Disability in Literature: What I’ve Learned

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Learning About Disabilities Through a UC Berkeley Course

Recently, I was waiting at a crosswalk with a friend when they made a comment about how annoying the beeping sound coming from the button was. In the past, I may have just silently agreed and not given it another thought, but in this instance I paused, and made the connection that the noise helped blind people know when they could safely cross. When I responded with this, my friend’s annoyed expression shifted to one of tolerance and they said that this made a lot of sense. This is just one small moment, but what other conveniences (or apparent annoyances) do we take for granted that are actually incredibly helpful for those who need it?

As October is Disability Awareness Month, I wanted to highlight the Literature and Disability class I’m taking this semester that has helped create this frame of mind. Below I’ve compiled some of the features of this course taught by Professor Kleege that have really made it a worthwhile spot in my schedule.

Written By and For All Disabled People

Accurate Representation. This is an issue that comes up quite frequently when exploring works of literature about minorities. One of the reasons the course’s content is so valuable is that all of the texts are written about a wide range of disabled experiences from authors who also come from different backgrounds of disability.

Intersectionality is included—and not in the way that inclusive works are thrown into the reading list at the end for a touch of diversity. Professor Kleege made it clear from the start of the semester that the issues faced by disabled people differ across other identities and the course list is consistent with this point. One of the contemporary plays, Shoot!, by Lynn Manning, opens with a poem that discusses the stereotypes about race, disability, and masculinity, which are prevalent throughout the play as the main character grapples with his own different identities. This is just one reading in particular that enlightens the audience to the difficulties that come with being part of multiple systemically oppressed groups.

Communicating From Different Lenses

This is a classroom where dynamic is essential. Because the professor is a disabled person herself and the class is a mix of both able-bodied and disabled students, the discussions about the readings and relating them to real life or experience are always eye-opening. In our first online discussion, the professor asked everyone to introduce themselves and give a short explanation as to why they chose to take this course. With nearly 100 students in the class, it was interesting to read the similarities between the reasons that people were drawn to the course. It was even more validating to find that there are others like me in the class who are a part of the disabled community. 

The characters are all very unique and three dimensional. Each of the stories, plays, and poems offer a different look into the lives of disabled people, both historically and in more recent times as well. What is great about the diversity of characters is that it makes clear the point that not all disabled people view things or approach life in the same way. While the shared struggles of navigating in a world that outcasts and belittles them is part of what brings this community together, it does not discount their individual experiences or self as a disabled person.

What I’ve Learned and Liked So Far

There’s variety in genres and formats. From plays to short stories, the literature discussed in this class is not only a chance to learn about the different lives of disabled people, it is all also incredibly interesting. Our reading list includes:

  • Call Me Ahab, a collection of short stories by Anne Finger
  • Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights, edited by Victoria Anne Lewis
  • Beauty is a Verb, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northern

I’ve started to think. In the anecdote about the stoplight at the beginning of the article, I noted that I may not have stopped to consider the sound as an accessibility feature prior to taking this class. It’s very true that reading and learning more about disabled experiences has led me to be more cognizant, but in addition to this, I also feel that I’m much more likely to say something in instances like the one at the crosswalk. I’ve realized that unawareness is an important component of the greater issue that is inaccessibility. Making people more aware of access and its necessity is the one of the first steps to changing the lens with which society views and responds to disability.

A History and Reality Everyone Should Know

Often it seems that the conversations during these months about recognizing specific underrepresented communities become forgotten shortly after until the time comes around again. This is why it can be so necessary and helpful to incorporate a specific outlet for peering into the perspectives of people from historically disadvantaged groups into your regular schedule. As a student at Cal, you have access to many great opportunities for enlightening and learning. Whether you enjoy literature or just need the credit, Professor Kleege’s course, English 175: Literature in Disability, is a class I recommend any Berkeley student take if at all possible.


Sahara Dittmar is a first-year student at UC Berkeley majoring in English.