Put more poetically, disabilities are the etchings left on flesh as it encounters the world. — Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Case for Conserving Disability”
And I am a good Subject of Speculation; for all in me is Nature…— William Hay, Deformity: An Essay
This essay is about an obsession, one that is now almost a decade old.
I remember walking through West Hollywood for the first time in 2008 when I began my undergraduate studies at UCLA. For queer folks, especially queers of color, you realize quite quickly when your body stands out. When your body isn’t the one that will be on the ad plastered on the bus stop or the one featured on the poster for that supposedly “inclusive” club event. This realization is cruelest when learned through the body: when it is misread, when it is mistreated, when it is mistaken, when it is invisible.
After losing my friends in the crowd one Friday, I found myself outside on the patio of a nightclub. Because it was so often crowded with the overheated and the chain-smokers, I rarely spent any time there. On my own for the first time in that space, I struck up conversation with a man who had parked his wheelchair by the side rail against where I had propped myself to ease my aching back. You rarely ever saw disabled folks in the clubs, at least not ones with visible disabilities. As he said to me that night, “I’m always the body out of place. I’m used to just finding my spot and watching everyone go around me like I’m just one big crippled obstacle getting in their way of a good time.” I remember how devastating this was to hear both because it was a rare moment of sincerity in what so often feels like a performative space, one where we go to desire and be desired, but also because I had barely known him for fifteen minutes before he shared this. This moment was transformative because my aching body (which was starting to ache in ways I did not fully understand) found unexpected kinship before I even understood what it meant to be disabled or to even see myself as disabled. “Coming out as crip is way harder than coming out as gay,” he said, before wheeling away. I only later came to understand the gravity of what he had said.
Disability consciousness came the latest for me, for it was the facet of my identity that I had most taken for granted because of the way bodies so often recede into the background when they comply with our and the world’s demands. By the time I was twenty, my body was no longer complying. In fact, it was refusing those demands. My spine is curved significantly in two places, which has led to years of chronic pain and brain fog. Merri Lisa Johnson has described scoliosis-related disability as “episodic, not linear, a matter of intensities, sensations, and situations, not illness and cure.” Growing up in an immigrant family meant disavowing these episodes by framing them as anomalous, as mere bumps on the ambitious road to success because overcoming is supposedly in our blood. That disavowal would have consequences not only for my experience of pain but also for my sense of self when I started to be unable to overcome, when I realized I could no longer pass in the ableist eyes of even my brothers and sisters in the queer community. At the time, I craved not only intimacy but recognition—that my body was desirable, valuable.
The devaluation of disability, or what Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell have described as disability’s becoming “the master trope of human disqualification,” has led to the widespread stigmatization of disabled people and an internalization of ableist phobias and fantasies that reduce disability to lack, error, or incompleteness. Disability activism has in turn worked to reclaim disability as a marginalized identity worthy of rights and protections by forwarding the social model of disability, which understands disability not as inherent in the bodies of individuals but as a product of social conditions and environments. The social model puts the onus of responsibility back on able-bodied people to make society more accessible to everyone: a person in a wheelchair, for instance, is only disabled by a building without ramps or without working elevators. Such efforts to revalue disability have led to legal victories like the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) but also new disability communities and movements for disability pride.
More recently, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson made a powerful case in favor of what she terms “disability conservation,” or a revaluing of disability as an identity and embodiment worthy of life in its fullness. For Garland-Thomson, the disqualification of disability continues to underpin eugenic practices like prenatal testing and genetic enhancement that aim to “eliminate disability, and, by extension disabled people from the world” but are framed as common-sense benefits to social order and public health. This curative imaginary that sees a world purged of disability is hardly utopic; rather, it is genocidal, as in the case of Nazi Germany’s Aktion T4 euthanasia program. To resist this troubling creep toward an ever-more ableist future, Garland-Thomson proffers a “because-of-rather-than-in-spite-of” counter-eugenic approach that radically reframes disability explicitly as a resource—narrative, epistemic, and ethical—to be valued and conserved. Her bioethical project thus recenters disability as “an essential characteristic of being human”— a strategic universalizing that refuses the eugenic impulses of Western modernity by demonstrating all that disability has to offer society.
While many of the case studies Garland-Thomson examines in her essay are more contemporary, my instinct as a scholar of the eighteenth century is to look backward for these examples of disability as a resource. As disability historians like David Turner have suggested, our assumption that historical understandings of disability were necessarily “disqualifying” undermines our ability to imagine disability as anything other than suffering or pathology. Such flattening unfairly reduces the past to this monolith of oppression and ignores accounts and representations of disability that might deviate or even challenge this model. What about forms of disability pride, flourishing and joy that pre-date when we might think of disability as a politicized identity category? Disability scholarship in older historical periods has a responsibility to these disabled lives that may escape our presentist attention precisely because they fail to conform to our expectations of what disability looks and feels like in the archive.
