Course Proposal for Spring 2008

Disability in Literature

Course Number 42.2XX

Bridget M. Marshall

ISIS Description:


The course will focus on historical and contemporary portrayals of disability and disabled people in literature.

Detailed Course Description:


Our course will explore how texts portray people with disabilities of all kinds – physical, emotional, social, and mental.  We will read short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, and plays.  The majority of texts will be roughly contemporary, but some will also help us to historicize images of disability in literature.  We will also watch films, both documentary and otherwise. We’ll read texts written by disabled and non-disabled writers.  We will explore the ways that many stereotypical portrayals of the disabled undermine, invalidate, and infantilize the disabled community, and seek out literary voices that empower the disabled and question our definition of “normal.”  Studying disability in literature helps us to explore what our culture decides is “normal,” and asks us to consider what makes us human.  Literature both reflects and creates cultural messages about ability and disability, “normal” and “abnormal.”  Literature can help us understand the experience of the disabled, as well as understand our own responses to disability in our own lives and in our culture.

Learning Objectives:


þ     To become familiar with the history of the portrayal of disability in literature.

þ     To make connections between literary portrayals and real-life situations.

þ     To gain understanding of the varied experiences of the disabled community.

þ     To develop skills of close and careful reading.

þ     To enhance discussion skills through a focus on participating in classroom discussion and leading classroom discussion.

þ     To improve presentation skills with an end-of semester paper presentation.

þ     To develop writing skills through multiple drafts and peer response on papers.

Major Assignments and Projects

Š          Attendance and good classroom citizenship is required.

Š          Students will periodically (roughly four times over the semester) be required to prepare a one page informal response to the reading on the day it is due.  Informal responses might include:

Š          Informal reviews of the readings

Š          Questions about the texts

Š          A conversation with the author of the text

Š          A story or poem in response to the piece

Š          An imitation of the style or tone of the piece

Š          A letter to the author of the text

Š          Two short (4 page) papers will be due approximately 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through the course.  These essays should focus on a theme, a trend, a concern, a criticism, or an analysis of one (or possibly more) of the texts.

Š          Students in groups of 3 or 4 will lead class discussion on one of the texts for one class session.  Student-led discussions (including a brief presentation and comments from group members) will help keep the class interesting and focused.

Š          For the final project, each student will read one disability-focused text not included on the syllabus.  Students may select from the list (included at the end of this proposal) or seek out another text, with approval.  Using the chosen text, each student will:

Š          Create a presentation for the last week of class about the chosen text.

Š          Write a Final Paper (8 pages) on the selected text, focusing on an analysis of the text, including how it fits into the larger context of disability in literature.



The final grade will include the following elements:

Š          Paper 1:  15%

Š          Paper 2: 20%

Š          Group Discussion-leading: 10%

Š          Final Project Paper:  25%

Š          Final Project Presentation: 10%

Š          Informal Writings: 5%

Š          Classroom Citizenship: 15%

Semester Reading Plan:

Week 1:  Introduction to Contrasts: Real Life and Fiction

Š          Nancy Mairs: “On Being a Cripple”

Mairs writes this essay from her own experience of being a “cripple” (her chosen term) as a result of multiple sclerosis.

Š          Nathaniel Hawthorne: “The Birth Mark”

Hawthorne’s story depicts a foolish doctor’s attempt to remove what he sees as a physical imperfection (a birthmark) from the otherwise perfectly beautiful face of his beloved wife.

Week 2:  Disability in Fiction: Autism

Š          Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Haddon’s novel uses a first-person narrator, 15-year old Christopher, who is autistic.  The novel has won the Whitbread Prize and the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

Week 3: Disability in Reality: Autism

Š          Excerpts from Temple Grandin: Thinking in Pictures: “Sensory Problems in Autism: The Squeeze Machine” (62 – 81), “Emotion and Autism: Learning Empathy” (82 – 95), and “Autism and Relationships: Dating Data” 131 – 141.

Grandin is a “high-functioning” autistic who has written extensively on her own experiences of autism and on animal rights.

Week 4:  Short Stories on Disability

Š          Flannery O'Connor: “Good Country People”

O’Connor suffered from lupus; this is one of her many stories portraying disability.  In it, the character Hulga has a prosthetic leg and wears glasses; a traveling salesman make off with both her physical aids.

Š          Raymond Carver: “Cathedral”

This story’s plot revolves around interactions between a blind man and a sighted man.

