CFP: Special Issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Disability and the American Counterculture

Guest edited by Stella Bolaki and Chris Gair

The American Counterculture has a complex relationship with disability. At its heart is the reinvention of the term freak that serves as an early example of empowering, though not unproblematic, appropriation of what had previously been a derogatory term. Freak Out!, the debut album by The Mothers of Invention—labelled a “monstrosity” by Frank Zappa—is a prime example of the association of freakery with the forms of avant-garde experimentation representative of one form of countercultural practice. In addition, representations of disability and illness occur repeatedly in countercultural work: the asylum and hospital become central tropes for examinations of the relationship between sanity and madness in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while canonical Beat/countercultural novels such as Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels and Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and movies such as Richard Rush’s Psych-Out feature disabled characters not only to derive rhetorical force in their critique of hegemonic culture, but also to question core countercultural ideologies. In terms of aesthetics, William Burroughs’ experimental “cut-up technique” has been discussed in the context of his interest in virology and Andy Warhol’s work of trauma, injury and violence alongside what Tobin Siebers has called “disability aesthetics”. More recent work, such as E.L. Doctorow’s novel Homer and Langley, the Hollywood film Forrest Gump and Simi Linton’s memoir My Body Politic, examines the connection between disability and the counterculture through different lenses and with various aims.

What do perspectives informed by disability studies have to offer to typical readings of the American counterculture and its fundamental ideals of movement (both geographical and ideological), youth and vitality? In what ways did the American counterculture and the disability movement approach notions of the “normal” and the “abnormal” body? Beat and countercultural writers and artists have been criticised for their romanticised view of other cultures and for appropriating and shedding roles and personas from various marginalised groups at a dizzying pace. How different was the appropriation of disability to the American counterculture’s interest in other cultures (Eastern, African American, Native American) and their potential for constructing a subversive identity? What are the legacies of the American counterculture and its various discourses and styles of liberation for contemporary disability life writing, arts and activism?With such questions in mind, the co-editors invite proposals on an array of topics which include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • perspectives from disability studies/theory on iconic as well as understudied Beat texts and countercultural ideals more broadly
  • challenges to “normalcy” from disability movements and the American counterculture (comparative perspectives/debates)
  • disability as theme and/or aesthetic in countercultural writing, art, film and music or in more recent works that reference the American counterculture
  • appropriation and reinvention of the term “freak” by the counterculture
  • approaches to spectacle, the stare, the performative, and fashion in American counterculture and disability cultures/arts
  • disability in the sixties-era communes and communal living groups
  • feminist disability studies and the counterculture
  • crip perspectives on the American counterculture
  • legacies of the American counterculture and countercultural ideals, practices and styles for disability writing, arts, and activism

Discussions of specific literary and cultural texts are invited, but preference will be given to projects that use individual texts as vehicles to address broader cultural debates and theoretical inquiries related to disability studies and the American counterculture. A one-page proposal and a one-page curriculum vitae should be emailed to by the end of July 2013. Finalists will be selected by 1st October 2013, and full drafts of articles will be due on 1st March 2014.

Dr. David Bolt

 Director, Centre for Culture & Disability Studies
Editor, Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Experience: Graeae Play Labs, by Hope Estella Whitmore

Today we have a guest post from  an Edinburgh based playwright Hope Estella Whitmore, writing about autistic experience. Hope’s current project started after she was given the opportunity to work with Graeae, a theatre company specializing in ‘breaking down barriers, challenging preconceptions, and boldly placing disabled artists centre stage.

 Experience: Graeae Play Labs

Last year I was lucky enough to take part in Graeae’s Play Labs project. Graeae is a UK-based theatre company with an aesthetic of access for people with disabilities. As part of this agenda they run an annual project called Play Labs. Play Labs offer playwrights a chance to conduct research into a chosen element of disability in a safe environment, whilst being offered support by Graeae. For me Play Labs was a chance to conduct research into autism, exploring common perceptions and looking at the reality of being on the ‘passing’ end of the spectrum, treading a tightrope between being autistic and neurotypical.

