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Hastings Center News

Disability as Metaphor

A new article in English Literary History by Liz Bowen, the Rice Family Fellow in Bioethics and the Humanities at The Hastings Center, explores the use of metaphors characterizing disability.

The way we talk about disability matters, Bowen says. Phrases like “the blind leading the blind,” “crippling poverty,” or “falling on deaf ears” reinforce damaging associations between disability and undesirable states of being like confusion, suffering, and ignorance. These associations correspond to real-world biases and inequities: in one recent study, 82.4 percent of physicians reported that they believed people with significant disabilities have a worse quality of life than nondisabled people.

But is it possible to completely eliminate metaphors of disability from our language—and even if so, would that be a meaningful solution to the problem of ableism? Bowen argues in the article that there may still be a use for disability metaphors if we’re willing to invest in new ones, as Toni Morrison does in her 2008 novel A Mercy. Rather than deploying metaphors in which a disabled body is an abstract figure for an unrelated situation or problem, Morrison uses metaphor to reveal the material connections between disability and other determinants of social position in seventeenth-century America, such as race and proximity to “the nonhuman.” Read the essay here.

Bowen is a co-organizer of The Hastings Center’s series “The Art of Flourishing: Conversations on Disability,” which has also shown how the language and stories most frequently associated with disability can shape the way disabled people are perceived and treated. Watch presenters Lateef McLeod and DJ Savarese discuss disability stereotypes and narratives here.