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The Definition of Disability in Clare’s “Freaks and Queers” Term Paper

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Updated: Apr 26th, 2021

Summary and critical reflection

In the work “Freaks and Queers,” Clare (2009) sets a personal inquiry into the definition of disability or, rather, the definitions that come together with various “terms,” which the modern world uses to denote people like him (and also those who are different). This amendment is important for the paper since one of its key ideas consists in the fact that disability remains a personal experience, and the definitions provided by different people would vary.

The author states that his work aims to explore the things that he cannot understand about his personal “relationship” with disability-related words. These words, in the view of the author, can be used as a disguise or as weapons, and the queer and disabled are capable of taking them from the abusers and use them to build their pride, which in turn enables them to fight against self-hatred and for their rights, place, visibility, and acceptance.

To carry out the inquiry Clare discusses the various terms that have been used to denote disability. He does not just provide the definitions for the words like handicapped, cripple, gimp, but describes them with the help of vivid imagery, interprets, and reconsiders their meanings and connotations. He discovers that “terms” vary in their nature and use, some of them can be called derogatory language (that keeps being used by many), others are “wistful lies” (that are the diplomatic versions of derogatory words), and several have been reclaimed from abusers as empowering words. For Clare, the latter include “queer” and “cripple.”

Indeed, Clare primarily focuses on the meaning that the words have for him, the role they have played in his life, and proceeds to play in his speech. He finds that he “pauses” at the word “freak,” admitting that it puzzles him, and he cannot detect anything empowering in it. To define this word, he studies the history of freak shows.

Clare dwells on freak shows as the means of both exploiting and solidifying the social construct of “normality” (rather, the idea of superiority) and “abnormality” (especially ableism and racism) while also removing the differences between the different types of “queerness” that were portrayed in the shows. Clare states that nature did not construct the idea of freakiness; rather, the freak show did it by highlighting and exaggerating the differences between the audience and the freaks.

Clare also emphasizes the fact that freak shows were not educational; they were aimed at getting money, and to this end, provided any number of fictional details about their “exhibits.” At the same time, the “educational” or scientific discrimination also took place at the time, and it provided the ground for racism and ableism (the medical model of disability) and was even capable of supporting a political course (in particular, the colonization and subjugation of “inferior” races).

Answering his question of the issue that he has with the word “freak,” Clare points out that the freak show proceeds to exist in an unpaid form in medical settings, media that “milk” tragic stories for profit, and everyday life when “nondisabled people stare, trying to be covert, smacking their children to teach them how to pretend not to stare” (p. 88). He points out the fact that disabled people are now deprived of control over the gawking at their disability. Ironically, he points out, freaks at the freak show had more rights in defining their disability than the people with disabilities who are being appraised by the medical model do.

The freaks could flaunt freakiness and be proud of it; they defined their identity. However, at the same time, Clare admits that the disabled begin to fight for their rights; that new organizations work to empower them and provide them with the opportunities for being heard and seen rather than gawked at, for ensuring the protection of their human rights.

Clare outwardly refuses to accept the medical model of disability. When defining the word “disabled,” he emphasizes the fact that it is used in the passive voice, for example, by choosing to write that the “broad stairs curving into a public building disable the man in a wheelchair” (p. 67). Clare opposes ableist ideas and writes: “I use the word disabled as an adjective to name what this ableist world does to us crips and gimps” (p. 69).

At the same time, the person who had first-handily experienced all the limitations of the not completely able body is not going to support the ideas of the social model perspective. He mentions the difficulties of being “a first” among the mainstreamed children who won the battle for entering regular first grade (p. 91). He emphasizes the fact that his particular needs were not met since the people who surrounded him had not known how to do it, which resulted in him becoming an outcast.

Apart from that, Clare is “different” in more aspects than one: he explicitly states that apart from the disability, he is homosexual. Similarly, cerebral palsy is not the only disability he discusses. Moreover, the author links his experiences to those of people who suffer from racism. In other words, Clare links the various social justice struggles, pointing out that they are all artificial, but still tend to prevent the world from becoming an “ideal” one “where disabled people were not locked up at home or in nursing homes, relegated to sheltered employment and paid sweatshop wages” (p. 69).

In his work, Clare uses personal experience and emotional appeal provides numerous examples to support his claims, refers to other researchers, especially historians. He clearly states that he does not expect to be able to find sufficient information on the freak show and admits that he is going to use assumptions and imagination. Also, he outwardly expresses his opinion and emotions concerning the topics he discusses. The way the author chooses arguments could be regarded as a limitation.

Indeed, the essay consists of a bulk of case studies, it is deeply personal and explicitly opinionated, and the assumptions of the author come together with facts that have been provided by other researchers. At the same time, it is noteworthy that the aim and the thesis as well as some of the ideas of the author balance out these limitations. All the assumptions and opinions in the article are defined as such. For example, when describing the stories of the freaks from freak shows, Clare “asks” them questions or clearly says that he “imagines” them doing something or being forced into doing something (p. 79-82).

The aim of the paper that is stated in the beginning is, in effect, self-exploratory, which explains the personal nature of the work. Moreover, Clare does admit that his life experience is likely to be different from that of others (p.94). At the same time, this experience of Clare does provide an insight into the life of the disabled, and so do all the case studies he brings along. Besides, the case studies are not selected to demonstrate only one part of freakdom; rather, they are gathered in an attempt to show a more or less comprehensive picture of it. To sum up, the limitations of the author’s research are defined by the type of paper that he presents; they do not deprive the work of its argumentative ability.

