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"The 'Shit' that Haunts Us": Disability in Rhetoric and Composition Research

Caitlin Ray


Noting how Yergeau highlights the ways that disability has been elided in our field, Ray suggests several strategies, utilized by Gries and Parks, that can better foreground disability in our methodologies and scholarship.

"The 'Shit' that Haunts Us"

During first few months after moving to Louisville, I was waiting at a pharmacy, an open schoolbook beside me. The woman sitting next to me asked me if I was a student, and I explained I was a PhD student in English at the University of Louisville. She paused and said that she had been a PhD student at another regional university. Another pause and she told me that she has dyslexia, and while she made it through coursework, she was unable to finish her exams (much less her dissertation) due to this. She said to me, "I guess my voice wasn't needed."

I hear readers of this essay protesting that statement, asserting that her voice matters, that her perspective is valid. That she should have fought for accommodations to which she was entitled, that she was victim to a particular program or university system that failed her. But such statements miss the point. Until we bring disability out of the shadows and truly examine the ways that ableism limits the potential of knowledge and ways of making meaning, until we reclaim the history of the knowledge that has come from research and scholarship from disabled bodies, we will continually reinforce a broader system that tacitly tells certain people their voices are not needed.

Disability is often only implicitly apparent in the texts we write. One strategy to engage the ways that disability and ableism operate in our work is to identify how these ideas, attitudes, and potential assumptions inform our research and resulting scholarship: how they are "haunted" by disability. Sharon L. Snyder and David Mitchell write about the idea of "disability haunting" in American literature, arguing:

Disability issues reverberate throughout our defining social conflicts. The history of American witchcraft, monstrosity, segregation, opprobrium, institutionalization, pathos, genocide, isolation, sentimentality, mercy death, exhibition, exceptional achievement, concealment, and even integration, provides a means for us to understand the pervasive nature of disability concerns in our cultural content. In this way, disability issues emerge, consciously or not, as attitude and topic in U.S. literary works and the rhetoric that informs them. ("Disability Haunting" 2)

This haunting has material consequences for people with disabilities, especially when working towards civil rights and access to institutions of power ("Disability Haunting" 2–3). When we don't explicitly name and articulate the ways that disability operates in our research, methods, and theoretical understanding of ideas, we risk eliding disability from our conversations altogether. It is important, then, to identify issues and themes important to disability studies, and to name and proclaim them as integral in the research and education in our field.

In this essay, I hope to identify how disability studies can help researchers, students, and scholars in Rhetoric and Composition untangle and name disability as an important mode of knowing. By first examining the arguments made in Melanie Yergeau's chapter and then taking the work she does there to two other chapters by Laurie Gries and Steve Parks, we can find ways to more concretely discuss disability in our scholarship, even if it is not the main issue being discussed. In my reading of these essays, I argue for ways that disability studies can be more explicitly utilized as a critical lens in activist and public-oriented research.

Melanie Yergeau introduces the idea of uncovering the ways that disability "haunts" key terms and ideas that Rhetoric and Composition values. In her essay, she investigates the term "rhizomatics" and argues that we need to trace the term from its disabled roots, outlining how the idea of "rhizomatics" was developed based on Deligny's experience of observing the "wander lines" of autistic people. However, our field's current understanding of rhizomatics has been separated from its disabled beginnings as it continues to circulate in our scholarship. Yergeau writes, "It does not matter that disability is where we begin; we embrace a theory divorced from pathology because we want nothing to do with pathological people." This is a clear example of the danger of decontextualizing a specific term from its epistemological beginnings. By removing disability, we erase it from our disciplinary history. Yergeau's work highlights the insidious ways that disability is continually elided from our scholarship and the importance of reclaiming that history. When we foreground disability as part of our scholarship, we can both complicate the ways we have traditionally made knowledge and meaning as a field and make new contributions.

