Disability and Geographies of ‘Nerves’ in the Rural United States

Authors: Ryan Lee Cartwright*, UC Davis
Topics: Disabilities, Cultural Geography, Social Theory
Keywords: disability, social justice, masculinity, rural US, appalachia, health, illness
Session Type: Interactive Short Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 3:20 PM / 5:00 PM
Room: Studio 10, Marriott, 2nd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In the 1998 documentary Brother’s Keeper, a wiry, elderly white farmer named Lyman Ward tells filmmakers that he was “probably born to be nervous,” adding, “I ain’t the only one that’s nervous,” because all of his neighbors in his upstate New York community share his affliction. As Lyman explains this localized experience of mental disability to the visiting filmmakers, he also tries to back away from them, hiding in a maze of tractors before squeezing himself through a broken barn door. “Nerves,” as Ward explains and embodies, is a common vernacular experience of mental and physical ailments in rural communities across the United States (perhaps most commonly associated with Appalachia). Yet despite Ward’s assessment of the relative normalcy of “nerves” in his social environment—an assessment that might seem commensurate with the social model of disability—geographically and economically disenfranchised people like Ward are rarely seen as proper subjects of disability studies. Based on from oral histories, community newsletters, and archival documents, I analyze rural U.S. geographies of “nerves” at three different scales: interpersonal interactions in official spaces, such as hospitals or welfare offices; home and neighborhood life in isolated rural areas, such as remote hollows; and gendered and racialized labor exploitation in mining and farm labor. I contend that by examining how space and scale shape experiences of disability injustice in the rural U.S., we might be able to better imagine more spatially just and inclusive approaches to disability that reckon with local, vernacular understandings of mental and physical difference.

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