Passing and the Liminal Disability Identity

In this blog entry, Jeffrey Brune, co-editor of Disability and Passing, describes how editing his book prompted him to review his own experiences with stuttering, claiming a disability, and passing.

As co-editor of Disability and Passing, it was not my intention to learn about myself. However, now that the book is done I realize that seems to have happened. Having stuttered to a greater and lesser degree throughout my life I frequently pass between—and defy—the disabled and nondisabled categories that many parts of the anthology call into question.

Disability and PassingGrowing up, my parents sent me to speech therapy and emphasized the importance.  of not letting a speech impediment limit my options in life. My father had stuttered as a boy, was teased for it, and felt his life would have been worse had his stutter persisted. He wanted to ensure that his son also escaped the limitations of a stutterer. Within this family context, I went to speech therapy to learn to speak fluently and thereby overcome my disability. My goal was to pass as a “normal,” fluid speaker. Through my speech therapy, I tried to become normal but, at the same time, not to change my words or refrain from speaking when I was unable to pass successfully.

While my stuttering caused me some frustration, I became accustomed to the discomfort of stuttering. I also became accustomed to never having it acknowledged. By pretending not to notice my stutter people helped me to pass, which I appreciated. On the rare occasions when someone did acknowledge my stutter I tried to move on as quickly as possible.

After my sophomore year in college I attended an intensive summer therapy program at Hollins Communication Research Institute. Before I left for Hollins my undergraduate advisor, college roommate, and the person I was dating all asked me why I was doing this and suggested that it wasn’t necessary. Without using the vocabulary that I now employ in scholarship and activism, those three friends gave me my first exposure to some of the central tenets of the disability rights movement and disability studies. After coming back from the difficult work at Hollins, I felt frustrated that my speech was not improving and questioned whether I needed to change. Not wanting to struggle through grueling, daily homework assignments for the next two years, I finally resigned myself to being a stutterer and declared I would no longer try to change my speech.

Twelve years later, when I arrived at Gallaudet University as a professor with little knowledge of deaf issues, I understood immediately many aspects of deaf identity politics, including resentment toward oralism, speech therapy, and medical efforts to fix hearing impairment. At Gallaudet I encountered many deaf people who articulated ideas that I had been feeling but unable to express for more than a decade. That was liberating. Ironically, that deaf context—which uses American Sign Language for communication—also made me more nondisabled than I have ever been. I will not forget the surprise from one of my closest faculty friends when I told him I stuttered. That knowledge disrupted his assumptions about my hearing, nondisabled identity, at least in that moment. Passing across disability/nondisability boundaries can occur frequently.

It may seem that moving into disability studies would have put an end to my passing, but such has not been the case. This is partly because other people can play a coercive role in the act of passing, as they try to fit me into one part or the other of the disability/nondisability binary. One scholar in the field, who identifies as nondisabled, told me I didn’t have enough personal experience with disability to justify my place in the field. This person told me bluntly, and aggressively, that unless I followed their specific recommendations regarding my scholarship and activism I would have to leave disability studies.

Curiously, I had an experience only two months later that was both similar and opposite. A friend from graduate school—who knew me at a time when my stuttering was at its most extreme—remarked how serendipitous it was that I wound up at a deaf school where I did not have to speak. Although he did not intend to be malicious and was trying to talk about disability in an open manner, he was also saying that disabled voices like mine do not have a place in a mainstream university. Perhaps he forgot that I won a teaching award while in graduate school and had successfully taught at three mainstream institutions.

Although these two people tried to force me into opposite categories of disability and nondisability, both used those identities to deny or threaten my right to occupy a specific space; one imposed on me a nondisabled identity to threaten my position within disability studies and the other imposed a disabled identity to deny me a place within mainstream academic institutions.

Yet while those two examples show how passing can be used to deny access to opportunities, often the opposite has been the case. Throughout my life many people have thought of me as nondisabled. Views of me as nondisabled (as well as white, male, and straight) have come with privileges and opportunities that would not be offered to many disabled people. I now find this troubling, though I appreciated it when I was younger and had not thought critically about disability. Similarly, being encouraged to pass as disabled can also offer benefits.

Graciously and with the intention of opening doors to me, many disabled scholars have suggested I claim a disabled identity. One historian, who is hard-of-hearing, remarked that when I present at conferences I am more disabled than she because the podium makes my disability more visible than hers. One of the leading scholars in the field, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, has also said she thinks I should identify as disabled.

While I appreciate the kindness of these gestures I still have some problems identifying as disabled. Important among them is my support for disability as a political movement. As Deborah Stone points out in her classic work, The Disabled State, disability functions partly as a political category to offer an oppressed group political privileges such as social aid, exemptions from some obligations of citizenship, and civil rights protections. I have not experienced the prejudice and discrimination that many disabled people face, so for me to claim a disabled identity undermines the political cause of disability.

So rather than claim a disabled or nondisabled identity, I see myself occupying a liminal space that defies the disability/nondisability binary and can best be understood within the broad framework of passing that Dan Wilson and I establish in our book. There are now times when I especially appreciate that my identity defies easy categorization, and none more so than when I give a presentation. When I speak I present problems for my audience; I imagine that many struggle to figure out what category I fit into, given incongruities between my appearance, my mode of speaking, and the topic that I address in my talks. To the extent that my presence raises questions and causes confusion, it becomes an additional tool for pointing out the complicated nature of disability and identity. Nonetheless, it still frustrates me when stuttering makes it more difficult to convey my ideas and to do so within a time limit. For me the issue of disability will probably never be simple and straightforward.

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