Does Public Disability History Need a Cultural Model of Disability?

by Anne Waldschmidt, University of Cologne

Until today, efforts to develop a cultural model of disability have been rare. However, in parallel with the development of the social model and its critical discussion and partly independent of it, during the past decades we have witnessed an increase in cultural studies with regard to disability. We can already identify cultural disability studies as an innovative and prolific research field carried out in the humanities (see for example Waldschmidt et al. 2017). Yet, it is striking that in contrast to the social model of disability, which is often accused of dogmatism, the field of cultural disability studies still looks more like a patchwork quilt. The latter has not yet found to unique contours, despite an ongoing discussion on the implications of culture for disability constructions.

The National Gallery architecture and Alison Lapper sculpture at Trafalgar Square, London, UK. Ph: CGP Grey
As early as 1994, Tom Shakespeare called for a stronger perception of cultural representations of disabled people. Inspired by feminist debates and discussing different theories, he suggested "that disabled people are 'objectified' by cultural representations" (287), under which he subsumed theatre, literature, paintings, films and the media. In the following years, prominent scholars in the Anglo-Saxon world such as Lennard J. Davis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Robert McRuer, David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Margrit Shildrick, Tobin Siebers, Shelley Tremain and others, published a great variety of cultural and literary analyses showing the wealth and productivity of treating "disability as a cultural trope" (Garland-Thomson 2002: 2). In 2006, Snyder and Mitchell explicitly introduced a "cultural model of disability," but they defined it narrowly as an approach that was primarily associated with US-American Disability Studies. In introducing the phrase "cultural locations of disability," referring to "sites of violence, restriction, confinement, and absence of liberty for people with disabilities" (Snyder and Mitchell 2006: x), they offered a tool for interdisciplinary works on disability within and beyond cultural studies.

Additionally, some scholars have argued for the usefulness of a cultural model of disability to study intersections between migration, ethnicity, 'race' and disability. In 2005 Patrick J. Devlieger, who teaches cultural anthropology in Leuven (Belgium), pleaded, following Foucault, Derrida and Marx, and focussing on communication and cultural diversity, for a dialectical cultural model (see also Devlieger et al. 2016). Recent works in postcolonial studies ask the question "of how disability is figured in the global, postcolonial history of the modern" and aim "to highlight specific located examples of disability in cultural contexts" (Barker and Murray 2003: 65). Meanwhile, the cultural model of disability has also been acknowledged in religious studies as a 'key term.' In this context, Nyasha Junior and Jeremy Schipper (2013: 35) define it as an approach that analyses "how a culture's representations and discussions of disability (and nondisability or able-bodiedness) help to articulate a range of values, ideals, or expectations that are important to that culture's organization and identity." Disability History, however, has not yet witnessed the development of a cultural model of disability that takes into account the intersections of culture, history and society, although there are attempts that aim at conceptualising this field of research with respect to cultural studies (see Bösl et al. 2010; Barsch et al. 2013).

Generally speaking, we can state that there is an ongoing reflection on the strengths of a cultural approach to disability. At the same time, however, the respective 'model' still seems to have rather blurred features. Further, the debate tends to reproduce the dominance of English speaking disability studies and overlooks contributions from other countries, such as the longstanding works of French philosopher Henri-Jacques Stiker. With regard to Germany, both the interdisciplinary book series "Disability Studies," published since 2007 by Transcript, and the Edinburgh German Yearbook's fourth volume on disability in German literature, film, and theatre from 2010 show a great wealth of works drawing on a cultural studies approach. The editors of the yearbook, Eleoma Joshua and Michael Schillmeier (2010), define the cultural model as "the analysis of the representations of disabled people in the cultural spaces of art, media, and literature" (5) and even speak of a "cultural turn" in disability studies (4).

It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss these different proposals extensively. Instead, I want to sketch my own approach. Based on contributions published in 2005 and 2012, the latter together with Werner Schneider, I develop a cultural model of disability for the purpose of providing a joint framework for the already numerously existing contributions that analyse disability with the help of methodologies and approaches originating from cultural studies (see also Waldschmidt 2017). My intention is not to suggest that a cultural model should replace the social model of disability. Rather, critical disability studies, including disability history, should acknowledge that disability is both socially and culturally constructed.

