Who counts as a human? Emma Salt-Raper reviews Dan Goodley’s new book, Disability and Other Human Questions.
In these times of polarised politics, economic instability and the escalating COVID-19 crisis, disability practices and politics are at risk of being side-lined. Dan Goodley’s book, Disability and Other Human Questions, attempts to re-prioritise the field of disability studies at a time in which global and national political turbulence has made human difference seem increasingly pronounced. In a world of escalating trauma and division, Goodley considers how to ‘draw on disability studies as a resource for living together in the world’ to understand the nature of the human condition (Goodley 2021: 19). Whilst Goodley has written extensively on the topic of disability studies, the book is distinct from his other texts as it assumes a readership with no prior knowledge of the academic practice of disability theory. Driven by an ‘overriding desire to write something readable’ for a non-specialist reader interested in disability studies, Goodley’s aim is clear: to include disability theory in the wider issues of understanding ways of being human (Goodley 2021: xiv).
The text incorporates a wide range of critical, academic and cultural sources including personal anecdotes, critical theory, news reports and opinions broadcast on social media to illustrate Goodley’s overarching argument that disability studies, and disabled people, encourage us to reframe facets of shared humanity such as desire and dependency. The text’s preface encapsulates the aims of the book and briefly summarises the content and objectives of each of the subsequent six chapters. Each of the six sections explores how disability provokes questions relating to a different element of the human condition, such as ‘Who’s Allowed to Be Human?’.
In the first chapter after the preface, ‘What Brings Us to Disability and Other Human Questions?’, Goodley shares a touching memory of his grandfather which demonstrates the beginning of his interest in disability studies. This chapter intersperses Goodley’s personal anecdotes with a brief history of the politics of disability to serve as an introduction to the field of disability studies for a non-specialist reader. Goodley’s criticism of the ‘exclusionary’ nature of ‘normal, everyday and typical understandings of the human being’ is revealed in Chapter 2 as he questions the categorisation of being human (Goodley 2021: 23). Drawing on narratives from a diverse cross-section of narrative forms, Goodley discusses the ways in which those with intellectual disabilities are pushed outside the realm of being human in contemporary society. By relocating disability and disabled people to the centre of discussion surrounding human experiences, he argues that disability studies represents a vital opportunity to reframe what it means to be human.
Chapter 3, ‘What Is Human Desire?’ considers the role of disability studies in relation to the contemporary model of human desire which, as Goodley argues, is shaped by society and reproduced by the market economy. The chapter also discusses an alternate model of human desire which does not involve the pursuit of those things we believe we lack. This model is based upon ideas of belonging and promotes the importance of social locations, emotional attachments, and ethical and political values. Though, as Goodley suggests, disabled people are not unaffected by the ‘the push and pull of consumerism’ (Goodley, 2021: 50), disability studies instead magnifies the importance of interconnections based upon care and support and gives rise to new models and objects of desire. Goodley suggests that disability studies provides a unique opportunity to reframe desire and, in particular, the connections humans make. Connectivities typically found in the realm of disability include human-animal (such as service animals), human-machine (including the use of wheelchairs) and human-human (in the case of support workers) (Goodley, 2021: 50). As Goodley argues, these relationships highlight new models of human desire and connection.
Whilst Chapter 3 hints at a sense of dependency experienced by some disabled people, the text’s fourth chapter reconsiders the social construction of dependency as an ostensibly undesirable phenomenon. Due to contemporary sociological and political factors such as cuts to the welfare state and other austerity policies, dependency ‘often gets a bad press’ as it is frequently ‘associated with welfare scroungers, the work idle and shirkers of work’ (Goodley 2021: 61). The chapter goes on to argue that disability studies provides an opportunity to broaden our understandings of reliance upon others by reconsidering it as a vital component of being human. Drawing on examples of deep engagement between disabled people and inanimate objects such as iPad apps, hearing aids and walking sticks, Goodley’s work reframes aspects of dependency as a positive facet of the human condition.
Within Chapter 5, entitled ‘Are We Able to Be Human?’, Goodley uses examples of children entering British primary schools between four and five years of age to challenge the seemingly ‘natural’ or ‘essentialist’ assumptions of dependence and self-containment (Goodley 2021: 78). Goodley’s criticism of these assumptions hinges upon what he terms the three As: ableism, austerity and activism’ (Goodley 2021: 78). The chapter discusses how structures such as work institutions and education models are constructed in ways that often exclude disabled people. It goes on to explore the devastating and disproportionate impact of austerity on the lives of disabled people. The subsequent chapter, entitled ‘What Does It Mean to Be Human in a Digital Age?’, begins by raising broad critical questions relating to digital culture, such as debates surrounding ownership of online data. By rethinking this digital world with disability in mind, Goodley addresses three areas: digital subjects, digital victims and digital activists. Whilst Goodley acknowledges the positive impacts of digital culture on disability studies and disabled people, such as digital campaigning relating to disability and the use of social media to build relationships between individuals with disabilities, he describes the digital world as ‘a double-edged sword’ for disabled people (Goodley 2021: 105). This chapter moves on to discuss the harrowing and offensive ableism produced on message boards and various forms of social media. Whilst social media can help to promote dialogue and a sense of community among disabled people, Goodley argues that it simultaneously represents ‘the twenty-first century version of the Freak Show, where disabled people are rolled out to address the fascinations of the audience’ (Goodley 2021: 106). The text’s conclusion revisits the key topics covered in the previous chapters with reference to a range of current issues such as education, Twitter, COVID-19 and Brexit. The final section does not, and perhaps cannot, produce ‘easy answers’ (Goodley 2021: 114). Instead, it re-establishes the text’s fundamental emphasis on questioning the unique and important ways disabled people and disability studies can help society explore understandings of the human being.
Goodley acknowledges his work’s potential limitations to disability studies scholarship due to his perspective as a ‘white, middle aged, straight, British (therefore colonial) cis-male, working-class-born-now-middle-class breeder who has never received any disability diagnosis’ (Goodley 2021: 6). His stories of disability may be classed as ‘second hand’ as they mainly involve reflections of time spent with his disabled grandfather (Goodley 2021: 6). However, as Goodley argues, there are problems with casting off his criticism or perceiving his scholarship as limited due to the author’s privileged position. Goodley addresses these potential limitations to his work by arguing that his stories ‘should not be written off because they are only from one life and offered by one teller’ (Goodley 2021: 7). Whilst first-hand experience of disability is clearly vital to scholarship, to exclude Goodley’s perspective of disability would undermine the role disability has played in his work and personal life.
Whilst this book is not necessarily concerned with radically transforming the critical landscape of the medical and health humanities, this was not Goodley’s primary objective. Disability and Other Human Questions invites a readership which differs from the ‘usual academic audiences’ for whom Goodley often writes. This time, his intended reader is merely ‘curious about the human condition’ (Goodley 2021: xiv). Whilst the book engages with theories by philosophical thinkers such as Lacan, Goodley’s style introduces these topics in a concise way which would appeal to a non-specialist reader. Ultimately, Goodley is successful in his aim for this text as it offers a different, more accessible, kind of writing from that of his earlier works and this makes it an ideal introduction to Goodley’s other work on disability theory, and to the realm of disability studies in general.
Goodley, Dan. 2021. Disability and Other Human Questions. Bingley: Emerald Publishing Limited.
Disability and Other Human Questions by Dan Goodley was published in 2021 by Emerald Publishing Limited.
Emma Salt-Raper began her PhD in Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds in 2019. Her research involves the representations of mental illness and recovery within twenty-first century young adult novels. You can find her on Twitter here: @TheEmmaSalt.