John Duffy, associate professor in the English department and the Francis O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program, has recently co-edited the latest issue of Disability Studies Quarterly with Melanie Yergeau of the University of Michigan. This special issue, titled “Disability and Rhetoric,” promotes new methodological possibilities for applying rhetorical approaches to the burgeoning study of disability. The issue’s goal—to raise questions about the relationship between rhetoric and disability—emphasizes how our conceptions of disability emerge out of a culturally and socially constructed set of symbols and narratives.
In designing their conceptual framework, Duffy and Yergeau aim to expand rather than restrict the definitions of rhetoric employed by scholars in this special issue and in the field at large. They do, however, outline a general theory of disability and rhetoric based on Kenneth Burke’s famous study A Rhetoric of Motives, adapting his dictum, “Wherever there is persuasion, there is rhetoric. And wherever there is ‘meaning’ there is persuasion.” Their version states, “wherever there is disability, there are meanings. And wherever there are disability meanings, there is rhetoric and persuasion.”
With this focus in mind, Duffy and Yergeau present a truly interdisciplinary collection of essays, ranging from literary and psychological studies to archival research. For instance, Essaka Joshua, teaching professor of English and Joseph Morahan Director of the College Seminar, explores the “complex symbolic relationship between architecture and the disabled body in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. Notre Dame psychologist Joshua Diehl, with Julie Wolf and Lauren Herlihy from Yale University and Arlen C. Moller from Northwestern University, study the negative effects colors have in shaping popular views on autism. From another perspective altogether, Towson University’s Zosha Stuckey employs historical and archival methodologies in her investigation of nineteenth-century letters sent to and from the New York State Asylum of Idiots.
This journal issue comes at a time that sees disability studies moving more and more towards the center of the humanities. Duffy believes disability studies will continue heading in this direction because it functions as a medium for asking questions about what it means to be a human being. Since disability studies explores “how we respond to difference, whether physical or cognitive,” says Duffy, it allows us to ask “what is the place of a disabled person in society and what does that tell us about who we are?” He adds to this reasoning the changing demographics caused by the aging baby boomer generation, who are likely to become disabled as they grow older, making disability a more prominent social issue in the years ahead.
In relation to his work on disability studies, Duffy recently published an article he co-authored with Rebecca Dorner called “The Pathos of ‘Mindblindness’: Autism, Science, and Sadness in ‘Theory of Mind’ Narratives” in the Journal of Literary and Cultural Studies of Disability. His current endeavor, a book length project, deals with ethics in teaching and writing and addresses an audience of people who administer and teach in university writing programs.