Skip to 0 minutes and 2 secondsMAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Introduction to Week 3.

Skip to 0 minutes and 12 secondsLOUISA SMITH: When I first started reading disability histories I was really, really shocked, not at the history itself, although that can at times be really startling and quite devastating, but more that when I started walking around public spaces and watching films and reading books, the disability histories were just rising up in what I was reading and what I was seeing in contemporary culture. And so I'm hoping that this week that will start happening for you a little bit as well.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 secondsLEANNE DOWSE: Interesting though, because for me I guess disability history has been something a bit more hidden. So I think one of the things that we might see in the material that we're going to be talking about this week is that history is really written by non-disabled people. And that a lot of history really has erased people with disabilities. One of things that happened for me when I first started to look back at some of the material around disability histories, that it reminded me of my history with disability. So what sorts of things was I thinking about when I was a child, when I was exposed to images of disability in the media or stories of disability?

Skip to 1 minute and 22 secondsAnd I really realised that history has a really important impact, not just on me, but actually we'll be able to see in this coming work how history itself plays out in the present.

Skip to 1 minute and 34 secondsLOUISA SMITH: So I think keeping that in mind about this idea that these disability histories are often hidden and invisible, it's been a real movement in disability studies to recover some of these histories and find them in materials that are there and find them in stories that people record, and reinvent them.

Skip to 1 minute and 56 secondsLEANNE DOWSE: And we're going to use three particular areas or issues to help us kind of think through that invisibility and visibility.

Skip to 2 minutes and 5 secondsLOUISA SMITH: Yeah, and those three are a brief history of the freak show, and the history of eugenics and the traces of that in today's society, and finally the history of disability and accessibility and the kind of movement, in the Global North anyway, around the politics and legislation.

Skip to 2 minutes and 27 secondsLEANNE DOWSE: And what we'll really be asking you to do is think about how the traces of scientific, cultural, religious, social, a whole range of different things emerge in disability history and also play themselves out today.

Welcome to Week 3

In the video above, Louisa and Leanne give an introduction to Week 3 and describe the importance of understanding disability histories.

During this third week we will investigate how ideas about disability have altered through time, and continue exploring how the concept of disability is not a neutral or obvious category, but a changing and ambiguous one.

Because the recording of history has been dominated by non-disabled people it often excludes disabled people’s perspectives. But this week we will also look how people with disabilities have challenged dominant societal attitudes or written alternative histories. This will help you to understand how both disability as an idea, and the actual and diverse experiences of people with disabilities, have been shaped by the social, political, religious, scientific and cultural tenor of particular times and places.

This week begins with a mini lecture by Leanne which gives a general sweep of disability history, from a Western perspective. We then explore three different historical “moments”, described below. These moments cover a wide range of disabled experiences through time and place and open up some important questions about how we think about disability.

Moment 1: The freak show

In the past, people with disabilities have often been seen as “freaks” or “monsters” — outsiders to be excluded from mainstream society, but also to be wondered at as a kind of spectacle. What is the disability history of the freak show? And what are the different perspectives people with disabilities have taken on this aspect of history, both positive and negative?

Moment 2: Eugenics

In early 20th-century Western society, the eugenics movement aimed to develop a “science” of improving the population by controlled breeding, so as to increase the occurrence of “desirable” heritable characteristics. People with disabilities were one of the categories seen as “degenerate” and in need of systematic destruction. In her video, artist Liz Crow dramatises one moment, the murder of people with disabilities in Nazi Germany, to remind us of the human consequences.

More recently, debates around the possibility of “designer” babies have also been concerned with whether societies should try and reduce the numbers of people with disabilities being born. What are the ethical implications for everyone of these changing uses of medical technologies?

Moment 3: Exclusion and access

Disability activists across the world were involved in many campaigns in the 1960s and 70s. In the UK this centred on developing a social model of disability. Taking this new social perspective on disability, people with disabilities began challenging the different ways in which societies create disabling barriers. This involved looking at underlying attitudes, and at how people with disabilities were being excluded from employment, isolated in institutions, and restricted by an inaccessible built environment.

More recently, with the development of online technologies, exclusion and accessibility have again become a major issue.

As Leanne and Louisa mentioned in the introductory video, there are images of disability history that haunt contemporary culture. Use this opportunity to think through your ideas about how disability has been represented or thought about in the past and share them with your fellow learners.

Talking points

  • What cultural representations of disability can you think of which represent views from a particular place and time in history?

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This video is from the free online course:

Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

UNSW Sydney

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