What is the core of a cultural model of disability? My main point is that such a cultural model needs to reflect first of all its own understanding of culture. As both a social practice and an analytical category, culture does not only imply cultural activities in the narrow sense, be it so-called high culture or popular culture. Instead, for innovative research it is much more productive to apply a broad conception of culture that denotes the totality of 'things' created and employed by a particular people or a society at a given time in history, be they material or immaterial: objects and instruments, institutions and organisations, ideas and knowledge, symbols and values, meanings and interpretations, narratives and histories, traditions, rituals and customs, social behaviour, attitudes and identities. In this sense the public sphere, be it the public opinion, the public interest, public awareness or any other form of 'res publica,' is ultimately part of the culture of a given society. Hence, if we are going public, for example, in the streets or via social media, we are 'doing culture' in some way or other.In my opinion, if we were to use such a general understanding of culture, a cultural model of disability would not be dismissed as focalising only symbols and meanings, but could broaden our analytical perspective to investigate the relations between symbolic (knowledge) systems, categorization and institutionalisation processes, material artefacts, practices and 'ways of doing things,' and their consequences for persons with and without disabilities, their social positions, relations and ways of subjectivation. Thus, such a cultural disability model differs from other approaches in important aspects: It considers disability neither – as in the individualistic-reductionist model of disability – only as an individual fate nor – as in the social model – as merely an effect of discrimination and exclusion. Rather, this model questions the other side of the coin, the commonly unchallenged 'normality,' and investigates how practices of (de-)normalization result in the social category we have come to call 'disability.' The cultural model of disability implies a fundamental change of the epistemological perspective, since it does not deal with the margin but rather with the 'centre' of society. Against this background, 'doing public disability history' means not only to confront the wider public with disabled persons' perspectives, but to inspire critical self-reflections of those who consider themselves 'non-disabled' and to stimulate a public debate about what it means to be 'normal.'

Recommended Citation:
Anne Waldschmidt (2017): Does Public Disability History Need a Cultural Model of Disability?. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 7.

Barker, Clare and Stuart Murray. "Disabling Postcolonialism: Global Disability Cultures and Democratic Criticism." The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York, Milton Park: Routledge, 2013 (4th ed.). 61-73.
Barsch, Sebastian, Anne Klein and Peter Verstraete (eds.) The Imperfect Historian: Disability Histories in Europe. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013.
Bösl, Elsbeth, Anne Klein and Anne Waldschmidt (eds.). Disability History: Konstruktionen von Behinderung in der Geschichte. Eine Einführung. Bielefeld: transcript, 2010.
Devlieger, Patrick J. "Generating a Cultural Model of Disability." Paper presented at the 19th Congress of the European Federation of Associations of Teachers of the Deaf (FEAPDA), October 14-16, 2005. Accessed 02 June 2011 under: <>.
Devlieger, Patrick, Beatriz Miranda-Galarza, Steven E. Brown and Megan Strickfaden (eds.). Rethinking Disability. World Perspectives in Culture and Society. Antwerp-Appeldorn: Garant, 2016.
Ellis, Katie. Disability and Popular Culture: Focusing Passion, Creating Community and Expressing Defiance. Farnham: Ashgate, 2015.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory." Feminist Disability Studies. NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002). 1-32. Accessed 25 Feb. 2013 under: <>.
Joshua, Eleoma and Michael Schillmeier. "Introduction." Disability in German Literature, Film, and Theater. Edinburgh German Yearbook. Volume 4. Rochester, New York: Camden House, 2010. 1-13.
Junior, Nyasha and Jeremy Schipper. "Disability Studies and the Bible." New Meanings for Ancient Texts: Recent Approaches to Biblical Criticisms and Their Applications. Eds. Steven L. McKenzie and John Kaltner. Westminster: John Knox Press, 2013. 21-37.
Schneider, Werner and Anne Waldschmidt. "Disability Studies: (Nicht-)Behinderung Anders Denken." Kultur. Von den Cultural Studies bis zu den Visual Studies: Eine Einführung. Ed. Stephan Moebius. Bielefeld: transcript, 2012. 128-150.
Shakespeare, Tom. "Cultural Representation of Disabled People: Dustbins for Disavowal?" Disability & Society 9.3 (1994). 283-299.
Snyder, Sharon L. and David T. Mitchell. Cultural Locations of Disability. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Waldschmidt, Anne. "Disability Studies: Individuelles, soziales und/oder kulturelles Modell von Behinderung?" Psychologie & Gesellschaftskritik 29.1. (2005). 9-31.
Waldschmidt, Anne. "Disability Goes Cultural: The Cultural Model of Disability as an Analytical Tool." Culture – Theory – Disability: Encounters between Disability Studies and Cultural Studies. Eds. Anne Waldschmidt, Hanjo Berressem and Moritz Ingwersen. Bielefeld: transcript, 2017. 19-27. Accessed 22 March 2017 under: <>.
Waldschmidt, Anne, Hanjo Berressem and Moritz Ingwersen (eds.). Culture – Theory – Disability: Encounters between Disability Studies and Cultural Studies. Bielefeld: transcript, 2017.
International Research Unit in Disability Studies at the University of Cologne, Germany:
Waldschmidt, Anne, Hanjo Berressem and Moritz Ingwersen (eds.). Culture – Theory – Disability: Encounters between Disability Studies and Cultural Studies. Bielefeld: transcript, 2017. ISBN 978-3-8394-2533-6 (open access)

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