The Frankenstein’s Monster of Disability Studies

A few weeks back, I came across an article titled, “As Disabled Representation Improves in Popular Culture, Businesses Need To Step Up”—the latest opinion piece on disability representation in the arts and business. Its author, Caroline Casey, asserted:

Quality, authentic representation of people with disabilities and the lived disabled experience is not just a matter of social justice, but an imperative business strategy too. As long as discrimination of people with disabilities remains, business must strive to do more.

This piece did not appear in the Disability Studies Quarterly, Disability and Society or any of the pseudo-academic journals which specialise in disability as a “social construct”. Rather, it turned up in the business magazine Forbes—the latest reminder (if one were needed) of the extent to which formerly fringe theories of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) have now inundated mainstream media. It is worth paying some attention to, for it represents one of the current zones of expansion for divisive identity politics: analysis of the alleged “systemic ableism” of the West.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe

Casey bases her claim that “disability representation” is improving in popular culture by referring to a spate of celebrities (including Lewis Capaldi and Billie Eilish) who have recently “come out” as sufferers of Tourette’s syndrome. Tourette’s current poster boy is Capaldi, who outed himself during his recent Glastonbury set. Oddly enough, considering the grim picture of systemic ableism that Casey wants to paint, Capaldi’s attention-grabbing move was not greeted by social opprobrium but rather enraptured celebration. As one concertgoer gushed to the Manchester Evening Star, “How brave is Lewis Capaldi? His tics are severe but he perseveres and entertains a massive crowd.”

Casey, typically for commentators on this issue, pretends to be ignorant of the fact that coming out with a disability can be a canny career move for celebrities, all but guaranteeing gushing coverage by progressive journalists. Instead, she asserts that disabled people are massively under-represented in popular culture, griping that “just 4% of TV adverts in the UK feature disabled people, dropping to 1% of disabled people in lead roles, despite 22% of the UK population being disabled”. These are eyebrow-raising claims which deserve some commentary.

For those of us old enough to remember the anti-capitalist Left of the pre-woke era, it is jarring to see left-wingers demanding to be depicted in advertising. Hadn’t Herbert Marcuse, the godfather of 1960s radicals, seen advertising as essentially dehumanising? He once fumed, “The so-called consumer society and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man which ties him libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form.” In sharp contrast to Marcuse’s disdain for corporate capitalism, the modern progressive yearns to be “libidinally and aggressively” tied to commodities. For instance, Casey lavishes praises on Apple for its inclusivity campaigns for people with disabilities. This mirrors the perpetual articles in the Guardian demanding representation for more and more victim groups in Marvel and Disney movies. Indeed, woke progressivism could arguably be viewed as a protection racket in which activists threaten to boycott and picket corporate entities unless they are given a share of the capitalist pie. For Casey, the demand seems to be that 22 per cent of all lead roles in television go to disabled people because allegedly more than one-fifth of all Brits are now disabled.

Is this jaw-dropping figure correct? Surprisingly, in terms of legal definitions, it may even be conservative, because the House of Commons now defines 24 per cent of Brits as suffering from disabilities, up from 18 per cent in 2003. In the growing over-eighty cohort, a massive 58 per cent are defined as living with a disability. While this validates one of Casey’s claims, it casts a shadow of doubt on many others. If most elderly people can be thought of as suffering from some sort of disability, shouldn’t a sizeable percentage of all elderly people in television ads be counted as disabled representation? This raises the broader question of whether disability, broadly defined, is being accurately counted in such studies. Is Billie Eilish, the multi-millionaire pop star, an example of disability representation in her recent Gucci eyewear campaign? As a self-professed sufferer of Tourette’s, aren’t her numerous celebrity endorsements all examples of disability representation? Similarly, Jerry Seinfeld, co-creator of one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, has “outed” himself as “on the autism spectrum”, saying, “On a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum.” Should Seinfeld, one of the most syndicated shows of all time, therefore be regarded as a program with disability representation in a lead role? Until such concerns are cleared up, there is every reason to suspect that activist journalists like Casey are drastically under-counting disabled representation to bolster their case.

An even more egregious case of misinformation came from the ABC last year, when Liel Bridgford (pronouns: she/they), a disability advocate and alleged poet, denounced the entire Western canon as ableist and discriminatory. Her/their patently self-interested article, “Publishing More Fiction by Australian Authors with Disabilities”, is crammed full of erroneous and misleading claims about the history of literature, many of them rooted in the dubious field of Disability Studies, which is Ground Zero for most of the bad ideas contained in this article. Bridgford (speaking with very little knowledge of Western literature, one feels sure) claims:

And when we do find disabled characters, they tend to be the creations of white, non-disabled men [my emphasis]—for instance, William Shakespeare’s Richard III, Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. These characters are often portrayed using tropes and inhumane stereotypes; at best they appear as tragedies or objects of inspiration (as in Winston Groom’s novel Forrest Gump), and at worse as witches or evil monsters (such as Mr Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).

