As a society, our interpretation of disability should be no different than our interpretation of race, gender, class, or any other aspects of our identities. But, as a society, our interpretations of our different identities face constant backlash and oppression that plagues the idea of what is considered to be “normal.” In the monograph, Ableist Rhetoric by James L. Cherney, it is emphasized that ableism studies are different from disability studies, but in studying ableism, contributions are made to the field of studying disabilities. To put it simply, studying oppressive factors enhances knowledge on the situation of oppression. The same can be said for racism and ethnic studies and sexism for women’s studies (Cherney 11). Additionally, Cherney argues that viewing ableism in a rhetorical light allows for us to see the role it plays in everyday life and our commonly perceived norms.
James L. Cherney, Ph.D. is currently an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. In addition to Ableist Rhetoric, Cherney has published multiple journal articles, book chapters, media reviews, and more, most of which with a focus on disability studies and ableist culture.
In Ableist Rhetoric, Cherney argues that the main relationships that support the genre of ableist rhetoric are that (1) deviance is evil, (2) normal is natural, and (3) the body is able (Cherney 24). He discusses that while some media may not fall neatly into one of these three categories of analysis, ableist themes can nonetheless be present. The argument for deviance is evil is that in the media, people and concepts that are “unnatural” or deviate from the accepted norms exhibit sin and are reason for punishment. This relationship is exhibited when Cherney discusses The Exorcist and how the little girl’s deviant behavior is demonic and needs to be expelled. Before it’s accepted as demonic possession, doctors pass it off as a mental disorder or some form of neurodivergence that is not inherently bad. However, once they find that the root of the problem is demonic possession, it is unanimously decided that the girl must be cured. While one may question how this example is an idea that enables an ableist rhetoric (since it rules out a neurodivergence), it still assumes that deviation from normal behavior is evil and needs to be dealt with in a proper, holy way.
The argument for normal is natural is that natural law and biological reason are used to define what we consider as “normal” (25). The relationship is demonstrated by explaining the Cochlear Implant Debate (CID) and the conflict it creates within ableist culture, but more specifically, Deaf culture. According to Cherney, “the CID pits Deaf activists who see the implant as a threat to their cultural identity against medical specialists and implant designers who typically view deafness as an illness that can and should be cured” (64). Activists take the stance that this view assumes that Hearing culture and spoken language is the only valid approach to communication, while there is an entire culture of Deaf people who communicate through gesture and sign language. The issue is that while they are alienated from the general majority in a space that is not originally theirs, who is to say what can be considered normal in a place where that minority is the majority. A hearing person who is learning sign language can be considered a minority in the Deaf community in a similar way in which cultural immigrants are technically the minority in a foreign country or setting.
The argument for body is able equivocates the capacity of one’s body with ability, enforcing the idea that the confines of body measures determine one’s ability. In the chapter where Cherney builds on the idea, he uses the example that the rhetoric of body is able supports that with the accessibility of stairways, “people who cannot use stairs are disabled by their bodies instead of by a set of ableist ideas and the structures that entrench these in contemporary culture” (85). This relationship is examined further in the context of disability and sport. Cherney discusses the idea that sports rely on “privileging those whose bodies are different enough to give them an advantage in the specified activity,” essentially saying that sport is ableist in its nature to encourage only those who have the specific abilities to participate (94). This not only excludes disabled people, but further excludes “normal” able-bodied people who just don’t have the general skill set to excel at sports. However, the prevalence of disability sports like the Paralympics, wheelchair basketball, quadriplegic rugby, and many more suggest that everyone can benefit from the perks of participating in sports and physical activity. In carrying out the notion that sports are available to all and that to be athletic is to be able-bodied and extremely physical implies the blatant ableism present within the realm of physical activity and the exclusion principle based on biological strength and fitness.
Cherney’s research for the book tends to focus mainly on social and media analyses, drawing information and examples from popular media (like The Exorcist) and current social commentaries (like the CID and the debate about disability and sport). Additionally, Cherney draws information from historical points of view and various ethnographic accounts of ableist culture. By combining the various sources of information, his research contributes an objective as well as a subjective telling of each example.
A main strength of Ableist Rhetoric is that the book highlights the differences between disability studies and ableist studies, giving more clarification in the argument of how we interpret media, society, and otherwise harmless constructs. In the past, we have not questioned the concept of normal and how we define normal in the added context of abnormal. However, with Cherney’s defined relationships that make up ableism, it is easier to understand how we continue to exacerbate the conditions of disability. Additionally, the book manages to tell a subjective view of disability studies and how its rhetoric impacts our daily lives in a much broader context than just simple activism for disability.
A weakness of Ableist Rhetoric is that it fails to provide an explanation for exactly what rhetoric is. While it goes very in-depth on the rhetoric of ableism and other rhetorical structures and models, the text does not give a straight definition of rhetoric. It would be beneficial to include this definition in order to give a basic understanding to the backbone of his argument. Additionally, including a more thought-out definition of rhetoric could help to expand the audience that the book targets, since many people may not know what it is off the top of their heads.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ableist Rhetoric because not only did it help me gain a better understanding of a more rhetorical view of disability studies, but it helped me to realize that my lens on the world is more clouded than I originally thought. I found it really interesting to learn more about the debate of how we define normalcy, mainly because I have been learning more information on what “normal” is, but in many different contexts (my classes, other books, etc.). I believe that everyone should be able to read this book in some shape or form, even if they just hear Cherney’s view on the main three flaws in our understanding of ableism. A major audience for the book should be healthcare providers, people who have a voice in media and society, and even just people who interact with disabled people on a day-to-day basis. Ableism is a real problem in our society, but due to our view on what “normal” is, we overlook its simplest manifestations, whether that be sports, popular culture, or even just daily functioning.
Cherney, J. L. (2019). Ableist rhetoric: How we know, value, and see disability. The Pennsylvania State University Press.
James Cherney: University of Nevada, Reno. Academia.edu. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2021, from https://nevada-reno.academia.edu/JamesCherney/CurriculumVitae.
University of Nevada, Reno. (n.d.). James Cherney: Communication studies. Department of Communication Studies. Retrieved October 31, 2021, from https://www.unr.edu/communication-studies/faculty-and-staff/james-cherney.