Disability in Literature

University of Leicester research has revealed how inter-disciplinary approaches to the field of disability studies can offer new perspectives to existing disciplines such as the study of English literature.

Research by Dr Tom Coogan, which will be the subject of his doctoral inaugural lecture on Wednesday 18th March, shows that disability is not a marginal concept in our culture, but one that is actually central to it.

Dr Coogan has found that his innovative interdisciplinary approach to analysing disability life-writing can bring a new understanding of the way in which the body makes itself known in language. This is of significance not only to disability studies but also to the wider field of literary studies.

He commented: “Works by writers with disabilities such as Christy Brown’s My Left Foot and Christopher Nolan’s Under The Eye Of The Clock have been well-received by both the general public and the literary establishment (the latter winning the 1987 Whitbread Book Award).

“But, while disability is central to these books, its role has not previously been analysed with the rigorous and innovative approaches offered by the emerging field of disability studies.

“Impairment makes itself known through writing, even when authors don’t consciously identify themselves as disabled. This suggests that the body as a whole makes itself known through writing in a similar fashion.”

In his research, Dr. Coogan focused on the physically impaired act of writing and on the way disability is manifested in the resultant text.

The study was placed in the broader context of ongoing debates on the political and embodied qualities of disability, which have previously tended to conceptualise ‘disability’ as a socially constructed response to an ‘impaired’ body.

Recently, academics have argued that, while this is a useful political tool for highlighting social discrimination in the ways that society, not the body, ‘disables’ people, this focus has left ‘impairment’ to be defined by discourses that have, at their most extreme, led to the incarceration, sterilization and extermination of disabled people.

It also threatens to exclude the experiences of people who do not identify politically as disabled and ignores the fact that the so-called ‘able-bodied’ are only ever temporarily able-bodied, and can experience disability themselves.

Tom Coogan held an MA in Modern Literature from the University of Leicester before obtaining an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded doctorate degree in the University of Leicester’s School of English in July 2008. His thesis was entitled “The Disabled body: Style, Identity and Life-writing.”

He currently teaches in the School of English at the University of Leicester and at the Open University. His article ‘Me, Thyself and I: Dependency and the Issues of Authenticity and Authority in Christy Brown’s My Left Foot and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer and Steven B. Kaplan’s I Raise My Eyes To Say Yes’, was featured in The Journal of Literary Disability, 1, 2, 42-54.

‘An Introduction to Literary Disability Studies’, the doctoral inaugural lecture by Dr Tom Coogan, will take place on Wednesday 18th March, 5.30pm, in the Ken Edwards Lecture Theatre 3 on the University’s main campus.


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