Rachel Adams, Keywords for Disability Studies

Rachel Adams

Keywords for Disability Studies is a collection of essays edited by Professor Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss (Emory), and David Serlin (UC Sand Diego) that aims to define and broaden the conceptual framework of the field of disability studies.  The book addresses what Adams describes as a gap in scholarship: “Disability studies has been around for 15 or 20 years and we realized there was no guidebook that would try to define the central terms and assumptions.” Inspired by Raymond William’s 1976 text Keywords for Culture and Society, the collection features sixty indivudally-authored essays, each devoted to a unique term. “We wanted terms that are essential to the field like crip and access,” Adams explains, “but we also wanted to include terms like queer, race, and aesthetic, that are not exclusive to disability.” The inclusion of vocabulary outside of disability studies was especially important to the editors: “We asked our contributors to think about how their meanings would be shaped if you put disability at the center.”

Notably absent in the book are chapters devoted to most disabilities—a deliberate choice made by the editors in order to create “more of a conceptual vocabulary than a list of diagnoses,” Adams explains.  Exceptions are terms like “madness,” “blindness,” and “deaf,” which have cultural significance beyond their diagnostic meanings.  Although the list of terms is determined by present-day concerns, many of the pieces trace the genealogy of particular vocabularies and provide historical understanding of contemporary terms.

Creating Keywords for Disability Studies was a thoroughly cooperative effort among the editors. Although challenging logistically, that cooperation “made it a much richer and nuanced project,” Adams explains, and captures the ethos of disability studies more broadly. “Even work that has one author is actually relying on multiple parties. The idea that some people are dependent and others are independent,” Adams asserts, “is something of a fiction.  We like to think of our editorial process as modeling the generative potential of interdependence.”

Adams sees the collection, like the field itself, as a work-in-progress: “Every time we have any kind of conversation about the book, we always welcome suggestions for new terms, formats, and revisions.  It’s meant to be a very open-ended and collaborative project.”