogy into identity, and that do so within a theoretical framework of binary
thought, is that they continue to regard impairment as inherently dis-valuable.
Reading the monstrous body as a cultural text avoids consideration of whether
it has or can have intrinsic value, because, in this account, value is always
socially constructed and, I would argue, easily (though not necessarily simply)
read. In attempting to state the norm of monstrosity, which I think is what is
meant when these accounts refer to claiming disabilitybut without making
it valuableincommensurability and normativism are re-produced, which cre-
ates other absences and other injustices. This is constituted in and through
the kind of convolutedand disablistthought that asserts, on the one hand,
that having an accredited impairment is not a necessary prerequisite for doing
Mairian Corker 47
disability research, but, on the other, argues that it is important to give disabled
researchers a chance (Oliver and Barnes 1997, 812; emphasis added).
If disability is indeed any departure from an unstated physical and functional
norm, binary thought leads us to the conclusion that disability is the transient
yet ever-present embodiment of dis-valuea category of other designated as
a dumping ground for anything that cannot be valued. If, as Price and Shildrick
suggest, [a]ll those things which must be excluded from the normative binary
of self and other, which must be silenced and forgotten, may acquire in their
dislocation an accumulative force that returns to inhabit the moments of
fracture (1998, 201), we need to imagine ontological states of absence where
this very dislocation is materialized as present. In other words, how do D/deaf
people make sense of an auditory world if it is not through the accumulative
force of vision? How can blind people make sense of a visual world if it is not
through the accumulative force of audition? How can we examine the mutual
constitution of deafness and blindness without imposing normative binaries of
presence/absence or value/dis-value that cancel out and render unintelligible
the accumulative force of sensibility? And how can we resolve issues arising
from the constitutive force of discussion and downstairs within differing
ontological frameworks? These are questions about the relationship between
local and global, individual and collective, and rights and responsibility.
Responsible collective thought and local action must strike at the very heart
of a value theory that disables, and this can only be achieved by sensing dis-
ability. In seeking to articulate sensibility, I have aimed to re-situate narratives
of disability within their mutually constitutive reality. When we begin to
think in this way, we open up the eld of possibility to dialogue across difference
at the deep level of signication, which is what I mean by sensing, without
dictating which kinds of possibilities ought to be realized (Butler 1999, viii).
To sense disability is to transcend identity politics in the search for inclusive
societies, but it is also to challenge those who claim to have the authority in
the philosophical interpretation of disability.
1. The bifurcation between impairment and disability is characteristic of emergent
disability theory in the U.K., and is the basis for what is known as the social model
of disability. It identies society as creating the problem of disability, and looks to
fundamental social and political changes to provide the solutions. See Oliver (1996)
and Barnes, Mercer, and Shakespeare (1999) for historical accounts of its conception.
See also Thomas (1999) for a feminist interpretation of disability that leaves the
bifurcation intact.
48 Hypatia
2. Postessentialist is used here to refer to feminisms of the poststructural and
postcolonial traditions.
3. See Jenny Morris (1996), Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1997), Simi Linton
(1998), and Carol Thomas (1999) for examples of feminist accounts of disability in
North America and the U.K.
4. Here, I refer particularly to the work of Margrit Shildrick and Janet Price,
who write both separately and together (Shildrick 1997; Price and Shildrick 1998;
1999), Ruth Butler and Hester Parr (1999), and to my own work that draws from queer
theory/feminism (see Corker 1999a; 1999b; 1999c).
5. For example, Thomson (1997, 22) employs Eve Kosofsky Sedgwicks (1990, 1)
understanding of the universalizing view of difference that sees issues surrounding a
particular difference as having continuing, determinative importance in the lives of
people across the spectrum of [identities]. Sedgwick contrasts this to a minoritizing
view of difference that imagines its signicance and concerns as limited to a narrow,
specic, relatively xed population or area of enquiry.
