Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (Professor of Critical Theory, University of Reading)
Rethinking Disability Theory and Practice: Challenging Essentialism (edited by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein) has recently (May 2015) been published by Palgrave and differentiates itself from other publications in Critical Disability Studies by taking a different view of the radical implications of textuality with respect to Disability Studies. The emergence of theoretical explorations in relation to Disability in the past thirty or so years has been seen as both an affront to the pressing problems and difficulties in the realm of practice and the ‘real world’ as well as a means precisely of uprooting disempowering, taken-for-granted assumptions in both theory and practice. The work of researchers such as Carol Thomas and Dan Goodley and Griet Roets, for instance, has argued for ‘exposing the interdisciplinary characters of disability studies and gender studies’ as a means of ‘displaying the way culture constructs subject positions that we then assume to be pre-given, universal and unchanging’.  However, such arguments about ‘subjectivisation’, this volume argues, can already be found in much earlier critiques from critical psychology, such as those of Julian Henriques, Wendy Hollway, Cathy Urwin, Couze Venn and Valerie Walkerdine, in their classic book Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity, where they argue that
Discourses rooted in the notion of a unitary, rational subject still predominate in the social sciences in spite of critiques which have shown such a concept to be untenable. [… It] survives not so much in explicit defences of the model as in the implicit assumptions of various dualisms: social and cognitive, content and process, the intentionality of agents and determination by structures, the subject as constituted or constitutive. […] we […] wanted to break with the tendency of psychology’s research to reproduce and naturalize the particular rationalist notion of the subject.
This questioning of a taken-for-granted subject which is consistent, coherent and singular, implies a questioning also of its attendant attributes, including still widely used concepts such as ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ and ‘the body’. For, as Carolyn Steedman, Cathy Urwin and Valerie Walkerdine further explain, in their like-minded volume Language, Gender and Childhood:
[our] approach requires a form of analysis which does not simply point to the existence of either alternative forms of language or lacunae of silence as expressions of social inequality. Rather, it demands that we understand the possibilities for change by examining how forms of speaking and forms of truth have been produced, and how these regulate and circumscribe what can be said about what, when and where. In this process, we are also forced to re-analyse what constitutes subversion and resistance, and how the subjective and the political intersect.
In other words, ideas about Disability being ‘represented’ through such concepts as ‘voice’, ‘agency’ or ‘the body’ rely on ideas of who ‘sees’ or ‘hears’ whom, and how and why. Lynn Morgan, for instance, refers to Monica Casper’s work to argue also that ‘agency is not an already existing fact (ontological or otherwise) to be discovered or revealed but is rather a social project.’ Such questionings, then, have major implications for a neo-liberal politics which relies on and demands a transparent subject who can speak – have a ‘voice’ – and act – has ‘agency’ — on behalf of itself and its body and consciousness. As dis/ability theorist Dan Goodley has recently also asked, ‘How can […] what we might loosely define as the disability field address the contemporary concerns facing disabled and non-disabled people in a time of austerity?’ It can be seen to be not at all coincidental that this volume draws on such critiques as those of Henriques et al. when in the 1998 re-publication of Changing the Subject they describe the 1984 conditions of the publication of the original edition as being when ‘the New Right had come to power in Britain, and an ideology which has come to be described as neo-liberalism, supported by powerful institutions like the World Bank, was about to change the political landscapes across the globe.’
Assumptions about voice, vision, the body, consciousness and agency, then, are of central interest to the contributors to this collection. The chapter by Catrin Edwards, for instance, closely examines the terms of a debate in the realm of psychoanalytic therapeutic practice to analyse claims about whether and how ‘madness’ is seen to speak itself. Hannah Anglin-Jaffe considers closely related issues in comparing post-colonial critiques of oppressions of identity and language to critiques of oppression of d/ Deaf identities and language, while Helen Santa Maria’s chapter considers diagnoses and definitions of autism in readings of Herman Melville’s short story ‘Bartelby the Scrivener’, often invoked in Autism Studies as a paradigmatic portrayal of autism avant la lettre. YuKuan Chen’s work analyses the way a painting, Jacob Lawrence’s Blind Beggars, is considered in Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s book Staring in order to re-think both wider issues around how Disability is looked-at and how ‘looking’ and ‘vision’ are seen to work at all, while Neil Cocks’s chapter analyses related ideas of seeing and looking in relation specifically to film-theory and its implications for Disability. Simon Bailey, meanwhile, in his chapter explores how claims are made about ADHD’ s supposed ‘realities’ and ‘myths’ and as part of his exploration also critiques how brain images are looked-at. Several chapters directly consider definitions of ‘the body’ in relation to Disability: in the chapter by Louise Tondeur, for instance, on hirsutism as Disability in women, by Sue Walsh in considering Animal Studies’ relationship with Disability Studies and by Ute Kalender in thinking about reproduction.
More info on the book here
 C. Thomas, ‘Disability Theory: Key Ideas, Issues and Thinkers’ in C. Barnes, M. Oliver and L. Barton (eds), Disability Studies Today (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), pp. 38-58.- Order by: relevance | pagesrelevance | pages
 D. Goodley and G. Roets, ‘The (Be)comings and Goings of “Developmental Disabilities”: The Cultural Politics of “Impairment”’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 29:2 (June 2008), 239-55, 247.
J. Henriques, W. Hollway, C. Urwin, C. Venn and V. Walkerdine, ‘Foreword’ in J. Henriques, W. Hollway, C. Urwin, C. Venn and V. Walkerdine, Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 1998 ), pp. ix-xx, pp. ix-x.
 C. Steedman, C. Urwin and V. Walkerdine, ‘Introduction’ in Carolyn Steedman, C. Urwin and V. Walkerdine (eds), Language, Gender and Childhood (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), pp. 1-10, p. 2.
 L. Morgan, ‘Fetal Relationality in Feminist Philosophy: An Anthropological Critique’, Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 11:3 (1996), 47-70, 54.
 D. Goodley, Dis/ability Studies. Theorising Disablism and Ableism (London: Routledge, 2014), p. ix.
 Henriques et al., ‘Foreword’, p. x.
 R. Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).