A cornerstone of disability activism and theory has been the concept of the "normative." While the social model of disability has powerfully helped to deconstruct the means by which able-bodiedness is idealized, normalized, and enforced as compulsory, the social model still depends greatly on the normal-abnormal binary. As queer scholars have done in recent years, we need to consider how disability studies is limited by its resistance to normativity. In our encounters with early modern or pre-modern disability, what other models might we use to interpret difference? From an eighteenth-century perspective, I want to suggest such encounters offer unexpected opportunities for us to explore forms of disability adaptation, flourishing, and resistance that might exceed the conceptual boundaries of the "norm."
Eighteenth-century scholarship has expanded the vocabulary we have for disability by exploring adjacent terms like "defect" and "anomaly." Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum have "reject[ed] definitions of disability as abnormality, lack, or absence"1 in favor of thinking through the inconsistent ways, be it religious or scientific, in which bodies were framed in the long eighteenth century. This terminological flexibility not only does justice to the historically contingent terms by which disability was understood but also allows us to see the fraught interaction of multiple terms that predate the "norm." During an Enlightenment moment when the very definition of the human itself was at the center of debate, a much more dynamic range of embodiments, some more legibly "disabled" than others, existed. David Turner has insisted that disability scholars have placed too great a focus on "extreme or exotic bodies," which actually "deflect attention from the experiences or representations of thousands of people whose impairments were less visually apparent or unusual."2 Literary-historical work in the eighteenth century has helped to recover this critical gap in disability scholarship: the quotidian, local forms of "disability" that might have escaped the field's more presentist investments.
Lastly, the political refusal of the medical model, which pathologizes disability as biological inferiority and as the object of curative intervention, has been necessary for disability scholars to critically assess how social environments disable individuals. Yet the dominance of social construction has led to a flattening of the eighteenth century to a period of transition toward medicalization. I want to suggest that the eighteenth-century offers us a way to better historicize and retheorize the medical model, particularly in ways that demonstrate its reciprocity and even co-constituency with what we might consider the "social." The looseness by which the medical model has been attributed to this period and by which it has been mobilized in linear narratives toward medicalization and pathology need desperate revisiting by disability scholars. As the late Tobin Siebers has suggested in his theory of "complex embodiment," we need not necessarily jettison the social model but critically rethink its relationship to the medical model that we think we already know. Might we call this a critical disability history of medicine?
"Defects": Engendering the Modern Body. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 3.
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Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment. New York: Routledge, 2012. 3.
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