Body, Language: A Case for Disabled Language?

In Medicine Stories (1998), Aurora Levins Morales argues for a healing kind of history: a study of history that emphasizes personal testimony; a concerted effort to give voice and name to the heretofore unvoiced and unnamed; and a practice of study that scrutinizes interdependence, illuminates interconnectivity, and demands of its practitioners that they own their injuries as well as their complicity in the intricate web of power and privilege.

From the very beginning of this collection of essays, Levins Morales (1998) acknowledges which stories are hers to tell–among the identities she claims are Jew, Puerto Rican, woman of color, survivor of abuse, feminist, and “historian with an agenda”– and acknowledges that all historians “use some process of selection through which [they] choose which stories [they] consider important and interesting” (p. 25). So it would be unreasonable to ask her to speak for everyone, especially given her clear declaration of intent in offering her personal “interrogation” of history (p.25). Nevertheless, she casts a wide net, acknowledging and validating, even in glancing mentions, the experiences of groups of which she is not a member: slaves, witches, transgendered people, even animal rights activists.

And so it seems glaring to me that, throughout the 130-page collection of essays, she sidesteps, apart from a single passing mention in the context of Nazi atrocities, the experiences of disabled people. I do not think this is a sinister omission, but I do think it is an omission, and I’m inclined to think it’s a conscious omission given that Levins Morales is a feminist writing these essays at a time when the scholarly area of disability studies–often housed adjacent to, if not housed within, women’s studies in academia–was emerging as a significant discipline. So many of the habits of mind and scholarship that she advocates, such as the valuing of first-person narrative and testimony; the insistence on telling “untold and undertold histories” (Levins Morales, 1998, p. 26); the prodding to “show agency” (p. 30); and the encouragement to question existing value systems, align themselves explicitly with the aims of disability studies. If “childhood is the one political condition, the one disenfranchised group through which all people pass” (51), then disability is the one political condition to which we could all return, at any time, with no warning. Furthermore, certain historical events she discusses have real relevance for disabled people, especially disabled women. For example, in the essay titled “Nightflying,” in which Levins Morales (1998) invites us to reconsider the way violence toward women in the form of witch hunts has been minimized, almost to the point of cartoon (p. 45-49), it seems especially glaring that she does not acknowledge that features we now know to be physiological and decidedly un-evil–epilepsy, for example–were also used to persecute women as witches. It’s not just “women elders” (p. 48) who remain villainized by the witch-hunt narrative; it’s elder women with dowager’s humps or, as I can personally attest, young women with gnarled fingers and limping gaits who are thought scary and wicked. The scary old lady in the house on the corner? She usually has a cane.

I confess that I’m stymied by this omission but, especially given her final essay’s call for a unification of efforts as opposed to an endless splintering of interests, I accept it as a given of this author and her stance.  I’m not quite as ready as she to dispense with intersectionality as a crucial lens through which to view certain histories and experiences. Specifically, disability is a profoundly powerful axis that, in combination with gender, can be amplified or assuaged in the classroom. As Garcia and Ortiz (2013) argue, “while a disability label may assign students to a subordinate status in a general education classroom on the basis of their perceived disabilities, their gender, social class and/or racial identities may mitigate this status in different ways, creating privilege for some (e.g., male, middle class, or Caucasian students) but disadvantage for others (e.g., African American males from low income families)” (p.34). Nevertheless, it is not Levins Morales’s responsibility to speak for the disabled; in fact, it may very well be inappropriate for her to do so. But it may not be inappropriate for me to do so.

What I’d like to do, then, is acknowledge my own relationship to that label, that identity, that history, and then discuss my own professional practice–that is, as a teacher–through the lens of Levins Morales’s “medicinal history” (1998). Specifically, I’d like to focus on the second section of the collection of essays, “Speaking in Tongues” (Levins Morales, 1998, p. 55-71), in which she insightfully and powerfully examines the relationship between language and power. Having thoughtfully considered–and truly enjoyed–Levins Morales’s work, I’d like to borrow her framework and extend it to include a group, as represented by a dear student of mine, “Jessica,” that I feel could most benefit from this kind of “medicinal history.”

I have an ambivalent relationship to the title “disabled,” mostly because I have an ambivalent body. Having had rheumatoid arthritis for 25 years, I’ve experienced stretches of profound disability and, thanks to modern medical and surgical interventions, I’ve experienced periods of relative respite during which my pain, although never fully abating, has been ameliorated and able-bodied strangers’ reaction to my body have been less vicious and othering. That’s all I need to say about that for this discussion, I think, except that I’ll add that my shape-shifting identity as maybe-disabled does lend me a particular awareness of and empathy for my students who live with disabilities. I like to think that I am an ally for them, and I’ll point to my experience with Jessica as evidence of that.

Jessica is a brilliant 16-year-old, effervescent and energetic, quick-witted, curious, profoundly artistic, and dyslexic. Last year, I was both Jessica’s English teacher and her advisor, which means that I was to serve as the point-person for Jessica and her parents whenever an issue–social, academic, medical–came up that affected Jessica in more than one course. As you can imagine, Jessica’s dyslexia affected her performance in nearly every course (English, pre-calculus, Latin II, advanced chemistry, Europe since 1945). In English and Latin and history, she struggled with spellings and conjugations as well as taking in and processing large amounts of written and verbal data. She pored over her written assignments only to discover, upon turning them in, that she’d replaced the word “genocide” with “geometry” in every instance. In history and chemistry and precalculus, numbers transposed themselves. Perhaps as a function of her dyslexia or maybe as a concurrent issue, Jessica also struggled with giving sustained attention to any task and found herself hopelessly distracted by even the smallest sounds and activities from classmates.