This brings me to William Hay. I first encountered him in the process of conducting research for my thesis on spectacular and monstrous bodies in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gothic novel. At the time, I had just begun learning about disability theory, which was still coming into focus as a field during my time in undergrad. Disability studies provided a provocative set of frameworks and vocabularies for addressing the larger questions I had about the manifold ways in which cultural meaning became attached to bodily difference. Prior to encountering Alexander Pope and William Hay, I had no precedents or models for understanding myself as a person with scoliosis-related disability, let alone someone trying to make sense of that experience through writing. My encounter with Hay involved jettisoning all of my own ableist assumptions about what I thought disability felt and looked like in history. Hay’s unabashed, articulate defense of disability as a resource that enabled him to succeed in public life in spite of scrutiny and stigma seems almost anachronistic given how disability studies tends to see such qualities in disabled life-writing and literature from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries when disability became a legible identity category. In its insistence upon disability’s inherent value, Hay’s “apology” of disability, Deformity: An Essay (1754), offers a moving historical precedent for the kind of disability conservation that Garland-Thomson espouses.
Born in 1695 in Sussex, William Hay became orphaned by the age of five, which left him at the mercy of guardians who “endeavoured to conceal his” his deformity after having “tried every Art to correct the Errors of Nature.” Self-described as a hunchback, Hay later contracted a bout of smallpox between 1715-1718 leaving his vision significantly impaired. This, however, did not stop Hay from embarking on grand tours of England and Scotland and later serving as a member of the House of Commons. Among his many published poems, pamphlets, and essays moral and personal like Remarks on the Laws Relating to the Poor, he is best-known for Deformity: An Essay, which was later reprinted in three separate editions including a separate Dublin edition. Arguably the first piece of English literature to understand and articulate physical disability in terms of personal identity, Hay’s essay is remarkable for its frankness and willingness to inhabit disability for the purposes of philosophical speculation. As a hybrid work of memoir, essay, philosophical treatise, and cultural critique, Deformity both documents the lived experience of navigating the London metropole as a disabled man and powerfully resists the prevailing cultural assumption that the external self reflects the internal self—a conflation best exemplified by Shakespeare’s Machiavellian Richard III represented on the stage with a hump, limp, and an immobilized arm. Hay, throughout his Essay, insteadinsists on the social virtues of the marked, deformed body against the reduction of disability to inferiority, incapability, or incapacity.
Hay rewrites disability as a series of advantages for “deformed Persons” that might benefit English culture at large if properly validated and included. Hay’s viewpoint is consistent with Garland-Thomson’s recuperative model of disability conservation, in which disability is not a liability but an asset for social good. As Kathleen James-Cavan suggests in the introduction of her excellent teaching edition of Hay’s Essay, Hay “exploits deformity as an ‘interruptive force that confronts cultural truisms,’ but moves beyond critique to offer the deformed body as a restorative to the body politic.” The Essay reads like an intimate revelation of such unseen advantages, an attempt (in the very etymological sense of “essay” meaning “to try”) to “remove the Veil from my mental as well as personal Imperfections; and expose them naked to the World.” This language of exposure both establishes an unexpected intimacy with the reader and imagines a community of disabled people who may benefit from Hay’s confessional. Hay gives his readers access to the inner life of disability, a selfhood often understood in this period to be devoid of interiority or incapable of nuanced feeling.
Hay describes the method of his Essay as an extended act of having “anatomized my self”—a a paring away of pretense and euphemism in “hope[s] my Heart will be found sound and untainted, and my Intentions honest and sincere.” Drawing on a long philosophical and literary tradition of the essay form, Hay crips the objectifying and violent act of medical “anatomizing” by re-appropriating it in his Essay as a strategy for producing disabled self-knowledge. The Essay is powerfully pedagogical in how it frames disability as capable of knowledge-making and as a lived experience that is itself valuable knowledge otherwise inaccessible to able-bodied people. Disability scholar Lennard Davis has criticized Hay’s essay for “reiterating (although humanizing and questioning to a degree) stereotypes about people with disabilities.” But I think Davis too easily writes off Hay’s strategy as a thinly-veiled self-fetishizing of his alterity designed to appeal to an enlightened middle-class culture. Hay’s active participation in elite circles depended on his ability to perform erudition and fluency as an amateur man of letters—hardly obsequiousness but rather an adaptive resourcefulness that is self-conscious about disability’s shifting registers. To be disabled, then, is to have a unique privilege of knowing born out of having to learn how to survive in a world not made for disabled people.