There are a number of falsifiable claims in this passage and, unfortunately for ABC audiences, most of them are demonstrably false. Three bits of misinformation stick out as especially objectionable: first, that literature has been overwhelmingly created by non-disabled people; second, that men but not women depicted disabled characters in the past; and third that monster fiction is primarily a means of insulting people with disabilities. It is worth unpacking all of these to expose the thoroughgoing fallaciousness of Disability Studies dogma.

Bridgford believes that non-disabled authors have been marginalised from literature (unsurprisingly, her podcast is called (Un)marginalised). Conversely, she/they claims that it was “non-disabled men” who tended to create literature. Yet this false claim reveals Bridgford’s lack of even a rudimentary knowledge of literary history. Was not Homer, the greatest writer of Hellenic civilisation, said to be blind? Even more egregiously, Bridgford calls Herman Melville a “white, non-disabled” man, yet, according to Psychology Today, it is widely thought that Melville suffered from bipolar disorder and that classic passages of Moby-Dick were written in a mania. If Bridgford had done even basic research before writing, she would have discovered the book Fragile Brilliance: The Troubled Life of Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and Other Great Authors, which chronicles the mental illness and alcoholism of some of the greatest names in American literature, with Melville being especially afflicted. In other words, the canon has always contained numerous authors who would now be thought of as suffering from mental illness and physical impairments.

Has Bridgford never heard of John Milton, the author of the greatest poem in the English language and also one of its most moving sonnets (“When I consider how my light is spent”), which addresses his disability—blindness? Moving from the greatest poet of seventeenth century to the greatest of the eighteenth, we find Alexander Pope, who suffered a spinal deformity due to Pott’s disease. When Pope referred to “this long disease, my life”, he was referring to his abnormal sensitivity to pain due to his deformity. Moving to the modern era, we find alcoholism in writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Elizabeth Bishop. (Opioid dependence and alcohol use disorder have been recognised as examples of disability under the law in some Australian jurisdictions.) Furthermore, bipolar and schizotypal disorders are so common among major painters and poets that clinical psychiatrists have created a body of literature exploring why this might be so. (Part of the answer seems to be that these disorders cause cognitive disinhibition, which helps creativity.) Ironically, Bridgford ignores all of this, marginalising writers suffering from chronic mental and physical disorders in a mad rush to boost her own brand.

But what about Bridgford’s second claim that fictional disabled characters “tended to be” created by men? The confidence of this claim belies Bridgford’s apparent ignorance of women’s literary fiction. Did she forget the violently insane Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, the hunchbacked Philip Wakem from The Mill on the Floss, and the shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Warren Smith from Mrs Dalloway? Likewise, did she forget the memorable invalids from the novels of Jane Austen, such as Mr Woodhouse from Emma and Persuasion’s poor widow Mrs Smith (née Hamilton), whose rheumatic legs “had made her for the present a cripple”? Far from trading in “inhumane stereotypes”, these writers offered a nuanced, humanistic view of people with disabilities. Consider the following passage from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss:

He [Tom] had seen Philip Wakem at St Ogg’s, but had always turned his eyes away from him as quickly as possible. He would have disliked having a deformed boy for his companion, even if Philip had not been the son of a bad man. And Tom did not see how a bad man’s son could be very good.

Far from seeking to dehumanise Wakem, Eliot depicts him as intelligent and sensitive, the intellectual equal of Maggie, the novel’s protagonist. In the passage quoted, it is Tom rather than Wakem who is subject to critical analysis. Eliot reveals his prejudice towards Philip (“he would have disliked having a deformed boy for his companion”) and also critiques the black-and-white thinking which underlies his whole mindset (“Tom did not see how a bad man’s son could be very good”). The disabled advocates seeking to demonise Western culture and history could learn a lot from the humane approach of great women novelists like Eliot, Woolf and Austen. Yet, in all likelihood, they would instead take performative offence at words like deformed or cripple, entirely missing the point.

