After reading Tanya Titchkosky’s The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning this past fall, I’ve been looking forward to reading more of her work. The Question of Access is a spatial and social analysis of how access impacts the relationships people have with each other and with particular (university) spaces. Titchkosky asks important questions (Now, what if, like access, we treat disability as a way of perceiving and orienting to the world rather than conceiving of it as an individual functional limitation?) and takes time answering them.
Reading & Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment is another great example of Titchksosky’s critical questioning and careful (textual) analysis. Arguably more than The Question of Access, the focus of which is university life more generally, Reading & Writing Disability Differently presents specific insight into disability as it manifests within language: how we write it, read it, communicate it, and give it meaning through words.
Titchkosky focuses on text (print and images) because the way we create text, tell stories, and narrate particular events and bodies gives us active participation in meaning-making, specifically, “in making up the meaning of people” (6). This focus on text is also an opportunity to analyze the “here-and-now talk about disability” (7); that is, how people are currently constructing meaning about disability through common texts. The purpose, then, is to use text as a way to learn more about embodiment:
“[M]y aim is to uncover how we might encounter disability in new ways, or at least read disability differently, by attending to how we already do and do not notice embodied existence.” 8
Titchkosky breaks her textual analysis into two parts: problems and dis-solutions. Before launching into these discussions, though, she is careful to define some key terms and how she will be using them within her book.
Disability: “a process of meaning-making that takes place somewhere and is done by somebody” and “an arena of already existing talk and conduct” (12).
Embodiment, Mol & Law (2004): “a relation to the social fact that ‘we all have and are a body. But there is a way out of this dichotomous twosome. As part of our daily practices, we also do (our) bodies. In practice we enact them’” (45 qtd. in 12). Here, both disability and embodiment are defined as active things that people are, do, and influence.
Textured life of disability: “the fact that the weight, substance, and sense of disability are put together by texts that are woven into readers’ lives in a variety of ways” (17).
Enactment: “Appearances are enactments in a reflexive sense insofar as they are an enactment of social life and take place within that realm” (17).
- “Appearance is an act of mediation conducted in the liminal space between subject and ground, between power that forms the subject and the subject’s own power of being in the world” (21).
Text: “embodied in popular texts readily available to literate consumers of the mass media” such as newspapers, magazines, and government documents (26).
- “Texts are forms of action: textualizing is something we do to issues of concern; texts organize those issues, enter our lives; and some things we live only through text” (26).
God Trick, Donna Haraway (1991): “a way to refer to, and to turn her reader’s attention to, the taken for granted practices involved in the contemporary production of knowledge found in informative texts” (32). This last one is particularly important moving into the first section of the book—Problems—because the god trick allows authors to disguise truths & to provide information uncritically.
The construction of disability as problem is most notably defined by medical discourse. Titchkosky describes this medicalization as a “way of defining the body that is totalizing and reductive” (46). She analyzes two government documents in order to examine both the medicalization of disability and how the god-trick is employed to present “authoritative” facts to readers that go unquestioned.
The god trick is at work within government and medical documents (e.g. In Unison 2000: Persons with Disabilities in Canada) through the authoritative statement of facts. Titchkosky argues, “The factual enunciation [of government statistics] hides the act of constituting disability as a condition readily identifiable in people in the form of rates within a population that we, individually and collectively, suffer” (58). Through the use of statistics, government data constructs disability as an individual problem that affects a community of readers.
A similar issue arises from A New Approach to Disability Data. The census asks us to imagine disability as a problem by focusing on how the body is limited in particular ways—limited at home, work, in public and private spaces. Disability, as constructed by the census, “is presented as if it no longer names a type of self, or a way of being; it is now a name for the reduced ability to do resulting from a lack of functionality in one’s normal bodily comportment” (74). There is no more active participation nor a choice in claiming disability as an identity; rather, disability is textualized as something that merely happens to the body.
This is commonly identified as the medical model of disability. How readers orient to this medical meaning as a “natural” and “objective” way to consider disability hides the active role that medical discourse takes in constructing disability meaning, further positioning disability as problem (94).
Interestingly, Titchkosky focuses on how this medicalized problem manifests within woman through the body of the mother. Here, the mother not only is disembodied (because medicine gives “birth” to disability); she is also the problem. Because women choose to have babies later in life, they produce more problematic children. They become producers of problems, victims (100). Women also become problems when they willingly choose to stay pregnant with such problematic children. Here, the fault is not only with the child, but with the mother: “Disability, like all other forms of human life, is born of woman. Woman is responsible, yet again” (104).
