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  • Neil Lerner


In addition to being linked to questions of biology, medicine, and pathology, the concept of disability also possesses culturally constructed components. The relatively young academic discipline of Disability Studies takes such an approach to disability, understanding disability as something that cultures create, instead of viewing disability solely as a medical pathology that requires a cure. Whereas earlier understandings of disability may have been informed by the idea that it was a tragic individual fate, if not a sign of one’s cursedness as compared with the rest of so-called normal society, scholars of disability now distinguish between an impairment—a biological or medical condition—and a disability, which here can refer to the meanings that societies and cultures give to an impairment. Scholars still acknowledge the lived experience of an impairment, but they are careful to emphasize that different bodily experiences can nonetheless be equally fulfilling. In the United States, as in other parts of the world, individuals with non-normative bodies have been positioned as either objects of curiosity and scorn or as paragons of inspiration if they suggest the possibility of somehow overcoming their impaired status. Such attitudes have been deeply woven into US musical culture, as demonstrated for instance by the lyric “was blind, but now I see,” from the famous hymn “Amazing Grace,” which constructs a theological argument connecting a lack of faith with a disability. The history of music and music making in the United States reflects the influence of numerous people defined culturally as disabled, and culturally defined attitudes towards people with disabilities have affected the reception of their music....

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