Public Lecture: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson on ‘Eugenic World Building and the Problem of Disability’

Transforming Human Societies Research Focus Area at La Trobe University warmly invites you to a Public Lecture on ‘Eugenic World Building and the Problem of Disability’ by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson on Thursday 9 April 2015. The lecture is supported by La Trobe Law School and the Living with Disabilities Centre.


A crucial challenge for Critical Disability Studies is developing an argument for why disabled people should be in the world, should inhabit our democratic, shared public sphere.

The ideological and material separation of a national citizenry into the worthy and unworthy based on physiological variations imagined as immutable differences is what I call eugenic world building, which strives to eliminate disability and, along with it, people with disabilities from human communities through scientific and medical technologies, such as genetic manipulation, selective abortion, and medical normalization.

In this lecture, I suggest that a eugenic understanding of disability as inherent biological inferiority leads only to addressing disability through systems of compensation and normalization and, when this fails, through systems of exclusion and elimination.

I argue, instead, that the traits and ways of being in the world we think of as disabilities must be understood as the natural variations, abilities, and limitations inherent in human embodiment. I offer a counter-eugenic argument that variant forms and functions we count as disabilities and abilities do not predict or determine, in any coherent or meaningful way, quality of life, human value, happiness, merit, achievement, virtue, contribution, or potential—in short, any of the criteria for evaluating a human life.

I conclude that the question of whether we want to be or have disabled people in the world is the wrong question. The right question is how can the disabled people in our shared world now inhabit it effectively.


Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Disability Studies Initiative at Emory University. Her fields of study are disability studies, American literature and culture, bioethics, and women’s studies. Her work develops the field of critical disability studies in the health humanities, broadly understood, to bring forward disability access, inclusion and identity to communities inside and outside of the academy. She is the author of Staring: How We Look (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (Columbia University Press, 1997); coeditor of Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum (Routledge, 2010) and Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (Modern Language Association, 2002); and editor of Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York University Press, 1996). Her current book projects include Habitable Worlds: Disability, Technology, and Eugenics, which places materialist analysis of the built environment in conversation with eugenic practices and thought, and a work on narrative bioethics.

Public Lecture

Date: Thursday 9 April 2015

Time: 5pm to 7pm

Venue: State Library of Victoria Theatrette, 328 Swanston St, Entry via La Trobe St, Melbourne

Cost: Free

RVSP: ths@latrobe.edu.au

Marc Trabsky