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Learning from history

In this video, Leanne Dowse provides a broad overview of the history of disability, from classical to contemporary times.
MAN: FutureLearn [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia.
Learning From Disability History. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this video contains historic images of Indigenous people who are now deceased.
LEANNE: It’s usually the powerful who have the privilege of recording and interpreting history. This means that history is often partial, biassed, incomplete. Disability history is no exception. It’s important to look at disability history because the themes we see in history are still visible today. Understanding these themes help us to see how we come to understand disability in the way that we do. By looking back, we can see the part that people with disabilities themselves have played in human history, as well as the great contributions of disabled scientists, artists, and thinkers.
We can also see the ways that ordinary people with disabilities have celebrated their disability identities and fought against the disabling social conditions that have shaped their choices and their lives. I’m not going to talk here about how disability has been identified and classified in medicine and science. But we will see the way impairment and its disabling consequences are always shaped by the moral, scientific, social, and cultural context of the times. Let’s take a brief look now at some of the ways that disability has figured through some of the key periods in human history.
And before we do, like all good historians, let’s acknowledge that this reflects a Western take on history and does not in any substantial way include accounts emerging from the global South. In the writings of Plato and Aristotle, human defect was equated with a subhuman species or with the lower social classes. Emerging in parallel was the notion that disability was the consequence of the evils of mankind, and folklore commonly associated it with animality. In Europe in the Middle Ages, the birth of a disabled baby was regarded as evidence that the mother was a witch, or the presence of a mental illness equated with possession by the devil.
Descriptions of the appearance and behaviour of disabled people from the 16th century onwards connects physical and cognitive difference. Here we see people of short stature as court jester, or people with intellectual disability as fools for the amusement of others. This, of course, foreshadows the later emergence of the freak show, where disability and racial and gender differences became spectacles of the exotic.
MAN: Christianity, Protection and Pseudo-science.
LEANNE: Christianity saw protection as a new response to people with disability– care of the unfortunate. During the 17th century, the idea that disability was supernatural gave way to the search for a cure. Here, practises like palmistry and phrenology, in which abilities could be inferred from the contours of the head, showed impairments were now seen as treatable, sometimes by horrendous practises like bloodletting.
MAN: The Industrial Revolution.
LEANNE: In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution brought massive social changes to Europe. Those living in farmlands moved to urban areas to work in factories. This had a profound impact on the social construction of disability, with wages for labour now driving a market economy. Those who, due to their incapacity, were unable to exchange their labour for payment were excluded from the new economy. This socioeconomic or materialist analysis has been very influential in how we understand the construction of disability today. Its other contribution, of course, is to raise the issue of the connection between the industrialisation and the creation of disability, where exposure to unsafe working environments became a leading cause of disability in the newly minted industrialised workforce.
MAN: Science, Medicalisation, and Institutions.
LEANNE: The Industrial Revolution gave rise to a new set of social problems associated with disability– how and where to house those deemed incapable of productive labour. During the 19th century, this “social problem” was addressed by both science and the building of institutions. The physical solutions were workhouses, hospitals, asylums and special schools, segregating those labelled by the new science as idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded, or the insane. This also gave rise to new professions concerned with the troubles and disorders of conduct, learning, emotion, and thought. Here we see the beginnings of the disability industry as we know it today.
MAN: Classification and Eugenics.
LEANNE: With the rise of the medical professions, the late 19th century saw a growing emphasis on testing and classifying. During this period, interest also grew in developmental causes and hereditary influences and how these might be categorised and classified, and ultimately, contained and controlled. The notion that people with disability represented a degeneration of the purity of the human race merged with growing calls for their control, particularly, control over their reproduction. We saw this in the emergence of the eugenics movement. In many parts of the world, this resulted in the systematic sterilisation of women with disabilities and in its most extreme form, culminated in the Nazi regime’s mass killing of disabled people.
MAN: Colonisation and Globalisation.
LEANNE: One of the less talked-about forces in the history of disability relates to the process of colonisation and its impact in obscuring both the experiences of and the production of disability in the Global South. Disability scholars in recent times have pointed out that Western-centric accounts of disability and impairment very much fall short in explaining the lived experiences of indigenous peoples. Similarly, the mass disabling impact of colonial invasion, armed conflict, forced removal of children, environmental degradation, and the systematic stripping of land and culture from indigenous peoples associated with colonisation has been identified as central to their experiences of disability.
One of the key challenges in understanding the history of disability is in capturing these issues and bringing them to the centre of the ways we think about disability now and into the future. Broadening this understanding is not only about recognising the diverse histories of disability, but is also critical to our understanding and addressing their legacies and the way these play out today. Global markets for goods and services have seen the emergence of new kinds of disabling practises in the Global South. For example, exploitation of cheap labour in the garment and footwear production industries, or of electronic and digital goods and services, sees millions of low-paid workers with little workplace protections.
This means rising levels of disability emerging in the Global South as a result of the production of goods and services for consumption in the Global North.
MAN: The Rise of the Disability Rights Movement.
LEANNE: While the recounting of the history of disability uncovers much exploitation and injustice, we also must acknowledge that people with disabilities themselves have played a crucial role in campaigning for recognition of their social, political, and human rights throughout history. Here we see numerous examples, particularly since the mid-20th century, of political organising and activism, where people with disabilities have spoken back to the dominant narratives, reclaimed their own stories, celebrated their disability identities, and fought against the disabling social conditions that have constrained their choices and their lives.

This week you will explore three case studies in the history of disability.

But before you do, we want to put these case studies into a wider historical context. After all, concepts of disability do not just come out of “nowhere” — they are shaped by the social, political, religious, scientific and cultural context of particular times and places.

How, then, can we examine this bigger picture?

In the above video, Leanne Dowse, Associate Professor and Chair in Intellectual Disability and Behaviour Support at the University of New South Wales — and one of our Lead Educators — briefly outlines the historical trajectory of disability in the West, from classical to contemporary times. She describes the long movement from the growth and recognition of disability culture, to civil rights and disability activism, to contemporary ideas about inclusion and human rights. Leanne also explains how in recent times, the shift from agrarian to industrialised economies in the developed world has been “relocating” people with disabilities both conceptually and physically.

As you watch this video take notes of key themes.

Talking points

  • Which of these historical movements are already familiar to you?
  • Does anything about this history of disability shock or surprise you?
  • How do you think understanding disability histories might help us to better understand how disability is understood today?
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