Enhancing public knowledge of disability studies

Lennard Davis

Photo: Jenny Fontaine

Lennard Davis began his career 40 years ago, studying the history and origin of the novel, but later transitioned to an underdeveloped area of work called disability studies.

Since then, his renowned research, books and essays have elevated the field, enhanced public knowledge and made society reconsider its assumptions about normalcy, including issues of race, class, gender and sexuality.

Today the Guggenheim and Fulbright award-winner is widely considered one of the founders and leaders of disability studies.

“I have been able to watch it grow into something that now is not only nationwide, but getting to be international,” said Davis, professor of English, disability and human development, and medical education. “It is one of those fields where activism and intellectual work go hand-in-hand.”

His 2015 book, Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disability Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights, which detailed the landmark legislation’s history and far-reaching influence, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

His contributions to the field were also recognized when Davis was among a select group of scholars, activists and legislators invited to join former President Barack Obama at the White House’s 25th anniversary celebration of the act’s passage.

Overall, his impressive scholarly production includes six books, seven edited collections, two memoirs, a novel and a monograph on 18th-century literature.

His editorship of The Disability Studies Reader, now in its fifth edition, has established the advanced collection of essays by scholars from multiple disciplines as an essential classroom text.

To make the subject more accessible, he recently published Beginning with Disability: A Primer, an introductory book for first-year and high school students studying disability studies.

Davis, a distinguished professor in LAS, says most people grow up thinking of disability as a problem other people have, rather than as part of the life cycle.

“It’s a word they want to stay as far away from as possible and the experience of disability,” he said. “Most people are not that familiar with it and yet it doesn’t take long to get people up to speed.”

Inspired by the interaction between disability and poverty, he has been working on a project about the representation of poverty in literature, film and culture.

“In general, of all the identity groups, poor people really don’t have an opportunity to represent themselves,” he said. “Almost everything we have is written by people who are not poor. Some disabilities are still kind of like that, too.”

Whether it’s at the British Library, the Wellcome Library or Newberry Library, Davis enjoys conducting archival research and calls it a crucial part of humanities work.

“It’s important for us to remember our history and delve into it because it’s so easy in this era to forget about facts and just go with whatever you are thinking or feeling,” he said.