Not content with erasing writers who suffered from various afflictions, nor the entire contribution of the female sex, Bridgford outdoes herself by claiming that disabled people are represented as “evil monsters” like Mr Hyde. This claim is interesting because it can be traced directly to Disability Studies, the branch of CSJ which aims to do for disability what radical feminism has done for sex, and Critical Race Theory (CRT) ideologues have done for race. Bridgford’s thesis about Mr Hyde is not original but lifted wholesale from the 2008 article “What Makes Mr Hyde So Scary?” by Sami Schalk, which appeared in the Disability Studies Quarterly. Schalk’s thesis is that “what makes Mr Hyde so frightening to other characters, and perhaps to readers as well, is not inherent evil, but disability itself”. However, the words disabled and disability are never used at all in the novel. The closest synonym which Schalk finds is deformed and deformity, grounding her thesis on the sentence, “He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity.” By wrenching this one sentence out of context, Schalk reductively equates the horror of Mr Hyde to his purported disability status, despite the fact that the book explicitly states that it was “evil” that “had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay”. While disability is never explicitly mentioned, “evil” is mentioned more than twenty times. Disability Studies is not interested in doing justice to texts but rather in using them to insert social justice politics into formerly discrete disciplines like literature. They do not neutrally read texts but “problematise” them through politically charged misreadings, providing new opportunities for activism by CSJ advocates like Casey and Bridgford.

This might seem like a trivial matter to some, but if we consider the enormous impact of CSJ on the broader culture (think of the impact of #MeToo and BLM, in particular) then we need to ask ourselves whether we want the woke adding a war on “ableism” to their current tilting against white supremacy and what they catchily term cisheteronormativity. In fact, the impact of Disability Studies is already being felt in my area of English teaching, where monster fiction like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein (rare examples of nineteenth-century novels still being taught in schools) are now threatened by the ridiculous insistence that the books are “disabled-phobic”. Consider the case of Shmoop, a website which makes study materials for secondary school English students. This is how they characterise Frankenstein, a novel which raises probing questions about the ethical dilemmas of science:

What it all boils down to, really, in terms of disability studies is that this is the ultimate in prejudice against the extraordinary body. The monster endures on a super intense scale the kind of rejection that is the fear of every parent of a disabled child. His life is one of loneliness, pain, and isolation. And as a result, he’s bitter, angry, and vengeful. Pretty much every cliché about disabled people out there.

In other words, the Disability Studies narrative has already caught on among English teachers, and this great novel is now being “problematised” as an ableist diatribe against “extraordinary bodies”. Surely, the next step is that all the great monster novels of the past will be consigned to the dustbin, replaced by YAF (young adult fiction) written by disgruntled identitarians who tick all the politically correct boxes. This is precisely the agenda of Bridgford and other advocates of the Own Voices movement, which promotes books that “centre characters from groups who are typically marginalised, written by authors from the same marginalised group”.

As a leading example of this new movement, Bridgford offers the young adult novel Sensitive, by Allayne L. Webster, which is “based in the author’s own struggles with chronic atopic eczema and multiple life-threatening allergies”. I checked out this title so my readers wouldn’t have to, and found that this book (which is supposedly preferable to Moby-Dick) focuses on the social insecurities of an eczema-afflicted teen. A representative passage reads:

We grab an industrial-sized packet of poo-tickets [the author’s coinage for toilet paper!] and head to the checkout. There’s no line so we go straight in. The girl serving can’t be more than a few years older than me. She has red hair and creamy porcelain skin. I always notice people’s skin.

Would you be surprised to learn that this checkout chick with “clear skin privilege” then subjects our beleaguered protagonist to a “microaggression”? One of the greatest clichés of this kind of novel is that privileged characters are constantly subjecting people from victim groups to snide verbal attacks. In Webster’s novel, it predictably arrives a few lines later, when the girl asks, “So, do you have sunburn or do you just have really sensitive skin?” This, of course, is the kind of clumsy, ideologically motivated dialogue which has come to plague fiction, cinema and television in recent years. Yet it is precisely this identity-obsessed drivel which disability advocates see as “progressive”. Casey and Bridgford, bearing the imprimatur of Forbes and the ABC, are promoting this as the morally upright alternative to Shakespeare, Melville and Stevenson, who they see as scandalously un-woke. Plainly, Disability Studies is just as ideological as CRT, and is really just another front in the perpetual war that the progressive Left is waging against the traditions and achievements of the West.

