Goodley, D. (2014). Dis/Ability Studies: Theorizing Disableism and Ableism. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-82721-8.

Reviewed by Cynthia Bruce, PhD(C)
Part-Time Faculty, Education, Acadia University
cynthia [dot] bruce [at] acadeiau [dot] ca

Dan Goodley’s 2014 publication, Dis/Ability Studies: Theorizing Disableism and Ableism, is a compelling text in which readers are invited to engage with, build upon, and weave together important theoretical contributions made by activist scholars in disableism, ableism, queer theory, crip theory, and poststructural and postconventional disability studies research. Goodley himself does much of the weaving for us as he illustrates, rather masterfully I think, how multiple theoretical perspectives might be brought together and expanded in order to open new spaces for theorizing how we might disrupt the intractable nature of ableism and disableism and their entrenched capacity to shape modern neoliberal responses to disability. In arguing for this theoretical shift within disability studies, Goodley acknowledges the absolute necessity for disability and disableism to have been foregrounded as phenomena that have been ignored by mainstream society. However, he argues that neoliberal ableist ideals problematically centre independent and economically productive citizens as those who are most valued. Therefore, our research must also take up the myriad ways that disability and ability work to ensure the other’s categorical existence. This occurs in daily processes through which disability is haunted by the spectre of ability and ability requires disability in order to speak of what it is not.

With the complex lived reality of disabled people and their networks at the forefront and the clear necessity for new forms of activism to emerge alongside more traditional approaches, Goodley calls for and orients us to dis/ability studies. This is, as Goodley describes, “[t]he bifurcated study of coexisting processes associated with dis/ability and disableism/ableism” (641). This orientation to the ability/disability binary, or to dis/ability, pushes beyond critical scrutiny of the binary itself and how it perpetuates the marginalization and oppression of disabled people. We are challenged to recognize that disabled people, through daily acts of activism and survival, are engaged in working both sides of the binary in order to make our way in an increasingly complex system of supports. Therefore, our theorizing would benefit from doing the same, from thinking about how we work either side in order to reveal the productive excesses of such a dynamic process.

The academic space that this text inhabits is necessarily complex, but Goodley does a good job of scaffolding our knowledge through the introduction and explanation of specific theories and phenomena, discussing how they intersect with one another to inform his own theoretical work. In a helpful organizational scheme, the book is divided into two main sections, finding dis/ability studies and exemplifying dis/ability studies. Goodley is clear in the preface, he is making a pitch for what he names as a distinct intellectual project that asks us to rethink the phenomena of disability and ability. In contemporary times of austerity, disabled people and their allies face concerns that might be addressed by considering the ways in which disability and ability are co-constituted. Moreover, we might also benefit from thinking through how processes of disableism and ableism differ from yet feed into one another.

Ability is situated as an anchoring concept that helps to focus readers on the aims of this project. The development of dis/ability studies doesn’t only aim to understand dis/ability as a complex phenomenon. It seeks to find new ways of disrupting the pervasive power of ableism’s normative imperative to continue to nourish disableism—the oppressive societal practices that exclude and marginalize disabled people. Ability then is understood as a most powerful ideal, the desirable destination that is largely undefinable yet the undergirding construct that defines what it means to be a valued human being.

In Chapter One, we are guided through a discussion of disableism that traces the theorizing that has, over the last 30 years, situated disability as a sociological, economic, and cultural thing rather than a psychological, embodied, or medicalized problem. Beginning with individualization and medicalization, we move through a discussion of the social model and disabling barriers, North American and Canadian landscapes, World Health Organization perspectives, and finish with the theorization of disableism in times of austerity. What this analysis clearly points out is that the pervasive move to austerity policies has led to newly defined forms of marginalization for disabled people and their families. Thus, critical disability studies theory must respond to this reality by searching out theoretical alliances.

Goodley begins to unpack such potential alliances in Chapter Two with an analysis of five layers of theorizing in ableism—introducing critical ableist studies; unpacking the ableist context and exposing neoliberalism; compulsory neoliberal able-bodiedness, meritocracy, and entrepreneurship; and the biopolitics of ableism. He draws on the work of scholars such as Fiona Kumari Campbell and Gregor Wolbring to illustrate how our insatiable pursuit of the idealized species typical body and growing desire to push beyond the natural limits of that embodiment has helped to construct the neoliberal able-bodied subject as the benchmark against which society measures our value as human beings. Essentially, the centring of the neoliberal productive able body leads to more and more rejection of the disabled other.

It is in the third chapter that Goodley makes a case for intersectional analysis arguing that cultural modes of ableist reproduction and disabling material conditions can never be separated from hetero/sexism, homophobia, racism, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, and capitalism. There is activist potential in the intersectional spaces created by the productive dialogue that can come from queer, crip, feminist, and postcolonial conversations—exchanges that inform a reimagining of normative conceptions of the kinds of bodies/subjects that are worthy.

Building on the intersectional analysis that he carefully laid out in the first three chapters, Goodley then develops the concept of the dis/ability complex. This refers to the complex yet essential ways that disability-ability and disableism-ableism feed into the production of one another. He therefore argues compellingly that dis/ability is a divided phenomenon that requires a transactional analysis of that duality. Such analyses not only expose the intersectional nature of dis/ability, but they can help us, within the analysis of empirical research, identify strategies for resisting, appropriating, and contesting neoliberal ideals that continue to marginalize and oppress disabled people.

While section one of the book scaffolds our knowledge and builds a case for a balanced analysis of ableism and disableism, section two reveals how Goodley’s analysis leads to new ways of understanding research data. In each of four chapters, he draws on results from empirical studies to highlight the ways in which people are resisting neoliberal ableist forces relating to the body, education, community, and the market. These chapters elucidate the nuanced understanding of everyday activism that dis/ability theorizing can uncover. As Goodley shows us, disabled people along with their families and support networks are engaged daily in working both sides of the dis/ability complex in order to negotiate the intense complexity that has emerged within support systems shaped by neoliberal discourses and economic policies that focus on austerity.

This text is, as I have already stated, necessarily complex. Yet if you follow Goodley’s logic from the beginning, engage with the careful scaffolding of theoretical perspectives, and then observe his theorizing in action, it is a text that prompts new modes of thought and action. It encourages us to think of activism in its daily manifestations rather than solely within its more organized group structures. Goodley acknowledges that engaging deeply with how people are daily working the disability complex can cause some uncertainty, but he argues that uncertainty can be a productive space within which we can mobilize against the complexities of neoliberal ableism that might appear to be supporting disabled people more productively than ever before yet in reality are leading us into entirely new areas and forms of lived marginalization.