Some Notes on Disability Studies

Disability can impact all aspects of everyday life—almost everyone will experience being disabled, or at least temporarily disabled, at some point in their lives no matter what other identity/ies they inhabit (Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis xii). In fact, people with disabilities are the world's largest minority population ("Fact Sheet"). Additionally, the term "disability" is a historical and sociocultural category that is constantly changing depending on the construction of what is seen as "normal" in society, and is "a linchpin in a complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and government policies" (Linton 162). People may or may not identify with this category since they might age in or out of disability, or they could have invisible disabilities that allow for some to "pass." It is no wonder, then, that disability itself is a term that shifts and morphs into various spaces and is often left unnamed.

In order to incorporate more overt connections to disability studies in our work, we must understand the ways that disability can be used as a critical lens. If we leave disability as something haunting just outside the bounds of our scholarship, we will continue to exclude it. Instead, we need to make a concerted effort to examine the ways that disability operates within texts, methodologies, scholarship, and activism in order to name and clearly mark ableism and the ways it is already tangled in our conversations. With its interests in power dynamics and relationships between the body and the world, disability studies can help us examine the ways that our scholarship reinforces normative and oppressive practices. One way to prioritize disability in our research is to include ableism—the systemic ways that people with disabilities are devalued in society—among other structures that oppress (e.g., racism, colonialism, sexism).

Disability studies can also be a useful intervention when working with communities that are not clearly part of a disability community, not only because we do not know who might have a disability when we are engaging in research (and, in fact, we may never know) but also because the ideas that underpin disability studies are useful guiding principles for working with non-academic, activist subjects and audiences. In this way, activist scholar-researchers can be more inclusive and accessible in their work and also can build allyship with the disability community. Foregrounding disability studies would not only allow for new perspectives, it would overtly connect the cultural history and legacy of disability to scholarship, giving it the attribution that is often neglected. Laurie Gries and Steve Parks's essays both question how we make our scholarship public or train future scholars. A more overt disability studies lens in both can offer possible answers to those questions.

Researchers Push Back

Yergeau's essay calls for researchers and scholars in Rhetoric and Composition to reclaim disability in their work. One way to do this is to consider how foregrounding disability in the work of Rhetoric and Composition can add to our field overall. The chapters by Parks and Gries, respectively, begin to make such connections by calling to make publically available research accessible to wide audiences, critiquing graduate student education for its limited vision of what work we can do, and enacting an embodied writing style that positions themselves clearly for the reader. Gries and Parks situate themselves in their research by incorporating embodied and affective experiences and critical reflections. Gries highlights her embodied emotional experience of her swastika research, saying that at times she has felt "hopelessness" and experienced "tears streaming down her face" as she gathers data for her project. Parks writes from a personal point of view in order to examine the ways that our engagement in scholarship reveals "interactions . . . situated within an existing network of institutional, political and economic networks." He discusses the ways that his own role as a researcher and community partner has shifted and changed according to the needs of Syrians for Truth and Justice.

There is a long legacy of researchers marking themselves when writing up research, particularly in feminist and queer methodologies where such positioning can destabilize the normative assumptions of more traditional, objective research practices. Without marking ourselves, the "mythic norm" would dominate and readers would assume that the researcher is white, male, heterosexual and abled (Lorde 116). This move is significant to disability studies as well, as such marking can also challenge what Kerschbaum and Price define as the "super-abled" role of the researcher, where the researcher is an objective automaton that is continually productive in pursuit of the answers they seek (35). Viewing the researcher as "super-abled" reinscribes the idea that the researcher is emotionally and physically neutral, and that any deviations from this could impact or bias the research data. If major scholars in our field, such as Yergeau, Gries, and Parks, can continue to push against this attitude, it would communicate that the relationship between researcher and their research is complicated, complex, and potentially fraught in ways that are productive.