This reading certainly locates a lot of blame (on woman) and fault (within disability). Titchkosky, however, wants to trouble these notions, to examine how disability is produced as a limit tied to illness or death and not as a possibility tied to life (111). This production is largely influenced by negative ontology, which holds that “to be disabled is to be a negation of strength, and thus disability becomes weakness” (124). In part, this negative ontology gains strength through the authoritative voice of medicine, which tells us not only what disability is and how it affects us (as a problem) but also how we can “prevent, manage, or live with disability” (133). That is, how we can solve it.
The book’s second half—Dis-solutions—focuses on the dissolution of two neo-liberal solutions to disability: inclusion and overcoming.
Though inclusion is often seen as positive, the critique here is that inclusion (as ordered by bureaucratic practices) is only seen as a solution to the “problem” of disability. What’s more, such inclusion is tied closely with citizenry and “conform[ing] to society ‘such as it is’” (173). Part of the issue of such inclusion, for Titchkosky, is that it’s a systematic attempt to include those who have been deemed by that same system to be “exclude-able” (149):
“To know how disability is produced as a problem in need of remedy, to know how, for example, disability is given shape as an excluded population in need of programs requiring and thus empowering inclusion, is to come to know how and why disability matters.” 149-50
Those who are included, who seek that inclusion, are known as the abled-disabled. Titchkosky describes the abled-disabled individual as “a person who appears oriented to, and desirous of, this normalcy” (151). The abled-disabled are those with the “best chance” to succeed as “normal people” (159). In this way, abled-disabled narratives will take the form of fighting-against-the-odds-of-disability narratives: overcoming.
The overcoming narrative is very familiar to those both within and removed from disability studies because of its extreme prevalence. Titchkosky describes it as support of the “enlightened liberalism of late capitalism” that demands individual achievement (179). And we see this individual success textually constructed everywhere: commercials (e.g. that new AT&T texting commercial where the kid with severe TBI says, “I want to give up so bad, but I can’t. I’ve got to fight on.”), in the Olympics (e.g. Oscar “Bladerunner” Pistorius), and in news stories every day.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the overcoming story is its necessity for disembodiment. Titchkosky writes, “Bodies just happen to be attached to humans, but bodies are not signifiers of humanity, at least not the disabled body found in the overcoming story” (184-5). The idea, of course, is that the body is not what makes us human; rather, it is what we do with that body that gives us our humanity. If the kid in the AT&T commercial did give up, his would not be an overcoming narrative but merely a story of struggle, pain. And although there is a desire to textually construct these stories, Titchkosky reminds us of the paradox:
“The body that is to signify such hardship, to signify the necessity for the rising up of the human spirit, and to signify the beginnings of the overcoming story, is the same body that is rapidly discarded as mere object, mere obstacle, not human.” 191
Even as we celebrate these success stories, we still largely deem disabled bodies exclude-able from humanity, citizenry. This split (celebrate/condemn) reflects the split between ability and disability. Titchkosky warns that the overcoming narrative constantly denies the complexities and ambiguities of existence (203), showcasing only success or only pain or only an abled(-disabled) individual or only a disabled body. As she claims, then, the overcoming narrative dissolves as a “solution” to disability because it not only idealizes but homogenizes both bodies and their identities. Titchkosky writes, “This chapter, indeed this book as a whole, can be read as my attempt to find ways to value disability as the discursive space where the interrelation of ability and disability can be thought anew” (207).
This book is also an opportunity to reflect critically on the everyday ways we read and write disability, the way we celebrate particular disabilities (and what they do) and condemn others. Titchkosky concludes, “Overall, Reading and Writing Disability Differently aims to allow us to feel and see limited forms of embodiment as potentially opening us up to the sort of world and the sort of selves that require disability to appear in these ways” (211). Once we imagine these other embodied existences, we begin to read and write anew.
I appreciate this book for the questions it raises and the insight provides. Titchkosky’s close analysis provides concrete examples of how we rhetorically construct disability through textual production—reading & writing. This is important not only for composition instructors (language is embodied), but it reminds us to be socially responsible producers and consumers of text, too. And one final bit of insight to chew on:
“[T]he body is a way of being, even if this way is ordered, organized, and oppressed by its situation.” 130
Titchkosky, Tanya. Reading & Writing Disability Differently: The Textured Life of Embodiment. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007. Print.