Disability Theory

Disability Theory by Tobin Siebers, book cover

Disability Theory by Tobin Siebers, book cover

Disability Theory gives a lot of insight into the complicated and often contradictory nature of disability studies. In the introduction, Siebers claims that for DS to progress, it must “account for both the negative and positive valences of disability, to resist the negative by advocating the positive and to resist the positive by acknowledging the negative—while never forgetting that its reason for being is to speak about, for, and with disabled people” (5). This reminded me of many a class argument wherein the majority adopted a social constructivist stance and one or two people would try to argue from a “medical model” perspective—not that disability is individual defect but that it is real and embodied. Siebers provides a model that mediates these competing models, the “good” & the “bad”: a theory of complex embodiment.

A theory of complex embodiment blends parts of social construction (e.g. that environments are socially constructed & disabling) with the medical model (e.g. that disability stems from physical, bodily factors). According to Siebers, a theory of complex embodiment “understands disability as an epistemology that rejects the temptation to value the body as anything other than what it was and that embraces what the body has become and will become relative to the demands on it, whether environmental, representational, or corporeal” (27). This approach takes the body for both what it is and where it is socially located. It is with this careful and practical attention that Siebers offers insights into identity politics, pain & suffering, political & social action, sex/uality, and human rights.

The book’s major purposes are threefold: 1) to intervene in current critical & cultural theory debates, 2) to offer a lens for theorizing representation, and 3) to present disability as a minority identity. Related to this last point, one of Siebers’s major goals is to revive identity politics from its current understanding as a form of self-victimization and pity, one that must be disregarded for its associations with pain & suffering. Instead, Siebers offers a defense of identity politics that unfolds from chapter to chapter.

Finally, Siebers presents three guiding methodological principles to consider for the rest of the book:

  1. Knowledge is socially situated—which means that knowledge has an objective & verifiable relation to its social location.
  2. Identities are socially constructed—which means that identities contain complex theories about social reality.
  3. Some bodies are excluded by dominant social ideologies—which means that these bodies display the workings of ideology & expose it to critique & demand for political change. (33)

Though a lot can be said about this book (and has been—check out this great review), I just want to draw attention to some particular moments where Siebers fleshes out arguments about minority identity, human rights, and the ideology of ability.

Minority Identity & Identity Politics

“To call disability an identity is to recognize that it is not a biological or natural property but an elastic social category both subject to logical or natural property but an elastic social category both subject to social control and capable of effecting social change” (4).

A minority identity is the product of a number of systemic actions: a group is born suffering (Othered), the group cannot resist this suffering that turns into resentment & self-pity, and these attributes justify the oppression of that group by dominant groups (13). The identity, then, is not an individual one. Identity is the “structure by which that person identifies and becomes identified with a set of social narratives, ideas, myths, values, and types of knowledge of varying reliability, usefulness, and verifiability” (15).

Siebers believes not only that disability can give insight into minority identities more generally but because disability is less unstable than other identities such as race and gender, disability provides an opportunity to rethink human identity itself (5). After all, “able-bodiedness is a temporary identity at best” (5), meaning disability is never static nor fixed. This realization becomes useful in Siebers’s discussion of narcissism, described as “one of the strongest weapons used against people with disabilities” (37), a “form of violent hyperindividualization” (45) that positions disability identity as highly individual and prevents the group from recognizing and advancing politically. Once we deconstruct disability as a fluid (vs. fixed) identity, we can also see the ways that it is a communal & cooperative (vs. individual) identity.

Disability is an opportunity to think more flexibly about identity, minority groups, and identity politics. Identity politics is frequently rejected for its perceived pathologizing characteristics, but Siebers argues that identity politics do not preserve oppressed identities; rather, the oppressed create new identities with very different values. To further argue the practicality of identity politics, he writes, “[I]dentity politics is no different from any other form of political representation, since politics always implies the existence of a coalition whose membership is defined by ideological, historical, geographical, or temporal borders” (95). Disability becomes vital to this political discussion as it asks us to consider pain & suffering as political indices for social injustice and prejudice (190), identity as politically & socially mediated (189), and people with disabilities as resources, not burdens, for thinking about such basic democratic principles as inclusion and participation (93).

Human (Civic & Sexual) Rights

“The number-one objective for disability studies, then, is to make disability an object of general knowledge and thereby to awaken political consciousness to the distasteful prejudice called ‘ableism’” (81).

