Book Review: Disability and Passing (Jeffrey Brune and Daniel J. Wilson, Eds.)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

Most readers with an interest in politics probably associate the concept of passing with African Americans in the early twentieth century or gays and lesbians who are perceived as heterosexual. Passing, however, is an equally important phenomenon in the day to day lives of people with disabilities. It is this context of passing that editors Jeffrey A. Brune and Daniel J. Wilson tackle in Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity (Temple University Press, 2013). I'll say it right up front – Disability and Passing is an important book. It takes one of the most complex and misunderstood concepts in disabilities studies and serves it up in a number of contexts that make it more concrete and understandable to the common reader; however, as the editors point out, even within the field of disabilities studies, passing is a topic that has received little attention.

Some of the contexts for the book's eight essays are unsurprising: Kristen Harmon discusses living deaf in a hearing world, Peta Cox describes "Passing as Sane" for a person with a diagnosable mental illness, Allison Carey takes on the problematic attempts at passing for people with cognitive disabilities and editor Daniel Wilson brings readers up to date on the implications of passing for polio survivors. Other topics, however, are less expected such as passing in sports, the menstrual cycle and passing, slavery and disability, and concealing one's disability in literature.

In their introduction, Brune and Wilson use as a working definition of passing, "the way people conceal social markers of impairment to avoid the stigma of disability and pass as 'normal'." It is this concept of stigma that precipitates the use of the word "identity" in the book's subtitle. The acceptance of passing as "normal" as a strategy for avoiding stigma is something that most Americans whose lives are unaffected by disability (and many that are) see as perfectly understandable. At the same time, however, this attempt to escape a disability identity reifies that stigma for those people with impairments for whom passing is not an option. In their various ways, each of the essays examines the implications of this Catch-22 situation for the particular constituency about whom they are writing.

Despite recent photographs that claim the contrary, it is common knowledge that as president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt invariably concealed his wheelchair, and it is the ripple effect of this decision that Wilson explores in the book's first essay, "Passing in the Shadow of FDR." Arguably, given the cultural and political milieu of the time, Roosevelt would never have been elected had he campaigned in a wheelchair and not "cultivated the image of a healthy man who had recovered from polio with no significant disability," but the precedent that he set for subsequent Americans with polio to emulate survived long after he did. Given the physical and psychological costs of imitating FDR, Wilson asks whether it was worth it – and it is not a rhetorical question. One of Wilson's observations is that those who attempted to pass invariably came to a situation where the attempt failed. It is a theme that is revisited in various guises throughout the book.

In "Growing Up to Become Hearing" Kristen Harmon, an "oral education success story" growing up recounts how once she was out of school and became a teacher herself "I had reached the end of what was possible with must my hearing aid, my careful speaking and lip-reading abilities. Standing at the chalkboard instead of sitting at a seat in front of the classroom, I realized I had ended up at the end of the road of almost passing for hearing." As with those post polio emulators of FDR, there was a point for Harmon where trying to avoid stigma by passing – in her case as a hearing person – broke down. From the viewpoint of one who eventually learned ASL and embraced deafness as identity, Harmon's essay works to debunk the idea that passing as hearing indefinitely is impossible. In her words, "This notion of a deaf child who effectively grow up to become hearing is a compelling cultural fantasy."

Harmon's representative targets are the Oberkotter Foundation, which promotes oral education for deaf children, and Dreams Spoken Here, one of the films that it distributes. While Harmon's analysis deserves a complete reading, one point that she makes can act as a sort of touchstone. What the Oberkotter Foundation and Dreams Spoken Here assume is that every parent shares a vision of normalcy for their children, a vision that includes hearing, so that when a deaf child is born to a parent, that dream is shattered and the best that they can try to do is put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Harmon interrogates the discourse of normalcy that underpins this strategy and unpacks the reasons that it inevitably fails.

The difficulty of passing is taken up in another arena in Allison Carey's "The Sociopolitical Contexts of Passing and Intellectual Disability." Like Wilson and Harmon, Carey brings historical contexts to bear on the current situation and it is these contexts that make the present circumstances of people with disabilities both more understandable and more complex. Carey begins with the eugenics movement that targeted feeblemindedness in particular. Because feeblemindedness by its heritable and biological nature was not something that could be stopped by simply locking the doors at Ellis Island, one leader from the social work community declared that feebleminded women were "a graver danger to the prosperity of the state than a foreign war or native pestilence." People with intellectual disabilities were ferreted out, isolated in institutions and not infrequently sterilized. They were perceived as a category incompatible with normality. Given this milieu, there was little incentive for those with intellectual disabilities to don a disabilities identity.

