Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Stories from history

In this video, Tom Shakespeare and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describe why it is important to recover stories of disabled people from history.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Stories from history.
TOM SHAKESPEARE: I think one of the things that disability research can do is to recover stories, stories of disabled people living and thriving and facing barriers here and now, but also stories of disabled people from history. Why would we do that? Well, partly because it shows the contributions disabled people have made. Some of these disabled people are actually very famous, we just don’t think of themselves as disabled. People like Winston Churchill or Lord Nelson or Emily Dickinson the poet, or Virginia Woolf the novelist, or whomever else. Loads of people through history– literature, arts, politics, everything. But the others are people we’ve forgotten.
Who knew Mabel Billingshurst, a woman with polio, wheelchair user in the 1900s in the UK, a woman’s suffrage campaigner, a suffragette. Chaining herself to railings, blowing up pillar boxes, being carted off to gaol with her wheelchair. I think reclaiming those stories is important, because it shows us the contribution disabled people have made to history. But it also shows us the potential that disabled people have here now. They could be any of these things. They’ll have to work. They’ll have to pull their finger out and will have to overcome some barriers.
But by showing the stories of what disabled people can achieve we offer hope, I think, to disabled people now who are trying to raise their aspirations and achieve their dreams.
ROSEMARIE GARLAND-THOMSON: So the human variations that we think of as disabilities have always, of course, been part of the human condition and part of human life. Thus they’ve always been part of art and part of culture. For example, one of the founding narratives of Western culture, of course, is Oedipus. And Oedipus is a disabled character. He has a damaged foot, if you will. And that disability is crucial to his identity and to his life story. So disability is always present in stories. But what we haven’t always understood is that it is present as disability. And we haven’t always understood how to notice it and how to think about it.
And this is part of what cultural studies and disability studies, especially in the humanities, has brought forward. And that is this long, rich tradition of people with disabilities in art and culture– as characters, as producers of culture, as producers of aesthetics. And so this is much of the important work that disability studies in the humanities has been doing. So we point out, for example, how important disability has been in, for example, the plays of Shakespeare, the 18th century dramatists, Modernism. We talk about the important characters in let’s say Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which is understood as the most important novel in 19th century American literature.
We also look at the developmentally disabled figure Benjy Compson in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, which is understood as being the most important novel in 20th century American literature. These are just examples of how disability has always been represented. But we haven’t always noticed it, and we haven’t always noticed what kind of work it does. So I’m not very interested, and many of us who work in literary studies and the arts are not very interested in policing what we think of as good or bad representations, but rather bringing forward the long rich history of the presence of disability in art and culture.

Disability is and always has been an important part of human diversity. In this video, Tom Shakespeare and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson discuss the rich contribution disabled people and disabled characters have made to history, culture and literature.

Both Tom and Rosemarie talk about the role of disability studies in recovering stories of disability that have gone unnoticed or forgotten. These processes of recovering and reframing stories have occurred in other social movements, such as feminism, where the forgotten histories of women have been re-written into history.

Tom Shakespeare mentions a number of disabled people from history who have made significant contributions and/or been forgotten. Recovering these stories has been an ongoing project for Tom. If you would like to explore this further, you can go to his blog, Our Statures Touch the Skies, which tells the life stories of many disabled people from history.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson discusses how disability has always been present in stories, culture and literature, from Greek Mythology (with characters such as Oedipus) to Shakespeare to modern American literature. But even though disability was present, it was not always recognised as disability. Rosemarie emphasises that disability studies is not interested in “policing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ representations” of disability; instead it wants to notice what work disability is doing in the world.

Talking points

You might like to take this opportunity to think about stories of disability in the history of your own country or region:

  • Are there significant people in your local history whose impairments are not recognised?
  • Can you think of examples of characters on television or in novels or plays who have impairments?
  • Do you think it is important that these impairments are recognised as such? Why or why not?
This article is from the free online

Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now