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Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability

reviewed by Odette Bruneau - April 05, 2017

coverTitle: Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability
Author(s): Michelle Jarman, Leila Monaghan, & Alison Quaggin Harkin (Eds.)
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439913889, Pages: 286, Year: 2017
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Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability, edited by Michelle Jarman, Leila Monaghan, and Alison Quaggin Harkin, presents a compilation of autoethnographic portraits of individuals who are living with a variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional differences that are both visible and non-visible. The authors provide insights into the complex interactions of life for people with bipolar disorder, anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, autism spectrum, Down syndrome, Deaf life, blindness, spinal cord injury, and polio among many other life circumstances.

This text is organized into six parts and correspondingly arranged around six major themes. These include “Laying the Groundwork,” “Families, Adaptive Living, and Reorienting Expectations,” “Disability and Communication,” “Mapping Complex Relations,” “Identity, Resistance, and Community,” and “Theories and Lives.” The first theme, “Laying the Groundwork,” is a collection of narratives dealing with the sociocultural issues that have shaped what disability means to the lives of each author. “Families, Adaptive Living, and Reorienting Expectations” presents stories about how disability has changed and challenged individuals or their family systems. The third theme, “Disability and Communication,” addresses not just speech, hearing, and sight, but also the implications of communicating about disability and how it can change conversations. In “Mapping Complex Relations,” the authors probe complex relationships like those created when an individual wears dark glasses or uses a wheelchair and how others approach or interact with them. The fifth theme, “Identity, Resistance, and Community,” explores how disability contributes to personal identity, political empowerment, and responses to ableism. Finally, the sixth theme, “Theories and Lives,” provides insight into how the field of disability studies has impacted the perceptions, activism, and professional goals of the authors. Before describing the narratives within each theme, the editors present a brief description of each story, introduce critical terms, provide focus questions, and include ideas for related readings.

Although a variety of critical terminology is present throughout this work, the introduction clarifies a number of terms important in the field of disability studies and also presents different social approaches to disability. More familiar terms such as disability, barrier, self-reflection, and disabled or non-disabled are reviewed. Also, newer or less frequently encountered terms like ableism, normate, bodymind experience, radical belonging, and stigmatized inferior or non-stigmatized superior are introduced. Social approaches include the minority group model. This is the activist model from the 1960s and 1970s led by pioneers like Ed Roberts and Judith Heumann. This model also brought together individuals with a broad range of differences. The cultural model purports that the experience of disability is shaped by societal, cultural, and social beliefs. The interactional social framework is a complex national and global perspective that views disability as largely created by the social environment and requires social action. Finally, the social model (also termed the strong social model) was introduced in the U.K. in the 1970s. It clearly differentiates between biological impairment and social or attitudinal barriers (e.g., disability).

In his narrative, “Learning to See Myself in the Mirror,” author Adam P. Newman, a Vassar student with a set of non-visible disabilities, describes attending a session on critical race theory. During this period, the intersecting identities of race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, sexual identity, and class were presented. He noted his shock when disability was absent from this conversation. When he questioned his professor about this exclusion, this instructor confessed that he knew little about disability. Newman’s observation parallels my experiences over 30 years of university teaching and service on numerous diversity committees. The final identities to be considered by these groups always seem to be disability and age. In addition, when disability is considered, the conversation is generally around the removal of physical barriers with little awareness or concern over the issues of those who have psychiatric, academic, or other non-visible disabilities.

Our ideas of normalcy and ableism are largely socially constructed and are further constrained by the medical model of naming. It is of critical importance that we realize the limitations of this view and begin to value the ways that individuals living with physical, mental, or cognitive difference enrich our diversity simply by being who they are. The field of disability studies is a vibrant and growing field of inquiry. Individuals with disabilities, similar to those people who are highlighted in this work, provide meaningful contributions to the research base. It is particularly enlightening to hear the voices of those with non-visible differences as they challenge educational, social, and employment barriers.

This book is a meaningful contribution to the body of materials for courses that address individual and group differences. The text could be an excellent complement to other course materials in a survey or introductory level course. Its style of personal narratives will appeal to students because they are brief. Most of these stories run between three pages and five pages in length. These narratives are also intensely honest and personal. For those who have never considered the impact of non-visible disabilities, this text is an eye opener. After reading this volume, it is unlikely that readers would ever respond to another person with the casual saying, but you don’t have a disability.

As a resource for courses in disability studies or human diversity, Barriers and Belonging presents a fresh perspective. The introductory chapter makes reference to the history of the disability movement. This includes citing the Berkeley student demonstrations during the 1960s. It also has some references to the pioneering work of authors or activists like Harriet McBryde Johnson, Simi Linton, and Georgina Kleege. For students new to this field, a stronger foundation would be created if a more detailed history were provided. This would include some of the landmark legal cases that set the stage for later legislation.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 05, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21906, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:57:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Odette Bruneau
    Luther College
    E-mail Author
    ODETTE BRUNEAU is Professor Emeritus at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa where she served in the Education Department for over 20 years. She has taught courses in special education, ELL, assessment, and survey level general education as well as supervising student teachers at all levels. She has been a general education teacher, special education teacher, evaluation specialist, program coordinator, and college professor. Although she retired in 2015, she continues to supervise student teachers, score the edTPA, and serve on the board of the Oneota Reading Journal. During summer session of 2016, Odette was guest instructor at the Pioneer Education School in Chengdu, PRC where she taught the course “College Success!” Chinese high schools students who were applying to attend American universities and colleges.
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