What happens when the disabled body writes back? While Hay’s Essay is a tissue of citations from over thirty diverse sources from Juvenal to Montaigne, it most directly responds to Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay, “Of Deformity,” which declared that the lived experience of the deformed body necessarily and irredeemably deforms the character of that individual. Bacon imagines the deformed person as a wounded figure of pathetic self-loathing that has “a perpetuall Spurre in himself, to rescue and deliver himselfe from Scorne.” While Bacon writes with a cold, scientific distance, Hay writes candidly from the subject position of disability, be it about the appalling “Ugly Club,” a voluntary fraternal organization whose activities revolved around coffee house culture and the collective satirizing of deformity, or the claustrophobia of being among the crowds of people taller than him in London. Like the theater manager and actor, Samuel Foote, Hay demonstrates a powerful self-awareness of the popular tropes of ridicule that widely circulated in public discourse regarding the poor and disabled. Because of his degrading experiences of public mockery and shame, Hay credits his experiences living with deformity with producing an upright, superior mind, and fineness of sensibility. Disability is an advantage, Hay insists, because it stimulates individual responsibility toward self-improvement and an enlightened pursuit of physical and moral health, while also serving as a bulwark against the many vices of modern society: “Deformity is a Protection to a Man’s Health and Person.” Eschewing the excesses of food and drink out of bodily necessity and excluded from violent social customs like dueling, the deformed man learns to become a paragon of temperance, civility, and pacifism. Such counterintuitive truisms that reclaim deformity and disability precisely by naturalizing them abound in Hay’s Essay, for “all in me is Nature,” he proclaims. Disability is not Nature’s exception, accident, or error—it is Nature. The true deformity is in the ableist conceptions of and social aspirations toward beauty and health that condemn disability as unnatural.
Hay died just a year later after the completion of his Essay, and its conclusion remains one of the work’s most unsettling aspects. Ending with a curious personal case history simply entitled “My CASE” followed by a “Postscript,” Hay appears to contradict the disability conservation project of his Essay by detailing his struggle with bladder stones that ultimately ends in a curt rejection of his “contemptible Carcass.” This sudden admission of ill health and the extended testimonial for a “Regimen” of Joanna Stephen’s “Medicine in the solid form, three Ounces a Day, for about five Years” both suggest an uncomfortable backpeddling of his claims to disability’s unique boldness of spirit and body. The ailing, impaired body featured in this inset case history departs greatly from the disabled one so assertive in the preceding paragraphs. Kathleen James-Cavan reads Hay’s decision to have his body bequeathed to science not as contradiction or resignation but rather as memorial, “proof of the consequence of bodily difference”: if all bodies are subject to rot because all “lying Marble will decay,” the bladder extracted from his autopsy becomes an eternal monument to be “preserved among Sir Hans Sloane’s Collections.”
This conclusion has never sat well with me. In fact, it is this contradiction that so fascinates me about Hay not only as a disabled figure in history but also as a persona that wrote his disabled consciousness into being. Why is there such critical discomfort with Hay’s extremely human ambivalence about his own disabled identity just before his death? James-Cavan’s reading of the bladder donation as Hay’s self-immortalizing feels just a bit too much like buying into that pathetic sentimentalism and “inspiration porn” that Hay so vehemently rejects throughout the Essay. Lennard Davis points to this moment as proof of the essay’s eventual reinscription of disability within pathological terms as if Hay came to the realization that his only valuable contribution would be his body for science. Both seem to miss what Hay offers. While we might say that Hay’s generosity in donating his bladder to science allows his disabled body to circulate and contribute to the production of medical knowledge, I see Hay instead underscoring the very ethical problem of bodies in medicine—specifically disabled bodies—being the very raw material from which medical knowledge is produced. Given the vast number of corpses stolen and dissected—many of which were the unnamed and unclaimed bodies of the poor, criminal, or the disabled—I wonder if we might reinterpret Hay’s final act as an exposure of what a failure of disability conservation means for a culture. In my reading, Hay’s Essay concludes with a final turn toward disability as an ethical resource.
I do not want to suggest that Hay thought of his postmortem self in the same bioethical terms we might today, but I think there is something to be said about this bleak projection into his legacy as a medical specimen valuable only for its pathological qualities. Hay observes a cultural moment in which conservation has not yet happened, especially the kinds of conservation that Garland-Thomson wants us to take more seriously. His prognosis of the future is bleak: the inability of English culture to ethically “conserve” its living disabled can only lead to those same bodies’ unethical objectification by the hands of the law and by science on the operating table or in the displays of curio cabinets. Disabled objects, never subjects. Hay speculates on what a world looks like without people like him and me—those of us with tender organs, crooked spines. What we risk losing are the crip knowledges forged out of the struggles of living in spite of an ableist world, the crip ways of being that have the capacity to imagine and realize new accessible futures for the full breadth of bodyminds that co-exist. I continue to think about and teach Hay for his powerful insistence on the undeniable value of disabled life: that in living, we as disabled people matter.
Travis Chi Wing Lau received his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania and is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, the history of medicine, medical humanities, and disability studies. He currently serves as an editor for The Deaf Poets Society and regularly reviews poetry. For a portfolio of his academic and creative publications, please visit travisclau.com.