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“A Blessed Boon”: Radio, Disability, Governmentality, and the Discourse of the “Shut-In,” 1920–1930

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One of the most frequently invoked figures in U.S. policy discourse in the 1920s was the "shut-in" to whom radio technology promised greater integration in national life. Radio's ability to transcend distance was widely hailed as a "blessed boon" to those whose disability was seen to prevent their full participation in American society.

While the technology undoubtedly improved the lives of countless disabled persons, the actual listening practices of shut-ins were largely secondary to political strategies that put disability at the center of media policy. Indeed, the shut-in was second only to the noble farmer as the rhetorical figure of choice in debates over the future direction of American radio, with the discourse of disability used primarily to justify policies favoring fewer high-powered national radio stations over more lower-powered stations. At the same time, the discourse helped shape understandings of disability itself in both negative and positive ways, with radio constructed as a technology of both inclusion and exclusion.

This paper situates the discourse of the shut-in within the theoretical concerns of Foucauldian governmentality, and at the intersection of critical cultural policy studies and critical disability studies. It reveals the importance of dis/ability to the processes of refashioning communication technologies into instruments of governmentality, as well as the role of media technology in issues of compulsory able-bodiedness and the imagination of "ideal abnormal" bodies that can be subjected to management.

Keywords: Critical cultural policy studies; Critical disability studies; Governmentality; Media policy; Radio broadcasting

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2012-08-01

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