In Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (2000), Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell tell a story about talking with a Japanese literary scholar at a conference, and explaining that their area of interest is disability studies. The Japanese scholar immediately responds that there are no examples of disability in Japanese literature. Then, he pauses, and surprisingly starts to create a laundry list of examples. Mitchell and Snyder identify this “‘surprise’ about the pervasive nature of disability” as a common response: without “developed models for analyzing” disability, we can expect many other readers to “filter a multitude of disability figures absently through their imaginations.”
This same filtering operates to create a sense of rhetorical history in which disability is difficult to locate. Added to this passive inability to imagine disability is the very active belief that only the most able could (or can) be rhetoricians or orators. Canonized rhetorical history asks us to accept that disability was (and is) the opposite of rhetorical facility. Rhetorical historians Brenda Jo Brueggemann and James Fredal write that in one particular version of ancient Greek rhetoric, “[r]hetoric [was] the cultivation and perfection of performative, expressive control over oneself and others. Deformity at once prevented any rhetorical achievement.” Students, scholars, and the general public can be easily persuaded that, wherever abnormality was in rhetorical history, it was stigmatized and silenced. The rhetorical tradition we have accepted also demands that we inherit these assumptions, that we enforce them.
Further, over time, the tradition of using constructions of disability to mark excess has silenced or controlled disabled bodies as it has stifled the female body, the foreign body, the racialized body, and so on. Naturally, with a definition of rhetoric as, simply, oratory and the use of the “controllable” body for persuasion, people with disabilities can be easily ignored. When the calculus of rhetorical ability always factors upon a normal body or an invisible body, marking a body's difference and excess disqualifies it from expression. So we need to question our choices about what counts as rhetoric and who counts as a rhetorician.
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