6. The term normalcy is used by Lennard Davis (1995) in his book Enforcing
Normalcy to signify that which is not disabled. However, I tend to prefer the term
normativism, which bears traces of Rosemarie Garland Thomsons (1997) term nor-
mate, which, as Simi Linton (1998, 2425) emphasizes, by meeting normal on some
of its own terms . . . inects its root, and challenges the validity, indeed the possibility,
of normal.
7. I use the terms disablism and disablist to refer to prejudicial social practice
that occurs among and within disabled people, which should, in my view, be linguisti-
cally distinguished on the basis of signiers from normativism and normative.
8. That is to say, the signs deaf, blind, paraplegic, hearing impaired, visu-
ally impaired, and mobility impaired are the result of the empirical procedures of
scientic positivism. These procedures ritualize particular signiers, associated with
disease, pathology and deviance, within dominant discourse.
9. The expression visible disabilities illustrates one of the difculties of using
terminology across national boundaries, a perspective which is also relevant to the
ensuing discussion. U.K. disability theory, for example, would take a Foucauldian
perspective on disability as a form of disciplinary power, which operates in hidden
ways, and does not always have visible, material effects. In this sense, for a person to
announce a hidden disability in order simply to render a single encounter more
predictable, does not necessarily imply that subsequent encounters will be similarly
rendered nor does it change the ritualized nature of disability. To describe disability as
visible not only creates an oxymoron, but is also exclusionary. However, Thomsons use
of the plural term disabilities, together with her emphasis on extraordinary bodies,
suggests that she may be referring to what U.K. theorists would call impairment.
10. See Judith Butler (1993).
11. Other examples of the writing of disabled feminists include Susan Wendell
(1996), Simi Linton (1998), and Carol Thomas (1999).
12. For example, Susan Bordo (1993), Rosemary Hennessy (1993), and Linda Nich-
olson (1995).
13. When Deaf is capitalized in this way it tends to mark the identity of a linguistic
minority whose lives are centered on visio-spatial experience of the world and who
Mairian Corker 49
express themselves through the medium of sign language. However, it is not always
easy to tell which meaning is being employed in spoken interaction, and the distinct
signs /DEAF/ and /deaf/ are not always clearly articulated, especially among those for
whom sign language is not a native language.
14. Incommensurable is used in the Kuhnian sense to mean the practices of dif-
ferent language communities in relation to the same phenomena (Kuhn 1996, 175).
15. Williams (1998, 61), drawing upon Leders (1990) phenomenological analysis
of the Absent Body, notes that the body . . . seizes our attention most strongly at times
of dysfunction. . . . it dys-appearsthat is, it appears in a dysfunctional state, and
this contests the normal bodily state of dis-appearance. The normal/disabled binary
rests on some concept of impairment (dysfunction).
16. Schutte employs Emmanuel Levinass (1979) ethics of alterity, as informed by
Luce Irigarays (1993) feminist ethics of sexual difference and Julia Kristevas (1981)
psychoanalytic-semiotic studies. I tend to be more drawn towards Derridean (1976;
1978) notions of diffrance, however.
17. I have used these particular examples on a number of other occasions (see, for
example, Corker 2000a; 2001) to illustrate different points. I nd that the practice of
returning to and sometimes re-interpreting data over time, and in the light of new
knowledge and experience, helps to challenge the idea of data as xed.
18. Glenn Hoddle was the manager of the England football team. He was sacked
from his position after making comments about disabled people that apparently sug-
gested that disability was a way of paying for past sins. Working with a group of
youth for whom sport was a major means of communication and identity, and who
were shut off from alternative knowledge by their placement in a residential school,
it was important for me to see if this uncontested fact placed limits on the way in
which they sensed disability.
19. See, for example, Brian Magee and Martin Milligan (1995), Jos Saramango
(1997), Rod Michalko (1998b; 2001), and Georgina Kleege (1999).
20. This is Lord Darlingtons response to Cecil Grahams question, What is a
cynic? in Wildes play Lady Windermeres Fan (1908), Act 3.
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