My home discipline and “the problem of disability” definition

My discipline is the child and youth work, and I would argue that nowadays we are exceedingly adopting a form of disability justice approach. I will advocate for my point by studying the documents that are disseminated by global organizations: WHO and UNICEF. The specific definitions of disability that my discipline employs may vary; in fact, the WHO (2007) Children and Youth Version of International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health state that disability is an “umbrella term,” which is why it is bound to attempt to embrace numerous and not always likened phenomena (p. 3).

It is noteworthy that nowadays despite being a medical organization, WHO (2007) pays particular attention to environmental factors (pp. 2, 7, 18) and defines disability as “impairments, activity limitations or participation restrictions” (p. 3). It is naturally expected to determine, classify, and label disability to ensure access to necessary resources, but WHO (2007) explicitly states that its activities are aimed at blending the medical and social approach.

I would conclude that such dual nature of the approach indicates the movement away from both of them, a transitional state. Similarly, when dwelling on children and young people with disabilities, UNICEF (2013) points out various aspects of disability, including medical (pp. 12-13), social (pp. 10-11), environmental (pp. 4, 6, 9, 13-14), legal (p. 6), and social justice-related (pp. 4, 8-11) ones, including the issue of the overlapping social injustice factors such as poverty and disability (p. 18) and gender or disability in sexist environments (p. 19).

I would conclude that nowadays my discipline attempts to grasp a similarly comprehensive approach that, if one of the three models discovered during this course is to be chosen, is most similar to the disability justice framework. However, we are still in a transitional state. As a result, I would not be surprised to view different approaches in local institutions; apart from that, the attitude to disability tends to vary from one country to another.

Indeed, even the law that has been becoming increasingly inclusive in the past years is not always implemented appropriately; the implementation of a view that challenges the long-existent models of disability is bound to take some time to succeed (Maucec, 2013). Such a transitional situation is very similar to the one that Clare describes at the end of his work. He states that the emergence of disability studies, the development of human rights organizations, and the rise in the self-awareness of disabled people are beginning to change the then-dominant view on disability. Nowadays, we proceed with this agenda and pursue the vision of an inclusive society, which is still not achieved yet.

For example, the solutions that my discipline suggests for the disability are also comprehensive and holistic, which means that we attempt to take into consideration the body, environmental, and personal factors that are of importance for the empowerment of disabled persons. This approach is also promoted by the WHO (2007), which proves the fact that the organization works towards a comprehensive model of disability. The key problem with the holistic approach is the fact that the model is the ideal one for children and youth work, and this ideal is not being promoted too vigorously.

The personal aspect of disability receives increasingly suitable treatment nowadays, but the social aspect cannot be limited to the work of social workers and hospitals. Clare wrote about it when confronting the moralizing approach: it is apparent that society plays a crucial part in the social injustice that the persons with disabilities are subjected to. As a result, for the time being, we have to battle with the issues that are created by society and its definition of disability, which does not only presuppose the non-inclusive environment.

As Clare pointed out, society had not known back then what to do with him on every level: his family and his teachers did not know how to attend to his needs while his peer did not want to know how to include him in their society. A crucial example, in my opinion, is the case in which the intellectual development of the child who was not yet able to talk and who had cerebral palsy was judged with the help of an IQ test that depended on fine motor coordination. Nowadays, society knows a bit more, in particular where teachers are concerned, and parents can receive help and instruction from social workers and supposedly doctors (provided that they are not advocates of the medical model).

Admittedly, though, the new knowledge has the chance of never being implemented. Apart from that, the peer pressure nowadays is quite similar to the problems that Clare had experienced. In other words, nowadays, children and youth with disabilities have all the chances of developing the self-hatred that Clare speaks about, and our role to empower them is complicated by this fact. Apart from that, as Clare points out, it is the job of the persons with disabilities to define themselves, their body, and their understanding of disability.

I cannot claim that every child and youth worker agrees with this approach, but I would say that it is a very attractive and empowering idea. We cannot find the solution to a disability, but we can enable the children and youth with disabilities to find the answer to their questions about identity, disability, ableist society tendencies, and other aspects that influence their lives.

As Clare writes, the modern world is still in a state of transition, and so is our discipline. The impact of such a transitional approach is multifold. Primarily, though, it means that even nowadays the people with disabilities cannot be certain that they are going to receive the response that they want and deserve and that all of their needs will be taken into account. However, as we work towards increased inclusion and empowerment, we may hope that in the future, the situation is going to change for the best.

Nowadays, the story of Clare’s IQ measurement appears grotesque, and this fact does indicate a movement forward. The global problem is that this case study will not appear strange in every country, but the change of the definition of disability is on the agenda of global organizations (UNICEF, 2013). The modern view of disability does not only empower the disabled persons, but it also empowers social workers, doctors, parents, and once again disabled people to build an inclusive society. Clare’s work, in this respect, provides my discipline with the opportunity of challenging the outdated and dangerous ideas and providing an insight into the lives of people that we may otherwise misunderstand.


Clare, E. (2009). Freaks and queers. In Exile and Pride: disability, queerness and liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Maucec, G. (2013). Tackling disability-based discrimination in international and European law. International Journal of Discrimination and the Law, 13(1), 34-49. Web.

UNICEF. (2013). Children and young people with disabilities fact sheet. Web.

WHO. (2007). . Web.

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1. IvyPanda. "The Definition of Disability in Clare's “Freaks and Queers”." April 26, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-definition-of-disability-in-clares-freaks-and-queers/.


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IvyPanda. (2021) 'The Definition of Disability in Clare's “Freaks and Queers”'. 26 April.

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