Jessica struggled particularly in Latin and early on in the school year she came to me for help. Thinking she could use some empowering validation of her experiences, I directed her to some scholarly research on JSTOR about teaching classical languages to students with dyslexia. One article, aimed at teachers, offered practical solutions and ideas (enlarging typewritten documents, using serif fonts, etc.). When I showed the plainly written, down-and-dirty “use it today” article to Jessica, she beamed–here, then, is an example of Levins Morales’s idea of scholarly writing being accessible to the people who need it most (1998, p. 37)–and immediately she set out highlighting all the tips that she thought would be useful but that weren’t yet in practice in her Latin classroom. Next, we met with her Latin teacher and Jessica was able to advocate for herself in a solution-oriented way. This was one of my earliest experiences with Jessica and it made me pay particular attention to her in the classroom. After all, I had a dual role as her English teacher and her advisor. I was struck by Jessica’s maturity in seeking out allies and advocates and in her wise use of the network of support systems made available to her. I was also blown away by the amount of sheer intellectual bandwidth and problem-solving skill Jessica was putting into compensating for her dyslexia.

Interestingly, the only courses where Jessica was finding that her dyslexia was not a deficit but an asset were her art classes–experimental materials and game design–where she was exploring with wit and cleverness ways to represent for “normal” people what the world of symbols and letters looked like and felt like to her.

As her decidedly descriptivist English teacher, it wasn’t a challenge for me to overlook her misspellings or transpositions. I was happy to work with her on a draft to point out to her where she’d swapped a word or where her ideas were all jumbled up and in need of categorizing and streamlining. Jessica and I worked well together.

But as I read Levins Morales’s chapters “On Not Writing English” and “Forked Tongues,” I was struck by the realization that I did not do enough on Jessica’s behalf, neither as her English teacher nor as her advisor. I didn’t do what her art teacher did, which was allow her–encourage her–to depict the world as she saw it in the language of her experience. Her perception of the world is jumbled, overstimulated, anxious, cryptic, blooming. Why shouldn’t her writing be?

Now, this perspective tests the limits of even my descriptivism. Can an English teacher advocate for a student’s right to write in jumbled, overwhelmed and overwhelming ways? I think she can. This is where I return to Levins Morales. The “legislators of language,” she  points out, “are almost exclusively male, white, and wealthy”–and, I’ll add, able-bodied if not body-normative. “They are people with social power, and as is the wont of such folk, they set things up according to their own very specific needs and then declare those needs universal: if it isn’t the language we speak, it isn’t English” (Levins Morales, 1998, p. 57).

Levins Morales (1998) points out the idea that is at the heart of all efforts to increase diversity in representation, the belief that is behind the movement away from “Dick and Jane” names in primers and standardized tests and behind the mannequin  in a wheelchair at your local Kohl’s: “To live surrounded by a popular culture in which we do not appear is a form of spiritual erasure that leaves us vulnerable to all the assaults a society can commit against those it does not recognize. Not to be recognized, not to find oneself in history, or in film, or on television, or in books, or in popular songs, or in what is studied at school leads to the psychic disaster of ceasing to recognize oneself” (p. 61). I believe that schools–no, I believe that I–need to do a better job not only of showing students like Jessica characters and real-life figures who think like they do (e.g., Mark Haddon’s 2003 “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which features a protagonist/narrator with autism) but also of validating and celebrating their language. Why shouldn’t Jessica’s writing reflect the world as she perceives it, just as Levins Morales’s writing is colored with her varied influences? If I bludgeon Jessica’s writing into conformity, am I like those well-meaning feminist editors who silenced Levins Morales’s differentness and shoehorned her into genericness? I do not want to hold Jessica to any less a rigorous standard than the other students; after all, she can hold her own intellectually and creatively. But–and this is a question of “excellence”–can I uphold rigor while honoring her perception of the world, and helping her to put it on the page? “That is why we write,” Levins Morales says. “To see ourselves on the page. To confirm our presence” (1998, p. 62).

And Garcia and Ortiz’s (2013) warning about the unfair perceptions of disabled students raises even more questions for me: Jessica is a well-behaved, hard-working, upper-middle-class white girl. Have I been more inclined to honor her disability in writing than, say, the scattered writings of a hyperactive boy like Will, who I may perceive to be simply sloppy and disorganized? I need to confront these questions. I need to do right by the Jessicas and the Wills.

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I know, though, that my own experience of shape-shifting disability has granted me access to two languages, two lexicons. I can write in the upright, whole, healthy English of able-bodiedness, studied during my healthy first 12 years of life, and I suspect that my writing–lurching, improvisatory, full of fragments–reflects the body I live in now. I have the right to write in the language of my body, so does Levins Morales, and so does Jessica.


Garcia, S. and Ortiz, A. (2013). Intersectionality as a framework for transformative research in special education. Multiple Voices for Ethnically Diverse Exceptional Learners, 13(2), 32–47. Retrieved from

Levins Morales, A. (1998). Medicine stories: History, culture and the politics of integrity. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

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Andrea Decker

Upper School English Faculty at Phoenix Country Day School

Andrea Decker is an upper school English teacher at Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley, Arizona. She is interested in adolescent cognition, multiple intelligences, literacy and linguistics, creativity, and disability studies. She is concerned with improving inclusiveness and educational equity in the private and public educational spheres.

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