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‘To Be Seen Whole’: The Racialization of Disability After World War II


In this dissertation, I put disability studies scholarship in conversation with black studies scholarship to read for the ways that medicine, law, and popular culture grapple with, create, and contest the boundaries of an acceptable range of white difference and diversity of embodiment and ability, and for the ways this negotiation takes place against an always already present “contempt for the categorized difference of the Other,” particularly the black Other. I situate this inquiry within several key debates in disability studies, most notably the debate between the “medical” and “social” models of disability, as well as what I will call the “discursive” extension of the social model of disability. To this end, this dissertation examines a set of laws, films, and historical documents through the combined frameworks of black studies, disability studies, and film and media studies to ask how racial ideologies and practices have constructed disability as a social and medical category in law, scientific inquiry, and cultural production since the mid-twentieth century. My methodology is insistently interdisciplinary, including archival research, legal analysis, the collection of original social science data from public databases, and film and literary analysis. I have organized the main chapters of this dissertation to explore four key developments over the last half century that address my central questions: post- World War II rehabilitation efforts and their relationship to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study; the War on Drugs of the 1980s and its relationship to the “special needs” category in adoption law; contestation over the “companionship services” exemption to the Federal Labor Standards Act; and the contemporary Transhumanist movement. Disability studies raises important questions about inclusion, access, representation, embodiment, space, and reproduction. By incorporating black studies and critical race scholarship, I analyze the way extant racial categories shape most profoundly: 1) what conditions qualify as a recognized disability, 2) who counts as a legible and legitimate disabled subject, and 3) how legal and labor practices govern and respond to disability so defined.

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