The relationship between a researcher and their research is an important point of discussion in the ways that we train future researchers as well. Parks' essay offers a critique of our graduate education: how we are taught that labor is limited to the classroom, to communicate in only academic journals, and to focus our curriculum on established, mainstream scholars as opposed to more activist contributions. This argument could be extended into a critique of the type of labor and bodies we value in not only our graduate education, but in the bodies of our teachers, researchers, and leadership of the field of Rhetoric and Composition. There is an assumption that graduate school, and academia in general, is a space where students and faculty contribute to a culture of a certain type of productivity that insists on large workloads, including teaching, service to the field or university, publications, research, and mentorship. When we continually promote the idea that graduate students and researchers continually fixate on "productivity" over all else in our graduate programs and faculty positions, we reinforce the ableist attitudes of a society that continues to only value what a person can do, what they can produce, and how much they sacrifice. In our graduate education, we should value not only the intellectual possibilities of public rhetorics, community engagement, and activism, but also the ways that our bodies are part of that creation of knowledge in highlighting the embodied nature of research and bringing in a diversity of students and researchers into our research practices.

By highlighting the emotional and embodied ways that research impacts researchers, we can work toward Gries' call for scholarship to matter "and matter not just in our discipline but to the public at large." There are ways that disability studies can help researchers share their research with various non-academic communities—a concern that Gries highlights here. Disability activists are concerned with the ways that academic language can be discriminatory towards those who cannot access higher education, who either have trouble interpreting the language used or are unable to access scholarship often behind a paywall. Jay Dolmage argues that academic scholarship should strive to be both written in plain language and available in open-access formats to increase the ability for non-academic stakeholders to reach research (32). He emphasizes Elizabeth Grace's argument that writing academic scholarship in "plain language" is important for "access and justice"(qtd. on 32). This may mean that data collected should be available in multiple modes for little or no cost and that write-ups of research ought to be written in a way that is accessible for people of varying educational levels. By doing this work, we can make our scholarship and publically available artifacts (like the swastika database or Syrian testimonies) more accessible to a variety of people from different backgrounds.

When we consider how disability studies connects to not only researchers and subjects with disabilities, but a variety of stakeholders in scholarship, we can find ways to respect the varied identities of our research subjects and our own research positions. Ideas grounded in disability studies and methodologies can be influential for anyone concerned with connecting to populations with historical research subjects, ethics of research, and the role and embodiment of the researcher. By naming and identifying how disability figures into our research and how research methods generally benefit from an explicit examination of disability themes, we can begin interrogating the ways disability haunts our research methods, research subjects, our own positionality, and resulting scholarship.

Final Call:

As I sit writing this, I feel a knot in my neck that marks the beginnings of a migraine. My hip flexors burn as they struggle to keep my legs in a sitting position. I try to sit up, but my back slouches as I feel muscle pain extend from my shoulders to elbows. I rest with my hand on my head to give my neck muscles a rest. I sip coffee, as I spent the night curled up with my heating pad, going in and out of sleep. As a person who wants to engage in scholarship in Rhetoric and Composition, who wants to talk and work with communities in qualitative research, I constantly worry that my own voice will be stifled and that I won't be able to battle the ableist system that tells me that my own voice does not matter. My survival is itself a resistance, but this survival often feels hopeless when I continually have to argue for the acceptance of my disabled body into spaces that implicitly claim that I am not welcome. Until there is broad acceptance for disability as a way of knowing, and we engage with and integrate disability into the critical lenses we already employ, we are limiting the voices and perspectives we hear. Unless we name and claim the ways that disability haunts our research in similar ways that Yergeau does, or value the emotional and affective experience of research like Gries, or interrogate the ways that our field trains and engages in public scholarship like Parks, we will continue to elide these voices and experiences.

Works Cited

  • Dolmage, Jay. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. U of Michigan P, 2017.
  • "Fact Sheet on People with Disabilities." United Nations Enable. www.un.org/disabilities/documents/toolaction/pwdfs.pdf
  • Kerschbaum, Stephanie and Margaret Price. "Stories of Methodology: Interviewing Sideways, Crooked and Crip." Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, vol. 5, no. 3, 2016, pp. 18–56.
  • Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York UP, 1998.
  • Lorde, Audre. "Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference." Sister, Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Crossing P, 1984.
  • Mitchell, David and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. U of Michigan P, 2014.
  • Snyder, Sharon L. and David M. Mitchell. "Disability Haunting in American Poetics." Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–12.