With the coming of the National Association for Retarded Children, however, this situation changed. Children with intellectual disabilities were perceived as having special needs but being just like "normal" children in many other ways. As Carey points out, the natural inclination of this philosophy was toward mainstreaming, resulting in getting additional support for children but allowing them in many situations not to be differentiated from others – in other words – passing. While this was built upon humane intentions, "fears associated with the possible negative consequences of passing led parents and professionals to create a paternalistic system that claimed approximated normality yet actually subverted it."

With the coming of the Disability Rights movement, the road took another turn for people with intellectual disabilities. Differences were looked upon as desirable and something that broke the hegemonic grip of "normalcy." Disability pride and solidarity became watchwords and those who had been attempting to pass were now disdained as supporting ableism. Carey argues that while such a position makes political sense, it also imposes a narrow range of accepted behaviors and attitudes on peoples whose lives are actually quite fluid, adding that in the case of intellectual disabilities, acting in typically normal ways might in itself be an act of resistance to labeling.

I've spent considerable time summarizing (at a very basic level) Carey's article not because it is the standout article in the anthology, but because she sets out so well the historical and social complexities that are resident in all of the other articles in Disability and Passing in a way that is easy even for a novice to the field to follow. All three positions Carey describes – eugenics, normalization, and disability identity – are still alive and vying for the right to make educational, political and economic decisions. (Anyone who believes eugenics is dead has not been following developments in genetics or pre-natal screening.)

One intriguing incarnation of the problem of passing is examined in Michael Remblis, "Athlete's First" in which the author highlights the plight of publicly successful athletes with disabilities – the elite athletes. Next to the military perhaps, athletics is the national endeavor with its roots most clearly planted in individualistic machismo. In fact, to be an elite athlete means that you have "overcome" your disability. Remblis makes an interesting distinction between passing and overcoming. He sees passing as a temporary measure, one which almost everyone – disabled or not – engages in. A woman in a wheelchair, for example, could be said to be passing when she is texting on her cell phone. Passing is a river than one may dip into for various lengths of time, always knowing they must emerge at some point even if in private. Overcoming, on the other hand, assumes a permanence. One has transcended their former situation and left if behind. This is impossible, even for the most gifted athlete. Remblis examines the predicaments of two athletes with disabilities who have become almost household names, Mark Zupan and Aimee Mullins. While neither of them has gone out of their way to eschew the celebrity status foist upon them by the sports media, Remblis illustrates how even when these athletes try to dispel the myth that their disability is something they have overcome, they are met with media comments such as, when we watch you, we forget you are disabled. Even if it is (unfortunately) not likely to show up in the next issue of Sports Illlustrated, it is a fascinating essay.

An essay that turns passing on its head even more is Dea Booster's piece on disability and slavery. While most of us can probably envision few circumstances where someone who is able-bodied might want to appear disabled (the Vietnam draft comes to mind), Booster makes the cases that this happened with frequency in the antebellum slavery of the South. Being viewed as property, slaves were less valuable when viewed as having a disability. Thus, slaves who found out that they were about to be sold or sent in to a more strenuous work situation, would fake disability to keep potential owners from being willing to spend enough money purchasing them to make them worth their current owner selling. Booster provides a number of examples from historical evidence and, one of the biggest favors the article did for me was to introduce me to Ellen Craft, about whom I'll admit ignorance. Ellen Craft was a black, female slave with a disability who made her escape in plain sight by passing as a white, male, able-bodied slave owner who was being accompanied by his slave (in reality, her husband William Craft) on a business trip to the north. It was unbelievably audacious risk and the author's recounting it should to make readers find out more about Craft. The episodes about disability that Booster provides are especially welcome since – to its embarrassment – disability studies is notoriously light on research related to African Americans.

Three more essays round out Disability and Passing. While David Linton's "The Menstrual Masquerade" struck me as a bit of a ringer at first, the following got my attention.

In late May 2009 [G. Gordon] Liddy was discussing Sotomayor's nomination and said, "Let's hope that key conferences aren't when she's menstruating…or just before she's going to menstruate. That would be really bad".

Even coming from a buffoon like Liddy, the quote served to convince me of the legitimacy of Linton's inclusion in a symposium on passing. As with the anthology's other articles, the historical background Linton provides could make for some interesting discussions. Mental illness is given its seat in the discussion in "Passing as Sane, or How to Get People to Sit Next to You on the Bus" by Australian researcher Peta Cox. Despite a breezy introduction of bus riding tips, Cox's article is anything but lightweight. She points out that "Passing is particularly important for people diagnosed with a mental illness, because the costs of not passing can be quite high– including in some instances, nonconsensual treatment and involuntary hospitalization." Cox uses a feminist performativity approach to passing, something she agrees is basically "fake it till you make it." She invokes both Judith Butler and Tobin Siebers, discussing not only the benefits of a masquerade approach to passing, but some of the drawbacks as well.

