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Reclaiming a Narrative

When Hannah Widdifield developed muscular dystrophy as a child, disability became an inevitable part of her experience. With the aid of a wheelchair, she found herself navigating a world that was designed by and for those without disabilities. In college, she turned to scholarship as a source of knowledge and power in relation to her condition. Majoring in English with a minor in medical humanities, she learned the power of stories and the possibility of reclaiming her own experience from society’s narratives about those whose bodies are different. In short, she discovered that she could bring together her love of literature and the other humanities with the curiosities of her disabled, often medicalized body and experience.

As a student in the UT English PhD program, Hannah became interested in the applications of disability studies to literary modernism. Her dissertation, “Crippled Aesthetics of Modernism,” looks at the principles of fragmentation and disfigurement in works such Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” Olive Moore’s novel Spleen, the cubist poetry of Gertrude Stein, and Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man from the perspective of non-normative embodiment. If modernist aesthetics typically trouble the idea of the “norm,” whether it is an artistic norm, a societal norm, a scientific norm, or a moral one, then disabilities studies expresses the same interest in getting us to think anew about what we have taken for granted as “normal.”

“The inclusion of the disabled body in aesthetic forms—or at least the advent of a disabled aesthetic—both complicates and enriches our discussions of what determines a body, an experience, or a piece of art as something valuable,” Hannah said.

In other words, disabled bodies enrich the texts and worlds they appear in rather than simply standing in for lack or disfiguration. The UT College of Arts and Sciences recognized the importance of Hannah’s research with the prestigious Thomas Dissertation Fellowship for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Hannah’s academic work also reflects the intimate connection between scholarship and activism in disability studies. She led a disability round table discussion in one of the Nexus Interdisciplinary Conferences hosted at UT, and she was an invited guest speaker at a graduate seminar on sociology and disability at Coastal Carolina University. She was also instrumental in bringing disability scholar Lennard Davis to the university to speak on his current research on the intersections of disability and poverty. Afterwards, she served with Davis and other disability advocates on campus to discuss ways of improving accessibility and establishing a program in disability studies at the University of Tennessee.

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