My research combines disability studies, queer theory, feminist media studies, and U.S. cultural history to analyze the transnational cultural politics of health, citizenship, and ability. I use disability studies to illuminate how the disabled body has come to represent other forms of embodied experience that are considered deviant or Other. By analyzing disability as a social experience rather than a medical pathology, my work shows how the stories we tell about disability impact social institutions, economic practices, and cultural norms of healthy behavior and good citizenship. Specifically, my current body of work as well as my future research program examine how rehabilitation (i.e. the idea that all bodies should be perpetually improved) has coalesced into a culture for disabled and nondisabled people alike.
Tracing the teen’s uneven passage from post-World War II rebel to twenty-first century patient, my first book, Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation offers an original account of how American cultural producers, policymakers, and medical professionals mobilized representations of disability to cast adolescence as a treatable “condition.” By the 1970s, parents, policymakers, educators, psychologists, and cultural producers embraced a new problem-driven, pedagogical brand of popular culture, which promised to rehabilitate deviant teenagers into good citizens. This formula soon prevailed as the dominant mode of address for teen audiences and recast formerly denigrated media forms, like television or paperback novels, as productive rather than damaging forces in citizenship development. From the stuttering boys of ABC’s After School Specials (1972-1994) to the lovestruck girls with cancer of Lurlene McDaniel’s Six Months to Live (1989), countless teen narratives linked overcoming disability, for boys, or accepting disability, for girls, to “growing up” sexually and emotionally into healthy heterosexual adult citizens. Although this commonsense alignment of disability and adolescence may have begun as a storytelling convention, disability became much more than a metaphor by the end of the twentieth century, as neuroscientific understandings of the “temporarily disabled” adolescent brain became pervasive. This sweeping cultural redefinition of adolescence, away from post-World War II externalizing sociologies of juvenile delinquency and toward post-1968 internalizing understandings of teen angst, was powerful in the ways it shaped our contemporary understandings of youth. However, the transformation of adolescence into a pathological (but treatable) “condition” was most powerful for what it did for the logic of rehabilitation: naturalizing endless self-surveillance as healthy, profitable, and essential to good citizenship through depoliticizing narratives of overcoming disability and coming-of-age. By centering disability in its analysis of media as a technology of citizenship, Chronic Youth makes a vital contribution to feminist media studies, which often overlooks disability as a category of intersectionality. Centering youth and disability in its history of sexual liberation and emotional labor, the book offers a new genealogy of neoliberalism by showing how rehabilitation culture, through overcoming and coming-of-age narratives, idealized a “bootstraps mentality” that has facilitated a neoliberal privatization of citizenship and retraction of the social safety net.
My peer-reviewed and peer-edited articles continue to explore the relationship among ageism, ableism, and heterosexism to demonstrate that pathologizing youth sexuality contributes to the infantilization and desexualization of disabled adults. In doing so, my work pushes beyond solely assessing representations of disability for their accuracy or their positive/negative depictions to consider what cultural work they do. My article, “Cripping Safe Sex: Life Goes On’s Queer/Disabled Alliances” argues that Life Goes On (1989-1993) played a crucial role in making visible the shared sexual stigma of young, queer, disabled, and/or HIV-positive people in an era when disability and queer activists struggled to ally off-screen. My article, “Feeling Real: Disability, Teen Sick-Lit, and the Condition of Adolescence” examines the emergence of 1980s “teen sick-lit,” mass market young adult fiction that romanticized illness and reinforced interdependent norms of emotional maturity, able-bodiedness, and heteronormativity among American youth. The article contributes a novel disability studies perspective to affect theory scholarship by arguing that tragic narratives of disability for teen girls constitute a political response to post-1968 liberal social movements and post-Fordist economic shifts toward service industries that commodified emotion and trained proto-citizens (especially young women) for emotional labor. My article, “Policing at the Synapse: Ferguson, Race, and the Disability Politics of the Teen Brain” reflects on the racial and disability politics of adolescent neuroscience that I discuss in Chronic Youth, relating them to more contemporary issues of policing non-white and disabled bodies. Finally, a revised version of my 2010 article, “After School Special Education” appears in Disability Media Studies (eds. William Kirkpatrick and Elizabeth Ellcessor, NYUP, 2017), the first-ever anthology devoted to centering disability in media studies.
