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Tragic Affirmation: Disability Beyond Optimism and Pessimism


Tragedy is a founding theme in disability studies. Critical disability studies have, since their inception, argued that understandings of disability as tragedy obscure the political dimensions of disability and are a barrier facing disabled persons in society. In this paper, we propose an affirmative understanding of tragedy, employing the philosophical works of Nietzsche, Spinoza and Hasana Sharp. Tragedy is not, we argue, something to be opposed by disability politics; we can affirm life within it. To make our case, we look to an ongoing ethnography of two Canadian children’s rehabilitation clinics. Looking to the clinical experience of Canadian boys and young men diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and those of their families, we show how this affirmative understanding of tragedy allows us to pursue the themes of disability politics within tragedy. Contrary to an optimism that would eschew tragedy at all costs or a pessimistic approach that declines to act in the face of tragic circumstance, we argue that a revised understanding of tragedy allows us to situate the occasionally-tragic clinical experience of disability in a philosophy of life. Both disability and tragedy point us to the shared entanglements that make life what it is.

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Thomas Abrams would like to thank Barbara E. Gibson, Patricia Thille, Jenny Setchell, Bhavnita Mistry, Donya Mosleh, and Laura McAdam for conceptual and empirical contributions to this ongoing project.

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Correspondence to Thomas Abrams.

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Abrams, T., Adkins, B. Tragic Affirmation: Disability Beyond Optimism and Pessimism. J Med Humanit (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10912-020-09612-y

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  • Disability
  • Tragedy
  • Nietzsche
  • Spinoza
  • Rehabilitation
  • Muscular dystrophy