Disability Studies/ Queer Studies in the Classroom

How can disability studies be integrated into a queer studies class? How are the questions of
both interdisciplinary fields similar? And how might they be thought out together? These were
some of the issues raised at this semester’s pedagogy workshop on teaching gender and sexuality.
The workshop, led by Simi Linton, President of Disability/Arts and Co-Director of Columbia University’s
Seminar in Disability Studies, and David Serlin, Assistant Professor of History at Bard College and CLAGS
board member, drew an eager audience, ranging from senior disability studies scholars to a second
grade teacher who wanted to teach his students more about both queerness and disability but didn’t
know where to start.
Linton, the author of Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, defined disability studies and
demonstrated an effective pedagogical device to use in teaching it. “I am raising both of my hands in
front of me,” she said, “the right curled in a fist, the left open and ready to receive the fist. Imagine the
right fist as all disabled people and the left hand as society. Everyone might agree, at least publicly, that
there should be a good fit—that disabled people should fit in the society. What distinguishes disability
studies from other approaches to the study of disability is the way we conceptualize the poor fit that
generally exists.”
Holding up her hands, Linton continued with the metaphor. “In traditional curriculum and existing
courses aimed at intervention, the focus is on the individual—the members of the collective right fist.
They are the objects of study and the emphasis is on changing them (us) to fit more comfortably in the
existing left hand. What is considered, for the most part, solid and immutable, is the left hand. Disabled
people are to be acted upon, shaped and turned out as best as can be done to fit into the existing social
structure.”
But in disability studies, Linton explained, the focus is shifted toward the
left hand. What really compromises the fit, she pointed out, is the rigidity,
faultiness, deficits, and pathological structures of the left hand.
To illustrate this point, Linton provided the example of Casey Martin, the
professional golfer with a disability who sued the PGA under the Americans
with Disabilities Act for the right to use a golf cart. (He eventually prevailed.)
The most significant outcome of the whole debate, Linton suggested, is that
the discussion came down to asking the question, “What is the game of golf?”
“A situation like this,” Linton said, “presents an opportunity to think not
only about disabled people’s participation in the social world, but also to
think about rules that have typically excluded that participation. It spurs us
to ask what is the nature of those rules, who has constructed them, and
whose interests have they served?”
“Throughout the last century we have witnessed women, African-
Americans, disabled people, and many others fighting to have the rules
changed, but also within academic institutions, we have had to fight for
curricula that examine the politics of the rule structure, the social
positioning of the rule makers, and curricula that analyze representations
which reinforce the control and dominance of the rule makers.”
The insistence on challenging rules and social structures from the perspective of the “right hand,”
David Serlin pointed out in his presentation, animates queers studies as well. Serlin pointed to the
similarity in the rallying cries of the disability rights movement and LGBT activism: “Nothing about us
without us,” and “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”
In his presentation, Serlin, the author of Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America, listed
other points of intersection. Both disability studies (DS) and queer studies (QS) challenge traditional
disciplines and methodologies; both DS and QS emerged from activism; both DS and QS challenge the
medical model, and the pathologization of certain types of bodies. Finally, both fields of studies and
social movements, Serlin said, have witnessed intense debates over the merits of a politics based on
“reinventing social structures to accommodate non-normative individuals, or absorbing individuals into
already existing and static social structures.” (Though the disability rights movement and DS have gone
much further in rejecting assimilationist political strategies than the LGBT movement.)
“The questions posed by disability studies and queer studies are not only similar,” remarked Carolyn
Dinshaw, the Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at NYU and co-organizer of
the event. “In fact, they seem to be precisely the same questions.”

Lesson Plans is a forum to discuss issues raised when teaching gender and sexuality in the classroom and is
produced jointly by CLAGS and the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at NYU. These workshops,
free and open to educators at all levels, are offered once a semester. This workshop was also part of CLAGS’s
ongoing programming series, “Disability and Queerness: Centering the Outsider.”