Legible, visible, conspicuous: disabled ingenuity and “ability accommodations” in the disability memoir
Keywords:Disability memoir; Autism memoir; Narrative; Autobiography; Accessibility; Assistive technology; Literature of disability; Disability performance
First-person accounts of disability and chronic illness have been foundational to the development of disability studies and disability activism. The production of the literary disability memoir places certain rhetorical demands on its author, requiring the memoirist to “translate” their unique experiences as a disabled subject into language the nondisabled reader is equipped to understand. Using key concepts from disabled writers Eli Clare and Neil Marcus, the essay evaluates the disability memoir as a piece of assistive technology produced not for disabled people, but by disabled writers for the benefit of the reader whose embodied experience of disability and chronic illness is limited. These “accessibility accommodations” serve to mitigate the effects of experiential limitation in order to facilitate nondisabled readers’ engagement with disabled ways of being and knowing. The essay offers an overview of rhetorical strategies disabled memoirists use to make their narratives accessible, and surveys examples of literary memoir from authors writing from and through different mental, neurological, and physical conditions. I argue that adapting a first-person account of disability for the page results in a necessary, unavoidable disembodiment of the author’s story; this disembodiment is not a failure of the author to represent their lives fully and accurately, but rather an ingenious innovation on the part of disabled, chronically ill, terminally ill, and neurodivergent writers. As assistive technology, the disability memoir subverts of the typical disabled-nondisabled power dynamic, placing the nondisabled reader on the receiving end of the disabled author’s accommodations.
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