Week 5: Disability Dramatized: Life in a Wheelchair

Š          David Freeman: Creeps from Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights

This play, written in part from Freeman’s personal experience, portrays the lives of young men living with cerebral palsy as they do menial work through a state-sponsored charity organization. 

Š          Mike Ervin: The History of Bowling from Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights

Two college students – a young man in a wheelchair with very limited mobility and a young woman with epilepsy – must work together on a term paper about a sport to get credit for their gym class.

Week 6: Disability Dramatized: Varieties of Disabilities

Š          John Belluso: Gretty Good Time from Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights

A young woman disabled by polio is institutionalized and wants to refuse further treatment.  She imagines conversations and escapes with another disabled woman: a girl severely disfigured by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.  Disorienting and imaginative, the play explores patients’ autonomy and right to die, as well as the financial and moral issues of caretakers.

Week 7:  Disability Dramatized: Race and Disability

Š          Lynn Manning: Shoot! from Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights

The funny and disturbing nugget of this play is the fact that a blind man purchases a gun.  The blind man, an African-American, struggles with cultural assumptions about manliness and blackness in inner-city Los Angeles.

Š          Susan Nussbaum:  No One as Nasty from Beyond Victims and Villains: Contemporary Plays by Disabled Playwrights

A white woman in a wheelchair has numerous physical assistants who work for her; she develops a long-term relationship with one, an African-American woman.  The play wrestles with problematic relationships in race and class, in addition to portraying her struggle to live a “normal” life.

Week 8: Autobiography

Š          Lucy Grealy: Autobiography of a Face

Grealy’s face was severely disfigured as a result of treatment to save her from cancer at age nine.  Her memoir describes her struggle to live in a culture obsessed with physical beauty.

Week 9: Depression

Š          Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Gilman’s classic story portrays depression and madness; the tale is credited with bringing attention to (and at least partly changing) the methods of psychiatric treatment for women of her time.

Week 10: Disability and the Family

Š          David B.: Epileptic (a graphic novel)

David B.’s brother had epilepsy.  In this graphic novel/memoir, David B. portrays the struggle of his entire family to find treatment and appropriate accommodations for his brother’s increasingly painful and uncontrollable seizures.

Week 11: The Body and the Brain

Š          Jean-Dominique Bauby: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

At age 44, Bauby experienced a catastrophic stroke that left him completely unable to move.  A former editor for Elle magazine, Bauby dictated this book by moving his left eyelid to point to letters on a printed alphabet.

Week 12: Disability in Poetry

Š          Sylvia Plath's “Tulips” and “Lady Lazarus”

Š          Ginsberg's “Kaddish”

Š          Gwendolyn Brooks: “sick man looks at flowers”

Week 13: Disability on Film                 

Š          Freaks (1932)

Tod Browning’s disturbing film included a cast of physically disabled men and women working as carnival freaks.  The drama portrays the conflict between the “freaks” and the “normals,” including violence and sexuality surprising for a film of the time. 

Š          Murderball (2005)

This is a documentary about quadriplegics playing full-contact rugby in specially designed wheelchairs.

Week 14: Presentations & Papers

Š          Students will do in-class presentations on their selected text related to disability issues.  The presentation will be one part of an extended paper on the chosen text, which will serve as the final exam. 


Potential Texts for final papers and presentations:

The Literature, Arts, Medicine Database (located at ) provides excellent annotations on texts that would be useful for the course.  It can be searched by specific subject key words (e.g., “autism,” “depression,” “family relationships,” “drug addiction” etc.) to find a text that deals with a specific issue of interest.



Carson McCullers: The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Tsitsi Dangarembga: Nervous Conditions

Tim O'Brien: The Things They Carried

John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men

Daniel Keyes: Flowers for Algernon

Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible

Katherine Dunn: Freaks

William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury

Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest



Stephen Kuusisto: Planet of the Blind

Lauren Slater: Prozac Diary

Temple Grandin: Thinking in Pictures

Andre Dubus: Meditations from a Movable Chair

William Styron: Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

Alice Sebold: Lucky

Daniel Tammet: Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant



Mark Medoff: Children of a Lesser God

William Shakespeare: Richard III

Susan Sontag: Alice in Bed

Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie

Susan Nussbaum: Parade

Pomerance: The Elephant Man

William Gibson: The Miracle Worker

Charles L. Mee, Jr.: A Summer Evening in Des Moines

Doris Baizley and Victoria Ann Lewis: P. H. *reaks: The Hidden History of People with Disabilities