Theorizing Disability
2005 NEMLA Meeting
Cambride, MA
01 April, 2005

Paul R. Marchbanks
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


An Argument for Enfolding Intellectual Disability More Completely into Disability Studies


Do not cite without permission of the author.

Intellectual disability is the unhoused imbecile of modern academia, an untouchable endlessly circumambulating the fenced-in pale of modern socio-political discourse.   The subject has not even earned the status of a village idiot: few recognize the topic, let alone poke fun at it as an embarrassing but accepted familiar of the academic community.   Issues surrounding intellectual disability do not command the same attention as those other, more seasoned platforms preoccupied with "race," gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class.   No humanities journals or conferences foreground developmental disability and its related concerns; it remains almost exclusively within the purview of medicine, the social sciences and, increasingly, journalism.   Mental illness--long associated with intellectual disability in the public conscious--has proven a far sexier, more popular topic than its cousin.   Even among the disability studies faithful, issues surrounding mental retardation and autism spectrum disorders do not command the same attention as those modes of physical difference rooted in sensory or mobility impairment.   Rosemary Garland Thomson's landmark study Extraordinary Bodies (1997) barely touches on intellectual disability, quick references providing only a necessary part of the useful lexicons she provides for the emerging discipline.   Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell's Narrative Prosthesis (2000) rightly points out the hierarchies within disability studies that have prevented assimilation of those with intellectual disabilities, but the authors themselves do not spend more than a page or two on the subject in their now-canonical text (3, 167-68).   Martin Halliwell's more recent Images of Idiocy (2004), a literary and cultural studies approach to the issue, directly tackles the figure of the "idiot" as everywhere manifest in modern literature and film, but his attention centers on the richly multivalent and symbolic employment of the figure, with virtually no consideration of real-world implications for those with intellectual disabilities.   The academy has yet to claim intellectual disability as its own.

The primary reason for this oversight undoubtedly lies in its very nature--what has an academy of intellects to do with a population defined by varying degrees of intellectual deficiency ?   It is increasingly easy to champion those wrongly disenfranchised by such (comparatively) secondary criteria as skin color or sex as long as some meeting of the minds can occur between the victimized individual, the advocate and representatives of the oppressive governmental or educational institution.   But what if mind itself has been compromised, not temporarily but permanently?   Individuals in such situations are inevitably swept into the custodial care of family and psychiatry.   Why would we think twice about the academic, political, or even social membership of those who cannot offer what we most value?   Enfolding those with developmental disabilities and incorporating their issues into our discourses about education and art would require questioning prejudices so rooted that most have not even begun to recognize them.   That high, Greco-Roman estimation of human intellect reestablished in the eras of renaissance, enlightenment, industrialization, and scientific enquiry have ground the very lenses through which we peer at our modern world.   Putting them aside would be, for many, tantamount to expecting better vision after removing a tried-and-true eye-piece.   Everything from technological innovation to social justice to the creative arts' quest for expression and enlightenment relies, ostensibly at least, on the accumulation, articulation, proper organization and effective deployment of accessible bodies of knowledge .   Extending membership to those of "faulty" cognitive functioning and perception constitutes a far more involved venture than extending a hand to the sensuous or mobility impaired because it requires far more than mobilizing new resources and reshaping our aesthetic and corporeal prejudices (challenging enough ends in themselves).   Creating a new social space in which those of all levels of cognitive health and intellect not only co-exist but appreciate one another's unique contributions would require a reassessment of the relative value we award various elements of human experience.   Creating a new academic space would require even more flexibility in the face of those current, unspoken standards which demand erudition, propriety, and independence from our members.   In this new environment, emoting might step up next to reasoning, interdependence claim a spot alongside autonomy, and storytelling climb higher towards the rarified air accorded scientific analysis.   In other words, such a shift would require re-plotting some of the very points we use to coordinate social progress, as well as significantly expanding our operational definition of "progress" itself.

Given the relative inattention accorded the intellectually disabled by the humanities, it seems appropriate an attempt to make the problem more tangible begin with some of our culture's better-known stories.   The American film industry has generated a number of narratives useful in imagining the practical and attitudinal obstacles faced by those of us interested in extending a hand to the intellectually disabled.   Briefly considering some of the tales disseminated by such a privileged medium will provide a few plausible renderings of the dynamics actually existing between the able-minded and intellectually disabled, at the same time revealing a few of the problematic plots and character archetypes on which our narrative-making tends to rely when portraying such individuals.

