Travis Chi Wing Lau//

*adapted from a presentation at the Modern Language Association 2022 annual conference

In the wake of the recent discourses surrounding disability fakery and the accusations that those with long COVID are faddishly embracing a new identity of self-victimization in a world that needs to “return to normal,” I have been meditating on the resonances between such claims and other troubling experiences I have witnessed as a scholar of disability working in a historical field of literature.

Recently, I co-edited alongside Dr. Madeline Sutherland-Meier a group of essays on “Disability in the Eighteenth Century” for Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture that were developed out of presentations given at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference. While responses to the forum’s publication have been overall generous and warm, I received some troubling feedback that I have sparingly discussed in public in fear of the professional backlash, as well as a deep resistance to giving a platform to ableism. I am not invested in “calling out” anyone as much as I am interested in thinking through what underpins this all-too-predictable type of response to disability scholarship and to disabled scholars claiming expertise in a field centered around minoritized identity. A senior scholar wrote to me flippantly that they found the essays “amusing” but now dreads “having to contend with yet another identity category in an already overgrown list that’s tacked onto everything.” By “tacked onto everything,” they are referring not only to research but also calls for papers, job advertisements, conference themes, course descriptions, program descriptions, and syllabi.

We’ve all seen this language of identities strung together in a list: “papers should address multiple intersections of class, race, gender, sexuality” or “we particularly welcome BIPOC and LGBTQ+ scholars to apply.” The scholar who wrote to me is certainly right to point out this habit of flattening marginalized identities into lists for diversity coverage or to create convenient catch-alls for the many forms of diversity we claim to include, but I am struck by the way that this scholar assumes a goal of disability scholarship is representation in these lists. As if being added to the list is itself a kind of legitimacy that disability scholars need to be taken seriously as scholars.

What concerns me more is this scholar’s “dread,” as they put it, and reluctance to recognize why scholars and fields get listed in these ways when we know they have not historically had the dignity of even such listing because they are simply gatekept out of the academy in the first place. I say this a lot to many colleagues’ and students’ dismay: if ableism had its way, I would not be here right now. I don’t mean to overinvest in this scholar’s comment either: such listing is common because of its shorthanding quality and to signal an editor, an organizer, or an institution’s investment in those marginalized groups (the actual material outcome of that investment is, of course, always uncertain, as Sara Ahmed has reminded us about the delicious marketability of Diversity™ in higher education).[1]

As I’ve noticed in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Studies, disability is finally becoming an item (often the last one) on the list. We have “arrived,” as it seems, even as we remain afterthoughts in the Oppression Olympics that many of us who know better choose to participate in nonetheless because the limited resources and corporatization of the academy invites such infighting rather than solidarity. I am also aware of another consequence of such “arrival” in the field: the accusation that such emphasis on a marginalized identity is a form of scholarly narcissism or “mesearch” when it comes to underrepresented scholars centering these supposedly “niche” histories, writers, and texts in their research and teaching.

I recall here the late Tobin Siebers’ reflections on this very issue:

To theorize disability requires that we understand not only the history by which the accusation of narcissism is leveled against people with disabilities but the centrality of disability to the concept of narcissism itself. This is because narcissism represents perhaps the dominant psychological model used today to maintain the superiority of ability over disability, and there may be no more authoritative example of the logic of blaming victims for their own pain…Its structure allows no room for the idea that the accuser might be an interested party in the process of accusation. Narcissists, the theory goes, cease to love everyone but themselves.[2]

As Siebers invites us to consider, who gets to call a field of study and its scholars “narcissistic” and “mired in identity politics” and what do such accusations suggest about the academy and the larger scholarly communities that compose it? Who gets to do “real scholarship” while others dabble in trivial “mesearch”? Which fields get to claim a universalism that other fields do not?

In terms of how the senior scholar who wrote to me views it, the list disability gets tacked onto is one of fellow narcissists who revel in their oppressions and minoritized standing, which bear a certain scholarly caché that is simultaneously being validated by the academy in new ways (think of the sudden surge in “diversity hires” or “diversity initiatives”) but also devalued as insular, narrow, or even hostile to fields and institutions (consider how many scholars of color are continually being denied tenure). While I am cautiously optimistic about disability’s newfound centrality in recent Restoration and eighteenth-century scholarship, I wonder about this box-checking tendency of scholars feeling like disability’s trendiness necessitates that they perform a recognition of it as they might other more established identity categories they feel are now too salient to ignore like gender or race. This partially explains the uncritical deployments of disability as a framework entirely divorced from disabled lived experience—“crip” as a purely theoretical move rather than bound up with real people from which such language originates and for which such language has profound ramifications. Does claiming intersectionality (especially as it becomes increasingly disconnected from Black feminist activist and intellectual traditions) get around this problem of a reluctant “United Colors of Benetton” model of scholarly participation, where scholars feel an obligation to address disability, if even superficially, now that it has “arrived”?

I say all this not with any clean and easy solution in mind and not from an imaginary position of being somehow outside of these issues, which implicate all of us who are committed to a more diverse future for our shared fields of inquiry. The reductive answer would be to say that disability is the “new identity” that merits study because it shapes the experiences of every other identity category—that the history of racial subjugation or gender oppression or class difference is always already a disability issue.

That all goes without saying.

What I’m getting at here is what this all means about ethical practice as scholars of the Restoration and eighteenth century. There will remain plenty of scholars who do not think disability merits study—that was made clear to me when I was still in graduate school. But how we include matters just as much as what we include, especially if it is to shape the trajectory of a field. How do we integrate insights and practices from Disability Studies and disability activism into our scholarly practices beyond the token “disability week” tacked on to the end of the semester in the long eighteenth-century survey? If accessibility copies of talks and hybrid modalities were subjects of ridicule and scorn at some of the most recent academic conferences, and student accommodations are routinely decried by faculty as “extra work” or “unfair advantages,” are we even ready to have disability be “tacked onto the list”?

I ask these questions sincerely because these are collective ones whose answers have consequences for how we do our work and shape future generations of scholars invested in the period. As I consider how few disabled scholars are welcome in our scholarly societies and spaces, I worry about disability’s “arrival” in this moment and the ways it will become just another belated item on the list.

[1] See On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

[2] Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 34

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