I've saved discussion of the discussion of Jeffrey Brune's "The Multiple Layers of Disability Passing in Life, Literature and Public Discourse" until last because despite the seemingly esoteric nature of the essay, for those who are concerned with disability literature as a genre, it may actually be the most informative/useful of all. Everyone who has taken a freshman English course within the last quarter of a century knows the story of how Alice Walker's rediscovery of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, not only catapulted Hurston from obscurity to fame but enlarged the genre of African American literature. Disability studies scholars have tried taking a page from Walker by bringing back into light works like the poetry of Larry Eigner or the reclaiming of writers like Flannery O'Connor from a disabilities perspective. An equally rewarding approach to past literary works, however, is the unveiling of disability influences on past literary works with which we are already familiar. This is what Brune has done in his essay.

One may have to be a senior citizen for John Howland Griffin's Black Like Me to ring a bell, but half a century ago Griffin's account of his masquerade as a black man in the South was famous (or infamous, depending upon your perspective). What is not generally known is that prior to Black Like Me, Griffin had written another memoir called Scattered Shadows, based upon a period of time during which he was blind for eighteen months. It is Brune's contention that it was this initial memoir of disability that prepared Griffin for and enabled him to write his more famous book. However, upon recovering his site in what Brune calls Griffin's "first literary act of disability passing," he put work on the book aside when his site returned, and "It was only forty years later, after Giffin's death that his friend Robert Bonazzi edited and published the memoir."

Brune's detective-like work to uncover the ways in which Griffin's efforts with his discarded memoir made his famous one possible is absorbing for anyone interested in literary analysis. Brune works in two major areas. In the first one, he investigates the ways that as a blind person he had to learn to pass as sighted. It was modifications of those same techniques of passing that he was able to build upon when he tried to pass as a black man in the American South. Brune's second area of inquiry is the language Griffin uses to describe the experiences with blindness in Scattered Shadows that he re-deploys in Black Like Me, a work in which, according to Brune, his only reference to his past experience with disability is a single, oblique one. Opportunities to read the kind of investigative work in disabilities literature that Brune provides here do not come along often. It is a genuine opportunity for those who are interested to learn the trade.

In choosing the subtitle Blurring the Lines of Identity, Brune and Wilson stir the waters a bit on a topic they understand is likely to create controversy. In Identity and Violence, Harvard philosopher Amartya Sen wrote that the argument for any one single identity is a fallacious one and that identity, although often chosen, is fluid given the varied circumstances in which we all find ourselves. Disabilities scholar and feminist philosopher Susan Wendell, notes in Disability Studies Reader (Fourth Edition) that in the case of those with "invisible disabilities" this is particularly true and that even "healthy disabled" is "a category with fluctuating and sometimes uncertain memberships." However, when individuals with disabilities put these theories into practice by not asserting a disabilities identity in unexceptional situations, they are likely to be greeted with cries of ableist sympathizer or essentialist scab by disabilities pride advocates. Brune and Wilson are well aware of this. Even within their own anthology, the essays by Harmon and Carey may lead readers in very different political directions. Though Disability and Passing is firmly grounded in and should find solid support as an essential text in the community of disabilities scholars, it is rather like the Bible in that almost anyone can find a passage that sustains their previously held convictions. Perhaps it is just that sense of flexibility and openness to varied positions in the face of complexity in addition to the variety of angles from which passing is viewed that make it especially valuable.

Though a few individual scholars, notably Tobin Siebers, in Disability Theory, have devoted some space to the discussion of passing, Disability and Passing is the first book to make it the sole focus. It provides both scholars and students with springboards to further research and a wealth of references to get them started, but many of the essays, especially those by Remblis, Linton and Carey, are also accessible to lay people as well. Wilson and Brune are to be congratulated.

Along with the work done by Brune and Wilson to bring the anthology together, Temple University Press deserves a note of appreciation for publishing Disability and Passing. In the 1980's Temple University Press was one of the first to support the work of writers with disabilities including the publication of Irving Zola's (now legendary) Missing Pieces and poet Robert Williams (now forgotten) In a Struggling Voice. Since that time, Temple University itself has straddled the line between models of disability studies programs (medical/occupational vs. the arts). Recently Temple University Press has stepped up to the plate for those who see disability studies literature as a worthwhile contributor to the humanities by publishing Alex Lubet's potentially ground-breaking Music, Disability and Society (2012) and Harilyn Rousso's much-lauded memoir Don't Call Me Inspirational (February, 2013). With the publication of Disability and Passing, Temple University Press has furthered its importance to the field of disability studies and placed itself firmly on the radar. Let's hope the good work continues.


Michael Northen is a Wordgathering editor and a co-editor with Sheila Black and Jennifer Bartlett of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poety of Disability.