Autism is frequently not a simple or visible condition. I wanted to create a body of work that showed the complexity of autism, both in terms ofthe experience of being autistic, and with reference to other people’s experience of coping with and understanding those who are autistic. I decided to focus my script on the individuality and depth of an autistic child’s imagination.

Graeae gave me funding and support to work with this idea. I also had the chance to speak to neurologists, parents of children with autism and people on the spectrum. The resources and support that Graeae gave me, together with the support of my mentor, Carissa, were invaluable during this process and helped me create a body of work.  One of the most useful aspects of this support was the ability to attend workshops designed to assist the writing process. These workshops explored the relationship between disability and theatre.

Most interesting was an Open Access Workshop I took in December with other Play Labs participants. I didn’t know what to expect, and when I was told the workshop was about ‘opening up access to theatre for those with disabilities’ I imagined it was probably going to involve talks about Health and Safety, and spaces for wheelchairs. I didn’t realise what a massive topic Open Access was.

When I arrived late, having got lost among the converted warehouses of Hackney, I was invited to join the group, and Amit, who was running the workshop, began by telling us we all had a sign name. The interesting thing about sign names is that they grow organically from you as a person. They are not made up of letters of the sign alphabet; they are a gesture that encapsulates you. At first you are allowed to choose your own sign name but it can change if one of your friends or colleagues identifies a gesture which is very ‘you’, which can then become your sign name.

The creativity of this naming has a beauty to it, and the creation of our own sign names was a great introduction to the workshop. We had to choose a sign name, and then explain the gesture to the others in the group not demonstrating with our hands until they were able to make the sign perfectly. My sign name is as follows: put both arms out directly in front of you; cup your hands together; open your arms and spread your hands as though letting go of a small bird.

We then continued the workshop by exploring what disability is, and our perceptions of the role it plays in theatre. Something I found inspiring was the way in which Graeae’s scriptwriters seek creative ways to integrate disability into every script without making it the focal point. For example, they produced a play about a small boy who imagines conversation with his absent father by describing everything he sees and does. This gives people with visual impairments an indication of what is happening on stage, but is done in a way which stems organically from the story and improves the piece for everyone.

It is too easy for those without disabilities to believe that access is somehow ‘politically correct mumbo-jumbo,’ but this could not be further from the truth. Amit recounted one story of a production where a Graeae staff member stood up and asked all the audience if any of them had bought their own light bulb. When they said no, she flicked off all the lights in the auditorium. Then she asked them all to stand up if they hadn’t bought their own chairs. I think she made her point succinctly: we all have needs, and we take it for granted that those needs will be met. People with disabilities, on the other hand, frequently have to fight for their needs to be met in theatre and in other areas of life. The workshop brought home the importance of wheelchair access, of dialogue screens for Deaf or hard of hearing, and of headsets -audio description – explaining what is happening on stage for people with visual impairments. Yet it also demonstrated the potential for creativity, play, and finding new and exciting ways to create an environment that enabled those with disabilities to have a full theatrical experience.

I love the idea that widening access can involve giving a piece of writing extra depth, rather than adding access features, such as audio description as an afterthought. Graeae has a whole library of scripts that integrate access into their plays, and I would love to read these. My aim is to ?  learn how to write theatre that is accessible for people with different disabilities, and I hope that my current project will reflect Graeae’s mission statement in some way: to break down barriers, challenge perceptions and place disabled artists centre stage.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Graeae, visit their website ( or Facebook page (

 The Play Lab programme currently runs on an annual basis, with applications due in July, and the Play Labs taking place in September and October – see ( for more details.


CFP, Workshop and Seminars


Conference Call For Papers: ‘Imperfect Children’

Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester, September 2013

A two day conference hosted by The Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester, 5th-7th September 2013.

