Summer Reading: Three Recent Books on Disability
By Terence Dick
Inspired in part by the Tangled Art + Disability/Gallery TPW co-publication Access Anthology (which was in turn inspired by Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility project, and is currently available online), Akimbo is focusing this month on three recent books that address disability from very different positions. Alice Wong’s Year of the Tiger is a memoir in the form of a scrapbook that is anchored in her intersectional perspective and ongoing political action. Joel Michael Reynolds’ The Life Worth Living is a work of academic philosophy concerned with a critique of ableist attitudes embedded in the history of Western moral philosophy. And Chloé Cooper Jones’ Easy Beauty is a memoir that touches on family, philosophy, art, identity, parenthood, disability, and the power of Beyoncé in concert – among many other things. The first you should read for inspiration, the second for information, and the third for enlightenment.
Subtitled An Activist’s Life, Wong’s book is just one component of the many creative and community-oriented projects she has been involved with over the past couple decades. Her writing and advocacy are inextricably connected, rooted as they are in the access she has found through the internet and social media. The breadth of her use of communication technology is reflected in the heterogeneous text types that are bundled together in her (for lack of a better word) memoir: essays, interviews, crossword puzzles, illustrations, editorials, open letters, and instruction guides are all put in service of her effort to share her voice and create a space for others to be heard and seen. Other than her love of family and food, one of the ever-present threads in this collection is her sense of humour. An early blog post titled “A Mutant from Planet Cripton” makes use of an ingenious pun to play on dichotomies of inclusion/exclusion, strength/weakness, and before/after through the fictionalized telling of her origin story. Wong doesn’t limit her writing to her own story; by including conversations with her family, her teachers, and her colleagues, she drives the point home that community is the objective of accessibility. For example, an interview with her mom about dumplings illustrates both the effort and importance of inclusion through maintaining Chinese traditions. And there’s so much more going on here too: essential descriptions of the pandemic from the perspective of a disabled person, an account of Wong’s robot-aided virtual visit to the Obama White House, odes to her cat and her spit cup, anti-plastic straw editorials, and tips for being a journalist. This is a book where you could flip to any page and find something to motivate you to action, and Wong’s no-fucks-given attitude provides a mindset we should all aspire to when fighting injustice.
Where Year of the Tiger is fun and freewheeling, The Life Worth Living (subtitled Disability, Pain, and Morality) is scrupulously precise and systematic in its account of the prejudices against disability that have dominated not just general public opinion over human history, but have, according to Reynolds, determined our fundamental thinking about human life and how we assess its value. This book is very much a work of scholarship that begins with a quote from Plato’s Crito to establish the dismissal of the “corrupted body” that Socrates implies makes life not worth living, before moving through a series of categorical breakdowns of a variety of theories of both pain and disability. Reynolds’ main strategy is to apply a phenomenological critique to the experience of disability as a way to develop a better understanding of the disabled subject while also repudiating what he refers to as the “ableist conflation” at the heart of Western philosophy (and therefore much of our thinking in the West). The rigor applied to outlining his argument can be a bit relentless, but there’s a reward in how extensive his references are to the critical discourse on disability that precedes him. Reynolds’ endnotes and bibliography are perhaps even more valuable than his argument in that they provide a rich resource for further reading. As he admits, the multiplicity of experiences that are assembled under the umbrella term of disability make it difficult, if not impossible, to assert a totalizing theory or analysis. His work is concerned with assessing those theories and finding a way forward.
Chloé Cooper Jones is also a philosophy professor, but she attributes her initial appeal to the field almost antithetically to Reynold’s critique. Cooper Jones looks to the Ancients, most notably Plotinus and Plato, for a notion of beauty purified of bodies and the material world. However, when she becomes unexpectantly pregnant (she had been told her disability meant she could never conceive), her body and the material world become inescapable. That is just one thread of this impressive memoir-as-personal-essay. What’s remarkable about it, and what makes it literary as opposed to the previous two books, is that the writing is so purposefully elusive. The story starts in a New York City bar, moves to a museum in Italy, flashes back to Nepal (where Cooper Jones was born), and then proceeds most unsystematically through anecdotes that take the reader to unexpected places – the Beyoncé concert, a Richard Serra installation, a tennis match in Palm Springs with Roger Federer, the Killing Fields of Cambodia. While she roams the world (to find something or escape something, she isn’t sure), Cooper Jones wrestles with aesthetic theory, self-awareness, and the crucible of disability. At one point early on in the book, a fellow philosopher asks her why she doesn’t write about disability and she points out the Catch-22 she faces: if she doesn’t, she is a bad disabled person; if she does, she’s suspected of exploiting it. Not surprisingly, she avoids the urge to solve this unsolvable conundrum directly; instead, she circles around it, creating opportunities for the reader to understand her unresolve as she shares stories, some heartwarming, some shocking, but all, bit by bit, enlightening.