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Dissertation Information


Title: Telling Disability: Identity Construction in Personal and Vicarious Narratives Add Dissertation
Author: Leslie Cochrane Update Dissertation
Email: click here to access email
Degree Awarded: Georgetown University , Department of Linguistics
Completed in:
2014
Linguistic Subfield(s): Sociolinguistics
Director(s): Heidi Hamilton

Abstract: This dissertation examines the construction of disability identities in personal and vicarious narratives. Sociolinguistic research on narrative focuses largely on personal narrative (Schiffrin 1996); some studies claim that vicarious narratives lack coherence and evaluation (Labov and Waletzky 1967, Chafe 1994) and have no natural relation to the teller’s identity (Norrick 2013). Research on health communication contributes to linguistic understandings of disability (Hamilton 1994, Ramanathan 2009); however, few studies explore disability discourse as its own area (cf. Al Zidjaly 2005). Taking an approach to disability discourse that emphasizes disability as practice, I analyze identity construction in narratives told by people with and without disabilities. I argue that vicarious narratives -- which I define as narratives about someone else’s lived experience -- are productive sites for constructing personal identities.
The analysis investigates narratives from a 16-hour corpus of video-recorded conversations among three participants with lifelong, mobility-related, physical disabilities; their able-bodied family, friends, and caregivers; and the able-bodied researcher. The analysis shows tellers displaying their individual disability identities through positions (Davies and Harré 1990, Bamberg 1997) taken up in response to able-bodied characters in storyworlds. I propose that telling vicarious narratives allows tellers to expand their repertoires of storyworlds beyond their own lived experiences. I demonstrate how one particular teller with a disability uses vicarious narratives about third-person characters to construct her personal disability identity.
Following Goffman (1963), I adapt the term “the wise” to apply to people without disabilities who, through social network ties to a person with a disability, are “wise to” disability practices and have a measure of acceptance in the disability community. I argue that these close ties allow able-bodied people to display their wiseness through a transfer of epistemic rights with regard to disability discourse. I show that people with disabilities and the wise within their communities can co-construct shared disability identities. By defining certain able-bodied people as wise, this dissertation reconsiders the role of people without disabilities in the disability community. It suggests that wise identities and shared disability identities provide avenues for exploring how identity is created within close communities.