The core focus of this conference will be the concept of ‘imperfection’ as it relates particularly to children. The word itself is contentious whether applied in a contemporary or historical sense. It assumes normative standards of behaviour, physical appearance, mental capacity or way of living, at the same time as it means very different things in particular ethnic, geographical or historical contexts. Applied to children who are constantly developing their intellectual and physical capacities, physical appearance and other attributes, it is particularly contentious. During the conference we wish to explore the concept and language of imperfection. This process might include discussion of mental or physical impairment; the ‘look’ of children; cosmetic surgery; biological or eugenic definitions of imperfection; community, familial and societal reactions to imperfection; childhood imperfection in literature and art; or the construction of feral youth in contemporary and historical populations. We also, however, want to look explicitly at some of the ‘imperfections’ themselves. These might include, but are not limited to:

  • Mental or physical impairment
  • Physical appearance, and the desire to ‘improve’ children
  • Learning development
  • ‘Bad’ character and criminality
  • The manufacturing of child identity in different cultures and historical contexts
  • Children and the capacity to work or play
  • Diagnosing and correcting imperfection

It is anticipated that some of the papers will have an historical focus or will link historical data/perception with twenty-first century concerns. In this context we regard ‘history’ as anything beyond the last decade! Our definition of children runs from conception (and the desire to create the perfect child) through to age sixteen. We hope that the conference will attract interest across the spectrum from History, Archaeology, Art History and English through the social sciences and to biological and engineering or physical sciences.

Suggestions for papers/themed sessions or queries should be addressed to or to Steven Taylor / Steven King at the Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester by February 2013. We expect to publish the papers.



Public lecture: Dr Michael Lee, ‘How the brain is wired for pain’

University of Durham, 18th October 2012

Calman Main Lecture Theatre (Durham University, City campus, DH1 3LE)

Thursday 18th October
6.30pm for a 7pm start
No booking necessary

How subjective is the experience of pain, and how does it ultimately emerge from the brain?

Dr Lee will explain the key difference between nociception (biological process that signals potential or actual physical injury) and pain (defined as a conscious experience), and that nociception is not necessary or sufficient for pain.

Together with real-life examples from his brain imaging research, he will show us how we can reinterpret or regulate the biological signal for better or worse.

Dr Lee is a Consultant in Pain Management who works in the Pain Imaging Neuroscience Group at The University of Oxford.

Approved by The Royal College of Anaesthetists for 1 CPD point.


Workshop: ‘Experimental entanglements in cognitive neuroscience’

Berlin, 25th-26th October 2012

The University of Durham’s ‘Centre for Medical Humanities’ blog post ‘Medical humanities and cognitive neuroscience: trandisciplinary openings and endeavours’, explored how several people at/associated with the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham (CMH) are interested in grappling with how the medical humanities as a domain can productively engage not only with the interpretation of science that is being pursued in fields close to medicine, but in its production.

As part of this exploration, I am co-organizing a 2-day, transdisciplinary workshop in Berlin this October that focuses on the experimental settings of cognitive neuroscientific experiments — particular as regards the relations between researcher and research subject. CMH Affiliate Charles Fernyhough is one of the guest speakers, and CMH Staff member Angela Woods is a chair and rapporteur. We welcome delegates to the first day of this workshop (see details regarding registration below).

Experimental entanglements in cognitive neuroscience, Berlin, 25th-26th October 2012

Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung, Lentzeallee 94, 14195, Berlin

Funded by the European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences, and the Humanities, an Initiative of the VolkswagenStiftung

Guest speakers:

Aikaterini (Katerina) Fotopoulou

Andreas Roepstorff

Charles Fernyhough

Daniel Margulies

Jan Slaby

Jill Morawski

Jonathan Smallwood

Leonhard Schilbach

Lisa Blackman

Russell Hurlburt

“Can social scientists and neuroscientists think collaboratively about research subjects’ own assessments of their mental processes in the course of an experiment? Will this tell us anything about the ‘social’ nature of all experiments, in both design and interpretation? And can these questions be pursued through experiment, and not just discourse? By using the phrase ‘experimental entanglement’, we signal a desire to entangle ourselves with, and diffract our ideas through, some other science; we aim to show that calling attention to these questions, and doing experiments, do not have to be mutually exclusive practices.”