Hollywood recognizes well the potential for high theatre inherent in relations between the intellectually disabled and the able-minded.   Every few years, it offers up an intimate, emotionally compelling tale which suggests in microcosm the challenges our society would face were we to embrace this particular population more fully . [image]   Such carefully publicized films--inevitably nominated for best acting awards as Oscar season approaches--tend to relate the marked transformation of a comparatively "normal" person which follows upon befriending an intellectually disabled individual.   In Being There and Pumpkin [image] , such a change is more comic than not.   Those who meet Peter Seller's Chauncy "Gardener" are dazzled by his simple descriptions of plant care [image] --descriptions that politicians, journalists, and his new, affluent friends all take as profound, metaphorical advice concerning government, business, and personal relations [image].   By the film's end, a very wealthy, very ill magnate has taken Chauncy's unwitting wisdom to heart and come to terms with his impending death [image] , his wife has fallen in love with the man she sees as the ideal, temperate lover (his failure to respond to her advances only turns her on the more) [image] , and those in power have convinced themselves the intellectually disabled hero would make the perfect presidential candidate [image] .   The young co-ed who meets and falls in love with the disabled Pumpkin [image] experiences a similar attitudinal revolution , learning to spurn her sorority's prejudices and her haughty mother's wishes in order to embrace a boy magically who matches her transformation with his own.   (By the film's end, his mobility impairment and slurred speech have basically vanished.) [image]   These two films lean heavily on such old, problematic and delimiting stereotypes as the wise idiot, the idiot as plot catalyst, the idiot as clown, and the idiot as a moral yardstick against which other characters are measured.

In a couple other films, this transformation plays as more melodramatic; a healthy relationship between the intellectually disadvantaged character and his companion emerges only after extended frustration and long, hard effort.   The films Rain Man (1988) and I am Sam (2002) [image] track the changing relationship between highly motivated, fast-paced and smart protagonists with little time for emotional intimacy , and the developmentally disabled individuals they crash into in their mad races towards professional success [image].   Only after matching their pace to the more measured strides of Dustin Hoffman's Raymond and Sean Penn's Sam do these other, driven characters begin allocating more time and energy to those close to them.   The slick luxury car salesman played by Tom Cruise develops new respect for the long-suffering love interest he has treated as a disposable sex toy, and stops treating his long-lost, autistic brother as an annoying obstacle to the family inheritance once he has spent a week with Raymond.   Michelle Pfeiffer's hard-nosed lawyer, who tearfully claims she has benefited more from her relationship with Sam than he has, confirms her new humanity in renewed relationship with her attention-deprived son and by warmer, newly egalitarian relations with her disabled client.   [image] In both movies, intellectually sharp but emotionally distant, autonomous individuals with established professional success--not unlike some university professors--confront their own emotional sterility and relational obtuseness after gazing into the mirror held up by their developmentally delayed foils [image].   Subsequent attempts to adopt more emotionally vulnerable postures towards their valued loved ones provide neatly sentimental counterpoints to what were initially failed attempts at communication and relationship.

Though accurate in some of the details, such films as I Am Sam suggest an unrealistic relational path which could never be walked down in academia, let alone the domestic sphere.   This film in particular implies a necessarily torturous but cathartic process that culminates in comparatively idyllic conditions for all concerned.   [image]   Relationship between a disabled adult and his able-minded friends and family may be difficult initially [image], but once a rhythm has been established and a few legal hurdles leapt over, it's all smooth sailing [image].   This film's titular hero ultimately gains custody of the child taken from him by the courts, and the conclusion paints the picture of a small, supportive community of peers that will help him provide appropriate care for his daughter.

A series of other films offer equally unhelpful dynamics that tend in the opposite direction.   In Sling Blade (1996) and Digging to China (1998), not only are close ties with the intellectually disabled extremely difficult to sustain, but real intimacy and trust are virtually impossible.   These two films imply that it takes a sensitive, imaginative child with a surplus of free time and a dearth of adult prejudices to connect with an intellectually disabled adult [image] , and that such a bond cannot survive the rigors of reality (both disabled protagonists end up in institutions following dramatic confrontations with adults [image] ).   As concerns more affectionate kinds of relationship, The Other Sister (1999) [image] suggests that the most trusting kind of intimacy with an intellectually disabled person requires just another such disabled individual while Pumpkin (2002)--which I mentioned earlier--flips this romantic coin with a droll game of "what if."   The latter film [image] , a tonally complex work that continues to befuddle my students whenever I screen it, subtly ridicules the relationship between a slow individual and his able-minded peer.   The movie's dark humor effectively dismantles as sentimental nonsense the idea that an intellectually disabled individual could be socially, let alone sexually, attractive to an able-minded person, directing its satire at the magical-realistic romance between this popular college girl and the physically and intellectually disabled young man her sorority's volunteer program has required her to befriend.

