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Book Review: Disability and Passing, Blurring the Lines of Identity

Ah, passing. This concept exists in many fields of sociology: People of varying races who pass as white, people of varying sexual orientations who pass as straight, and now, people with varying disabilities passing as able bodied. Which is where I come in.

As young as nine I remember actively trying to “pass” as able bodied: I refused to wear shorts or skirts and started wearing socks over my braces. In my teens and twenties I dated people who never asked about my disability and I never brought it up. I would refrain from speaking up in class during conversations about disability, body identity, or illness. Despite the negative impacts certain aspects of passing have had through my life, I now have a more balanced view and find that passing also forms a part of my identity, in a way that is positive. It gives me control over how I present myself and how I share my experiences with others. For all the good and bad, I cannot imagine my life without the concept of passing.

“Disability and Passing: Blurring the Lines of Identity” was the first book I have read on this topic. The book, edited by Jeffrey Brune and Daniel Wilson, consists of eight academic essays on both physical and mental disability and passing.

While I did not agree with every single assertion each author made, I supported many of the points brought up in this book. Many of the essays made me think more deeply about things I had already dealt with in my life, but in a refreshing rather than frustrating way. The editors admit the collection is not all-inclusive and certainly an effort to scratch the surface of a very deep and complex topic.

Still, I think all eight essays are strong and have a deserved place in the collection. This is an excellent, solid introduction.

My favorite essay was the first in the collection, written by Daniel J. Wilson: “Passing in the Shadow of FDR: Polio Survivors, Passing, and the Negotiation of Disability.” The bulk of this essay addresses how Polio survivors were encouraged to pass in the areas of marriage and work, to carry on with their lives as though nothing had ever happened or the lingering physical effects did not exist. Many of these people were encouraged to be like Roosevelt, who had survived Polio to be able bodied and successful. The problem was that FDR had an abundance of resources available to facilitate passing, as well as a country willing to believe his fa├žade. Then again, many families of Polio survivors were willing to put up facades of their own: one woman recalls that her legs were always covered in family photos. In a wedding picture, the bride’s dress was spread out across her legs to hide the physical evidence of her disability. Many other attitudes and consequences regarding Polio survivors and passing is discussed in the essay.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. Though the essays are academic, I find they are reasonably reader friendly, and not bogged down with academic language that interferes with the message.

Though my foray into research about passing has only begun, I am glad this book will serve as a foundational step in the journey.


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