Programme committee: 

Felicity Callard, Medical Humanities

Des Fitzgerald, Sociology

Simone Kühn, Cognitive Neuroscience

Ulla Schmid, Philosophy

An ‘Intersubjectivity interrupted’ workshop with:

Joel Krueger

Josephine Lenssen

Amanda Taylor Aiken

Participation is free, but spaces are strictly limited. The workshop is open only on October 25. (On October 26, the speakers and convenors go into a closed session.)

If you would like further information, or to register to attend on 25 October, please contact: Des Fitzgerald and/or Felicity Callard.

Please include your name, position, affiliation, email and 1–2 sentences on why you would like to attend.

Catherine Prendergast Seminar, Liverpool Hope University

Mad in Court: Mentally Disabled Pro Se Litigants and the Complex  Embodiment of Mind

Prof. Catherine Prendergast, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Date: Wednesday 3 October 2012

Time: 2.15pm–3.45pm

Place: Eden 109, Liverpool Hope University, UK

Despite the recent increase in self-advocacy by people who are mentally impaired, the legal realm is still considered a risky area for self-representation, as though “nothing about us without us” should stop at the courthouse door. To complicate this notion, Prof. Catherine Prendergast presents two cases that demonstrate both the persuasive force and jurisprudential significance of mentally impaired pro se litigation. The contention is that these litigants offer something akin to Tobin Siebers’s notion of “complex embodiment” in the sense that they lend concrete form to the oppressive and flattening abstraction of mental illness. They also provide first-hand accounts of the barriers that hamper inmate efforts to engage in self-expression and advocacy, including limitations on publication rights, and lack of access to materials for writing and research. These accounts finally question the mind-body dualism implied in the notion of “embodiment” itself.

Catherine Prendergast is Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she teaches courses in disability studies, rhetoric, and writing. Her articles on the subject of mental impairment have appeared inSAQ: South Atlantic QuarterlyCollege English, and The Disability Studies Reader (3rd edition). She has co-edited (with Elizabeth Donaldson) a special issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies on the topic of Representing Disability and Emotion.

For more information, please contact:

Dr. David Bolt,

Director, Centre for Culture & Disability Studies,

CFP: Infertility in History, Science and Culture

Infertility in History, Science and Culture

University of Edinburgh, 4-5 July 2013

The infertile woman is a familiar figure in popular culture. Soap operas dramatise the tragedy of infertility, right-wing tabloids threaten career women with the horrors of involuntary childlessness, and the news media greets each new breakthrough in reproductive technology with a strange combination of celebration and dread at the potential Brave New World we are sleep-walking towards. This portrayal of a realm where science fiction threatens to spill over into fact adds to our sense of infertility as a peculiarly modern condition. Yet there is a longer history of involuntary childlessness – a history which stretches back to the Book of Genesis and beyond – as well as many different potential experiences of infertility according to nation, class, gender, and race.

This symposium will explore the history of infertility, and the place of infertility in science and culture. Our primary focus is historical, but we welcome contributions from scholars in different disciplines and employing a range of approaches – social scientific, literary, feminist, psychological, and legal. We aim to bring together researchers working on this fascinating and under-explored field in order to better understand historical and contemporary representations and experiences of infertility across different cultures and from different perspectives. Potential topics for papers include, but are not limited to:

  • the role of gender, class and race in shaping experiences and representations of infertility;
  • individual, familial, and social contexts of infertility;
  • infertility as a bodily and/or psychological experience;
  • heterosexuality, homosexuality, and involuntary childlessness;
  • reproductive science and access to reproductive technologies;
  • the interplay of medical, scientific, and cultural understandings of infertility;
  • the role of politics, law, and religion in shaping experiences of and attitudes towards infertility;
  • changing experiences of infertility across time and space, including comparative histories;
  • the relation of perceptions of infertility to beliefs about fertility control, the constitution and social role of the family, and sexuality;
  • different disciplinary approaches to infertility.

An edited collection based on the presented papers is planned.

The symposium is co-convened by Gayle Davis (University of Edinburgh) and Tracey Loughran (Cardiff University). It will be held at the University of Edinburgh on 4-5 July 2013. Abstracts of 250 words, for papers of 20-30 minutes, should be sent to Tracey Loughran ( by 25th January 2013.