I apologize for how dense the first part of this post is. I need to take some time to explain what exactly I mean when I use certain terms. Because of this, I’m going to rely heavily on the Keywords book for a bit. Kathleen Kerr briefly discusses several weighty theorists in the chapter on “Other”, quoting from Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Mikhail Bakhtin, Gayatri Spivak, Jean-Paul Sartre, Edward Said, and many others. One quote that I found particularly useful was from Jean-Francois Staszak, who says “Otherness is the result of a discursive process by which a dominant in-group (‘Us,’ the Self) constructs one or many dominated out-groups (‘Them,’ Other) by stigmatizing a difference – real or imagined – presented as a negation of identity and thus a motive for potential discrimination” (qtd. 126-127).
Kerr also notes that “Other has also been defined and described in the context of disease, aging, and disability” (127). It is clear that “disability” and “other” are connected, as those who are labeled “disable” are necessarily being labeled as “other” by the dominant group.
This is echoed in the entry on “disability,” where Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson notes that a “focus on ‘diagnosing’ learning differences – grouping students accordingly and devising remedies to ‘cure’ them and return them to the mainstream – metaphorically treats those students as disabled and in need of rehabilitation” (57).
Lewiecki-Wilson also comments that “in like manner, Garland-Thomson understands disability/ability as a broad system of underlying practices of normativity and exclusion” (59). In other words, most rhetoric around disability is aimed at diagnosing, containing, excluding, and erasing; they have been made “other” from ourselves and their identities and voices are often silenced.
In class we were asked to write briefly about the Keywords chapter on “disability.” I responded particularly to the question asked at the beginning: “is disability historically and culturally produced” (57). In my mind, this is an easy answer. Yes. Disability is simply a way of labeling a body that is determined to be “other.” Not only that, but it is necessarily a negative label, literally defining an individual based on their inability to perform a specific task. The stigma surrounding this term and communities where the majority of folks have been labeled “disabled” is immense.
And the completely ridiculous thing is that members of these communities tend to be very literate, but they are stigmatized and viewed as “less than” because their literacies are different than that of the majority of the population.
If we are to actually uphold the CCCC’s resolution on the “Student’s Right to Their Own Language,” then we ought to value these various forms of communication and language. Instead of stigmatizing and labeling and dismissing as “other” and “less than,” we ought, as Vershawn Ashanti Young points out in “Should Writer’s Use They Own English,” to try to “know everybody’s dialect, at least as many as we can, and be open to the mix of them in oral and written communication” (111).
I’m not saying this will be easy. Breaking down stigma never is. But it is so necessary and so worthwhile. As Adam Banks stressed in his CCCC Chair’s Address “Ain’t No Walls behind the Sky, Baby, Funk, Flight, Freedom,” composition’s “best work happened when we dedicated ourselves to the students the rest of the academy didn’t want” (271). He stresses the way that the discipline needs to grow and adapt and stop clinging exclusively to one mode of communication (the essay) and branch out into more diverse and multimodal ways of expression (embrace technology and all that it has to offer). He wants composition to “free ourselves from . . the set of handcuffs the same old theory and the same old theorists and the same old scholarship put upon us” (276). He understands that technology is changing the world, and that composition must change along with it in order to remain relevant. I would argue that this should include our perception of “other” as well. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, our standards must change so as to include as many individuals as possible in the conversation. We have so much to gain from inviting previously silenced voices into the conversation, and continuing to exclude minority voices will only make the academy even more out of touch with reality than it already is. Technology has changed the world, and no longer is academic publication the only way to “have a voice.” We must find ways to adapt and include these voices and individuals and technologies, or we find ourselves left behind.
I will close with another quote from Banks: “Funk means we are willing to sweat. Funk means we are willing to deal with messiness and complexity. Funk means we will look unflinchingly at all that pains us, all that is wrong around us, and still dance and shout and shake and twirl our way out of constrictions” (272). The goal: find a way to adapt and thrive.