Ash Brittenham, at a July 28th, 2017 rally held in Portland, Maine in support of Sen. Susan Collins’s decision to vote “No” on the ACHA

Image Description: Activist Ash Brittenham sits in a motorized wheelchair, surrounded by other protestors in front of a theater marquee. Wearing a cap and sunglasses, a large hand-drawn sign is taped to their legs that reads: “If I’m dead, who will inspire you?”

Disability: A Democratic Dilemma


My book project, tentatively titled, “Disability: A Democratic Dilemma,” attends to the ways in which the boundaries and defining features of political membership are stabilized and recast in and through disability. Where existing research emphasizes the exclusionary ground of liberal citizenship and its consequences for people with disabilities, I argue that disability as a concept, legal category, and medical condition has become a crucial mechanism through which to negotiate the obligations and entitlements of citizenship. Departing from efforts to trace (and thus to refute) the overdetermination of disability as deficit or lack, I recover alternative figurations and deployments of disability, paying particular attention to their function in suturing—or, more recently, rupturing—the persistent link between work and citizenship. At once a social obligation and the primary means by which we access certain rights and benefits critical to the exercise of full citizenship, work offers, I argue, a unique lens through which to examine the changing contours of political membership. Tracing an historical arc from the rise of industrial capitalism and the abolition of slavery through to the postindustrial present, I show how disability has been called upon at moments of crisis or rupture in the meaning and significance of work to resolve the tension between the ideal of work and the conditions of its performance.

Building upon, but ultimately departing from, existing work in disability studies that understands the relationship between disability and work to be primarily oppositional, I offer an alternative interpretation of this dynamic. Where this scholarship locates the origins of disability exclusion in the rise of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and the breakdown of local and familial care networks, I recover the underappreciated significance of disability for mediating concurrent transformations in the meaning of work and its relationship to political belonging. The dual role of work as both an obligation of citizenship and one of the (if not the) primary means of securing status and esteem makes it especially useful for tracking transformations in the meaning of citizenship and the terms of political belonging. If work—both the idea(l) and its actual performance—is “an essential component of full citizenship,” this relationship requires effort to maintain.

Rather than viewing disability in opposition to work, then, I instead trace how the concept of disability is called upon to sustain and reinforce the figure of citizen-earner against its destabilization. Looking to three moments in which the relationship between work and citizenship was being renegotiated—the free labor ideal and the rise of wage labor in the aftermath of the Civil War, the industrial accident crisis of the early 20th century, and, more recently, the Flint, Michigan water crisis—I illuminate the role of disability not just in maintaining, but also in recasting the relationship between work and political membership.