Book Review: Keywords for Disability Studies


Keywords for Disability Studies. Edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss and David Serlin. New York University Press, 2015.


Reviewed by Kathryn Lafferty, PhD student in Comparative Humanities, University of Louisville


Disability studies as a field has extended into many areas of scholarship, from literature to sociology, gaining much attention as it grew out of the activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, scholars have made a distinction between the “medical model” of disability, which focuses on individual deficiencies that need to be cured, and the “social model” of disability that puts emphasis on the physical and social environments that impact the individual, such as stigmatization of the disabled.

Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, provides sixty-two significant concepts within the field of disability studies, covering topics from “ability” to “vulnerability” from a social model perspective. This comprehensive overview of the major concepts within disability studies is a well-organized and detailed array of essays from over sixty different authors, many of whom are notable scholars in the field. Keywords for Disability Studies is an excellent addition to the most recent scholarship and offers both scholars and students an in-depth look at some of the core concepts that drive disability studies as a field. The language throughout the book is easily accessible for scholars and students at all levels, concepts and theories explained in detail, making this an ideal text for someone new to disability studies. It is also an equally beneficial text for those already familiar with the field. Although there is not always cross-over between the essays, the text was undoubtedly crafted as a cohesive unit as the essays complement each other. With over twenty pages of cited material, this text is also useful as a reference guide for further scholarship on disability studies. In addition, the structure of the text is creatively designed, a welcome change from the more “traditional” chaptered format.

The book is not necessarily meant to be read cover-to-cover, but can be used more as a conceptual reference. Focusing on one essay at a time provides the reader with an in-depth view of a concept within disability studies and not simply an account of events or a brief definition of the term. All sixty essays are relatively short, each between two and four pages in length. This style is modeled from Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976).

The introduction, written by all three editors, is brief but provides an overview of what disability studies is and how it has evolved over time. The authors state that “the goal in designing this volume was not simply to define terms but to use them to delineate the field’s debates and problems, while also establishing their importance to many other areas of inquiry across disciplines” (3). A truly interdisciplinary work, this text provides the reader with various viewpoints and ways of addressing disability throughout many fields, with the authors asserting that “disability has become a remarkably heterogeneous category” (3).

Contributing authors include scholars such as Lennard J. Davis, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Michael Bérubé, and Robert McRuer. With such a wide variety of concepts, the text could have become overwhelming, but Keywords for Disability Studies breaks down and refocuses many concepts that scholars might already be familiar with into easily-understood and tangible notions. Some authors provide helpful background information on various concepts, others apply them to specific case studies, with all contributors offering useful ways to rethink disability.

The first essay, written by the editors, focuses on the keyword “disability”, demonstrating how the concept has changed throughout history and that it “is more fluid than most other forms of identity in that it can potentially happen to anyone at any time” (5). The authors conclude, “the meanings of disability and the words we use to describe its various manifestations will no doubt undergo profound shifts as a category of identity; a social, legal, and medical designation; and an embodied condition” (11). Adams, Reiss, and Serlin provide a valuable introduction and essay, and although they state that disability “is more fluid” than other identities, they are still able to define it and discuss it as a coherent concept.

Another entry that was especially effective, and one that builds to some extent on the earlier “disability” essay, is Lennard J. Davis’ piece on “diversity”. Davis is quick to argue that disability is omitted from conversations on diversity, and explores this “structural” problem. He asserts that “diversity as an ideological paradigm is structurally related to the goals of neoliberalism” (63), and as a result “diversity must never be allowed to undermine the basic tenets of free choice and the screen of empowerment that conceals the lack of choice and the powerlessness of most people” (63-4). Davis acknowledges that disability studies attempt to classify disability as a “real identity” and many of the essays included in this text argue from a similar viewpoint, noting the troublesome path in achieving this classification.

Keywords for Disability Studies also has resources on a separate webpage with suggestions on how to incorporate the essays into a classroom setting. Not only would this be helpful for those planning to teach disability studies, but it also has the potential to lend a refreshing approach to nearly any text read in a classroom setting, regardless of content. Keywords for Disability Studies is also helpful for scholars who plan to focus on disability studies or diversity more broadly, as there are many concepts which cross over into other disciplines.

In summary, the entries, which do not have to be read in any particular order, are a brief but comprehensive take on some of the concepts found within disability studies. Coherent, direct, and informative, Keywords for Disability Studies will undoubtedly generate questions and provide valuable resources for students and scholars alike in nearly any discipline for the foreseeable future.


Related reading

Rebecca Green. Disability and narrative: new directions for medicine and the medical humanities. Med Humanities 2010;36:7074.

Rebecca Green. Who speaks for whom? Health humanities and the ethics of representation. Med Humanities 2015;41:7780