It is now clear that wokeness is a disaster for both high and popular culture. Yet it would be a serious mistake to believe that the Western Cultural Revolution has already peaked. Starting in 2024, films will not be eligible for the Academy Awards unless they meet two of four diversity criteria (none of which have anything to do with artistic merit). Instead, what we have is something which reads more like a woke tax code. You get points not for compelling storytelling or innovative cinematography but rather for “at least 30 per cent of secondary roles being from two under-represented groups”. Under-represented groups are defined as, “women, people of color, people who identify as LGBTQ+ or people with disabilities”. Similarly, Penguin Random House (the biggest literary publisher in the English-speaking world) has been racially and sexually profiling its authors so that by 2025 its output will be determined on a quota system relating to their overall percentage of the UK population, based on “ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability”.

Diversity over quality is now the mantra of all the major cultural producers of the Anglosphere, and the next move is always to tighten the ratchet ever further in the direction of CSJ ideology. Far from being crusaders for justice, the Disability Studies nomenklatura are just standing in line for their share of the social justice caviar. Their grasping hypocrisy needs to be exposed.

Raymond Burns is the pseudonym of a teacher with many years’ experience teaching in Australian high schools. A number of his articles have been published in Quadrant, including “Killing with Kindness: Misguided Empathy in Education”, which appeared in the September issue

9 thoughts on “The Frankenstein’s Monster of Disability Studies

  • Blair says:

    Wasn’t Frankenstein the creation of a woman?

  • Paul W says:

    The main issue here is that a disability now means any semi-permanent medical condition. This is a fundamentally different view of what it means to be disabled. Previously it meant that someone required active assistance to carry out basic life-sustaining activities such as eating. Under that definition, many elderly would be disabled but 90% of people who are allegedly disabled are not. And that is right – does anyone seriously think that Jerry Seinfeld is disabled?
    On the other hand, being a Radical Leftist is some kind of intellectual disability.

    • lbloveday says:

      “…alcohol use disorder have been recognised as examples of disability under the law in some Australian jurisdictions”.
      Given the ever lowering of the bar for Alcohol Use Disorder in Australia, me and most of my mates would be classified as disabled.

  • GG says:

    If the author should ever have cause to interact directly with these nutjobs, please convey the following: nobody cares. If what were once called cripples, spazzos and other miscellaneous sideshow alley types aren’t represented in the ways that the nutjobs, like, so what? Nobody cares. Tell them to move on. And to hand back the government funding they illicitly wasted on that nonsense.

  • cbattle1 says:

    Jerry Seinfeld was so brave to come out like that! Imagine how he has struggled and suffered all those years making stacks of money from a show “about nothing”!

  • Stephen Due says:

    As with many problems of this nature, the correct solution is not ongoing critical discourse, in which the opponents of the discipline seek to refute its factual premises and/or its ideological motives. Rather, the solution is to stop paying for the product. At the moment, the government pays on our behalf. This is a structual problem which needs to be addressed as such. The objective therefore should be to remove government funding and allow the universities to run the courses themselves with fees paid by the students. ‘User pays’ is an invaluable rule of thumb which solves many practical problems. It would be surprising if it did not lead to the demise of Disability Studies, at least in its current form.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Not every disability is a complete disaster for the sufferer. I recall the career of the late Helmut Walcha, who was blinded by the (safe and effective) smallpox vaccine as a teenager. Walcha pursued a musical career, and became a celebrated teacher and player of the organ, twice recording the complete works for the instrument by J. S. Bach. There is no evidence that the academic discipline of Disability Studies would have contributed anything towards improving his lot in life – probably the reverse is true,

  • lbloveday says:

    There seems to not be wide recognition of John Milton as “the author of the greatest poem in the English language”. I have no idea as to what the author referred, so I searched around, and not a mention of any of Milton’s poems at:

    The 32 Most Iconic Poems in the English Language

    The 36 Most Famous Poems Ever Written in the English Language

    20 of the Most Famous Poems Which Everyone Should Know

    10 of the Most Beautiful Poems in the English Language

    25 Most Beautiful Love Poems Ever Written

    26 Beautiful Poems About Life To Ever Have Been Written

    However, he did come in at 6th in
    10 Best Poems of All Time by Famous Poets
    with On His Blindness

    A commenter on one of the sites opined that Milton’s “Lycidas” should have been included in the list.

    But I’m still no wiser. Can someone enlighten me – what is “greatest poem in the English language”?

  • Joseph says:

    This has been going on in children’s books for years in regard to winning an award from the Children’s Book Council. Thus Bruce Pascoe got the non-fiction award for his children’s version of Dark Emu. Over the years most of the short listed fiction books sit on library shelves undisturbed, despite their ‘worthy’ subject matter.

Leave a Reply