These widely circulated tales suggest parallel paths headed in opposite directions, a process of socialization that, for the intellectually disabled, culminates either in relational security and a utopic future or the lonely recesses of a psychiatric ward.   Less commonplace are illustrations of successful but perpetually challenging relationships like the brotherly bonds depicted in the films What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Dominick and Eugene (1988) [image].   While faithfully capturing the same kinds of behavioral difficulties, emotional capriciousness, and poor decision-making which complicate relations in the aforementioned movies, these two stories openly admit to a never-ending process of relationship-building that requires patience, sensitivity, and a heavily involved mode of interdependence.   When the angst-ridden Gilbert Grape decides, after a narrative predictably filled with family trials and public ignominy, to finally leave the small, rural town in which has always lived, he takes his brother Arnie with him [image] .   This choice insures that the rest of his life will be as complicated (and enriched) by his brother's unique needs as were the weeks detailed by the film.   The movie Dominick and Eugene also concludes with the able-minded guardian's leaving home following a series of trying episodes with his brother.   Eugene leaves Dominick behind when he departs to pursue his medical career but, significantly, this temporary separation enables instead of limiting the intellectually disabled sibling. [image]   Far from abandoning Dominick, the over-protective Eugene gives his brother (who is, admittedly, more capable than Gilbert's brother Arnie) the space to breathe, to attempt supporting himself through his job as a garbage man.   Instead of forcing his brother to continue playing the role of protected and pitied troublemaker, Eugene extends Dominick a measure of autonomy, knowing he can return whenever new difficulties require his presence.

As we retreat from the flickering fantastic of the movie house's darkened recesses to this brightly lit, posh conference room, we can bring away a number of things besides sticky shoes and salty fingers.   The most obvious lesson, perhaps, involves the value of interdependence as a rubric for relationship.   Though some individuals with high-functioning autism or perhaps Asperger's Syndrome will be able to function at conferences with relative autonomy, something resembling the supportive networks which surround Sam, Arnie, and Dominick will be necessary for others whom we invite into our professional discourses.   Admittedly, our highly competitive, ever-shrinking discipline does not always encourage cooperative endeavors that diffusive praise across multiple contributors, regardless of their intellectual acumen and erudition.   That a profession already beleaguered by funding crunches and--in public eyes--fading consequence would consciously incorporate a population that might imperil its lingering legitimacy seems even more doubtful.   And yet, the clarion call of the postmodern era remains diversity at all cost , a principle literary studies has championed at least as much as any other discipline.   Surely a field that so values heterogeneity of voice should save a place around our considerable bonfire for everyone with a story to tell.   Or does even our idealism have its limits?

A few literary critics and historians have refused a quiet complacency, beginning instead to point the way to a less combative critical practice that not only accepts but actively privileges the kind of cooperation the intellectually disabled community would require.   In an essay discouraging the kind of divisive "paradigm worship" that has long characterized literary studies, Virgil Nemoianu suggests a number of alternative modes, including one she christens "reciprocity and gift making" (17).   Nemoianu recalls the old practice of dedicating or dedicating literary productions to a specific, personal audience as inspiration for:

a more general model of literary history and criticism in which

writing is deliberately taken as a gift to others . . . or as an exercise

in generosity . . . In such a reading the theme of communication . . .

interlaces in paradoxical and sweet ways with the theme of love.

Literary history would be on the one hand the record of loving

gestures, but on the other, critically, an exercise in love . . . which

could become the preferred avenue for text cognition . . . Values

such as gratitude and praise, politeness and attention, would receive

their due, and the substantiality of leisure could be reconsidered.   (17-18)

Even in the case of this mother-son team, where the participants know one another intimately, future projects will likely require continual adaptability and reconfiguration.   Those who follow the example of Dr. Burks and Mr. Gyasi Burks-Abott will need to voice their concerns without drawing essentializing, reductive conclusions about the disability in question, and will sometimes labor to accommodate an individual's simpler diction, emotional expressiveness and unique communication needs without creating a spectacle.   While no formula can anticipate all possible variables intellectually disabled individuals will face in pursuing communion with the larger academic community--particularly given the enormous range of cognitive disabilities in existence--the process will undoubtedly, regularly mandate flexibility, dedication, and patience for all those involved.   Matters will likely never become as easy and rosy as that imaged in the conclusion of I Am Sam , but they need not remain as bleak as they are at present, either.   Unfortunately, the closing scenes of Sling Blade and Digging to China narrate the untold tale within academia, only in our situation no real attempt at assimilation has preceded the institutionalization and isolation that have effectively silenced the intellectually disabled voice.  

As we move towards this transition, it might be useful to recall the words of Avital Ronell, who in her recent book Stupidity (2002) reminds us that intellectual failure is less a social fact and personal trait than it is a fundamental characteristic of cognition, a first-born residing right in the middle of reason and education's nice little nuclear family, not some illegitimate offspring to be kicked out of doors (21, 92).   Our privileging of logic and intellect is so sometimes practical, sometimes unnecessary--often problematic.   A last prejudice we seem largely unwilling to interrogate. [slide]    In the words of Ronell, "What is it about survival that it should become a matter of aptitude or intelligence?" (60).

Works Cited

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie.   Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature .   New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Halliwell, Martin.   Images of Idiocy: The Idiot Figure in Modern Fiction and Film. Cornwall: Ashgate, 2004.

Mitchell, David T. and Sharon L. Snyder.   Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse .   Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press,   2001.

Nemoianu, Virgil.   "Literary History: Some Roads Not (Yet) Taken."   The Uses of Literary History .   Ed. Marshall Brown.   Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.   13-22.

Ronell, Avital.   Stupidity .   Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.