The academic field of Disability Studies


Disability Studies is a relatively recent field in academia, yet today almost all of Canada's major universities have degree programs in this area. In what will be the first of a series, this article will summarize a paper by a student in a Disabilities Studies program who has specialized in the topic of stuttering. The student featured here is Joshua St. Pierre, an MA candidate in philosophy at the University of Alberta. His paper is entitled "The Construction of the Disabled Speaker: Locating Stuttering in Disability Studies."


An official definition of Disability Studies was adopted in 1993 by the Society for Disability Studies. In part, it states the field “... examines the policies and practices of all societies to understand the social, rather than the physical or psychological determinants of the experience of disability. Disability Studies has been developed to disentangle impairments from the myths, ideology and stigma that influence social interaction and social policy....”

The following is a summary review of Joshua St. Pierre's paper, funded by the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada research project at the University of Alberta. The paper was also published in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. There is a link at the end of the article to download the entire paper.

This paper explores the way stuttering as a disability is perceived and reacted to by society, and addresses the nature of its inclusion in the field of Disability Studies.


Almost universally, stuttering is approached using a medical model. This means it is “consistently framed as an individual, biological defect to be coped with, managed or cured”. The author of this paper argues that this interpretation isolates the act of speech from its interpersonal, communicative aspect. The problem of stuttering is seen as a biological malfunction, the result of “faulty speech mechanism”.

Alternatively, we could acknowledge that the speaker is more than just a communication tool, but in fact a body and an identity in a social context. The author makes the case that, more than just being purely an individual defect, stuttering is created by the hearer and speaker together. As much as it is present in the voice of the speaker, it is a product of a biased way of hearing on the part of the listener, who is imbued with expectations of “normal” hearing. Hearing is  not just a neutral, passive task, the taking in of unimpeded speech. If the hearer must work harder and adjust themselves to speech that is not “normal”, it is considered the fault of the speaker. Through this imbalance, both parties are in fact  responsible for the construction of “broken” speech.

To a great extent, our attitudes and values are shaped by societal forces. The western world lives in a strongly capitalist, post-industrial society, ingrained with certain beliefs and expectations. These “capitalist” economic virtues effect interpersonal relationships as well, including that of communication. The extra time a stutterer wastes to speak is inefficient, and a barrier to success and productivity. The stutterer is, himself, seen as a faulty mechanism, offending capitalist notions of discipline and self-determination.

The author also addresses the tentative classification of stuttering as a disability, in a world that sometimes sees abled/disabled in black and white terms. Like chronic fatigue and ADHD, conditions such as stuttering are hard to place in either category of abled/disabled, as their symptoms are not always present. A stutterer’s disability is not “absolute” such as the visually or hearing impaired. A quadriplegic cannot “sometimes walk”, Cerebral palsy does not “come and go”. The standard approach to treatment for stuttering emphasizes the stutterer’s need to work hard and be disciplined in practicing speech techniques. Stuttering is seen as a product of a lack of discipline, a failure of will and the collapse of self-determination.

Here, the writer parallels this attitude towards people who stutter with cultural reactions to obesity. Obese bodies are, like the speech of the stutterer, inefficient and unproductive. Obesity happens to the ill-disciplined, who are unable to control themselves or their bodies. They are both conditions that are seen as the result of weakness and moral failure, and result in a shame of the body.

As more severely disabled people experience discrimination, a stutterer is marginalized by a public bias against abnormal communicative variations. Treating the issue as a social phenomenon, not a purely biological one, could help advance the position of the person who stutters in the societal realm. The "liminal", or marginal, nature of stuttering as a disability presents issues for it's treatment within the field of disability studies.


Joshua St. Pierre

Joshua St. Pierre is a MA candidate in philosophy at the University of Alberta. He has published in the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies and has given numerous presentations on speech and disability. His research interests include bioethics, disability studies, phenomenology of the body, and ableism in posthumanist discourse. His current research examines the relations between speech, reason, embodiment, and disability, looking specifically at speech as an embodied performance of rational human identity which can go “wrong” leading to exclusionary outcomes. You can download his paper entire here.