The above quotation lays the foundation for an argument about the importance of general knowledge & literacy about disability in order to guarantee basic human rights for people with disabilities. In order to guarantee these rights, Siebers argues that we must reconceptualize both humanity and the human, rejecting 18th-century ideals of rationality, health, and technological ability that stigmatize disability (179). This means redefining humanity in terms of disability, presenting human society as a “community of dependent frail bodies that rely on others for survival” (182). It is only with this acceptance of disability that we can create a minimum standard that grants human rights status to people with disabilities, the poor, the persecuted. As Siebers explains, “disability rights hold the key to universal human rights” (185).

Along with arguments for basic human rights, Siebers also argues for civic rights, seen in descriptions of inaccessible polling places & courtrooms and discriminatory jury duty practices. Most compelling for me, however, was in a side discussion of animal rights. I have become increasingly uncomfortable with rhetorical attention to non-human animals and hadn’t yet been able to determine why. Siebers easily identifies my concern, though, arguing that one of our most flexible approaches to humanity appears not in discussions of people but of animal rights: “The simple fact remains that it is easier at the moment to make a case for animal rights than for disability rights, and at least one major philosopher has gone so far as to argue that we owe animals greater kindness than people with disabilities” (92). Troubling is definitely the nicest word I can conjure.

The discussion of rights also extends to sexual rights and sexual citizenship. Here, Siebers builds on Jeffrey Weeks’s concept of the “sexual citizen” and Kenneth Plummer’s “intimate citizenship,” which depends on control of the body, access to representation and space, and socially grounded choices about identities & experiences (136). Siebers argues that people with disabilities constitute a sexual minority and recognizing this class of citizens can advance other sexually oppressed groups (136). This discussion becomes one not of a sex life but of a sex culture—one that depends on access to sexual locations and provides people with sexual rights. Because sex is so often medicalized for people with disabilities, most people are denied access to information about sexuality, the freedom of association in institutions, and privacy on demand (148-49). Siebers sees the solution to this lack of sexual rights as twofold: 1) embracing greater sexual diversity, which can then make us think more critically about sex in general; and 2) obtaining basic citizenship rights, which present people with disabilities as citizens with the same rights, sexual or not, as others.

Ideology of Ability

“The ideology of ability is at its simplest the preference for able-bodiedness. At its most radical, it defines the baseline by which humanness is determined, setting the measure of body and mind that gives or denies human status to individual persons” (8).

Then, woven throughout the book’s entirety is the ideology of ability. In the introduction, Siebers claims that part of the book is dedicated to defining this ideology, making it familiar, and then distinguishing & defining disability apart from it (9). For example, we see the ideology of ability in physical structures when we enter a building with stairs and no ramp or elevator. Or, returning to minority identity & human rights, we see the ideology of ability in the oppression of those who are not seen as able or worthy of basic rights or respect. In fact, Siebers describes sex as the “privileged domain of ability” (139) because it is where ability is produced and reproduced.

As with most ideology, the ideology of ability is reproduced even in ideas and actions that may be well intentioned. Siebers writes that the ideology of ability, instead of accepting disability for what it realistically is, requires that disability be considered as “new and magical opportunities for ability” (63). Here, he draws attention to Donna Haraway and the cyborg: “The cyborg is always more than human—and never risks to be seen as subhuman. To put it simply, the cyborg is not disabled” (63). Not nearly as complex as the cyborg, a similar attitude is described in a discussion of commonplace tools—such as stairs, elevators, and washing machines—that are used to relax physical standards. Once an individual is labeled as disabled, the ideology of ability dictates that she will “maintain the maximum standard of physical performance at every moment” and that the technologies meant to help her are no longer seen as a relaxing of standards but as accommodations and burdens (31).

Lastly, the ideology of ability is highly present within passing and masquerading. Passing, similar to that of queer theory, is an attempt to conceal identity, which simultaneously preserves social hierarchies and the ideology of ability because, presumably, the person trying to pass wants to be part of the dominant, more able group (101). On the other hand, the masquerade claims disability as part of itself and exaggerates or performs difference in order to both expose & resist prejudice and oppression (118). Sometimes, the stories of this masquerade fall into the overcoming narrative or that of the supercrip—reinforcing rather than challenging the ideology of ability (111). Though not intended, this example shows the pervasive nature of the ideology of ability and what our societal expectations are for people with disabilities.

While there are a number of conclusions that can be made (and that Siebers does make), the conclusion I find most compelling, perhaps for personal reasons, is this one: “[I]f social construction has influenced the past of disability studies, realism may well be in a position to define its future” (72). I return again to the classroom arguments of one side pitted against the other, of the advantage & uncertainties of taking a social constructivist approach to disability, of the very real & embodied experiences for which this approach cannot account. Within Disability Theory, Siebers presents plenty of opportunities to consider this realist approach to disability, which, in his words, is the future of the field. And certainly, it is a conclusion that deserves our attention.


Siebers, Tobin. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: The U of Michigan P, 2008. Print.

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