Continuing to situate my research agenda in feminist, queer, and disability studies analyses of rehabilitation and citizenship, I have begun work on my new research program. The preparatory work for my second monograph, supported by a University of Missouri Research Board grant, broadens my previous U.S. scope to consider the transnational cultural politics of rehabilitation and mobility. In this monograph, and a set of planned articles, I will examine the ways in which the legislation, control, and allocation of movement is central to the subjectification of racialized, sexual, able-bodied, gendered, classed, and national bodies. My multifaceted research program shows how a disability politics of mobility infuses the global development of health-oriented technologies and institutions, from wheelchairs, to wearables (e.g., Fitbits), to European “dementia villages.” In this work, I explore how disability, while still pathologized, acquires new economic and social value for advertisers, policymakers, cultural producers and technological developers in a post-Americans with Disabilities Act world. In an era of global austerity-driven economic policies that diminish health care access, disability benefits, and eldercare, investigating the history, impacts, and ethics of new technologies, government policies, and wellness initiatives is timely and essential.
Wearable You, my second monograph, comparatively analyzes the development, advertising, and use of emergent genres of wearable technologies: fitness bracelets (FitBit), safety jewelry (Safelet), mood trackers (Feel), and child language development wearables (Starling). Too often, disability studies neglects or dismisses technology. Meanwhile, science and technology studies (STS) analyses of health-oriented technologies frequently treats disability only as a site for cure or intervention. Despite its rich literature on mobile technologies and surveillance, very little new media studies scholarship substantively engages with disability. As a result, ableist norms that underpin wearables—that movement is best measured in steps taken; that fatness indicates laziness; that reasonable health care premiums should be earned through competitive good behavior; that our bodies and minds should be perpetually optimized—are left unquestioned. Wearable You is a transnational genealogy of wearables that bridges the gaps among disability, science and technology, and media studies. To fully assess the promise and cost of wearables, we must understand them as cultural devices in an historical and social order rather than solely as health devices that optimize our efficiency. Drawing on historical evidence, ethnographic research at US, European, and Asian wearable technology industry conferences, and close readings of advertising, this project offers three new insights to existing new media and STS literature about wearables while contributing to the transnational turn in disability and American studies. By centering disability, I historicize the contiguity of contemporary technologies to older health-oriented wearables, including electronic tagging, carceral ankle bracelets, LifeAlert systems, and prosthetics. Second, I analyze the cultural ramifications of the intimate data collected by wearables, particularly the ethical issues they pose for elderly and disabled workers. Third, I argue that, although their marketing may celebrate the boundless freedom of intense personalization (i.e. Fitbit’s invitation to users to “Find Your Fit”) the history of race, class, sexuality, gender, age, and disability continue to shape encounters with tracking technologies, from development to use. A disability studies account of wearables invites us to think about how power relations are negotiated through a variety of enforced mobilities and immobilities, or in other words, to consider how the privilege of some populations to “choose” surveillance depends on the involuntary surveillance of Others.
Two new scholarly endeavors draw on the media and mobility studies research for my monograph. While critical mobilities scholarship addresses technology, policy, media, and infrastructure, feminist and disability studies approaches remain underdeveloped within critical mobility studies. My article “Find Your Fit: Wearable Technology and the Cultural Politics of Disability,” which was recently accepted for publication in New Media & Society, critiques the seemingly apolitical function of “step-counting” to examine how Fitbit uses disabled athletes in its advertising while remaining inaccessible to wheelchair users. Using generous funding from an SEC Visiting Faculty Grant, I will also collaborate with Stephanie R. Schulte (University of Arkansas) on an article about technology, mobility, gender, and safety, which will examine the cultural representation and adoption of anti-rape and child monitoring wearable technologies that have been predominantly marketed to women.
Finally, in two collaborative peer-reviewed articles, I extend my transnational analysis of the cultural politics of rehabilitation and mobility beyond wearables to consider the role of other institutions and technologies. Robert McRuer (George Washington University) and I are currently revising “The Gift of Mobility: Disability, Queerness, and Rehabilitation in the Emergent Global Order” for resubmission to GLQ: Gay and Lesbian Quarterly, examines U.S. global evangelical disability missionary work (Wheels for the World) as well as American evangelical involvement in the passage of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill to theorize “disability exceptionalism,” our term for the deployment of disability’s depoliticization as representational currency for U.S. exceptionalism. Finally, Kateřina Kolářová (Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic) and I are conducting research for an article, “Aging in Dementia Village: Neocolonialism, Disability and Care,” which will analyze a dementia village in De Hogeweyk, Netherlands. A new approach to eldercare, these gated, supervised care facilities for people with dementia simulate “real life” to maximize elderly people’s mobility through public and private spaces. Combining close readings of public relations materials with observational data from a visit to the facility, we situate the villages within a broader global history of nursing homes, health care policy, and geriatric care. The project has undergone expedited IRB review and received an exemption. Dr. Kolářová plan to apply for a Czech Inter-Excellence Grant, which funds transnational research collaboration with U.S. scholars. Overall, my previous and future research asserts that analyzing disability and rehabilitation culture is central to understanding the cultural history of the U.S., politics, technology, and representation in a transnational context.