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Recognising the contributions of people with disability

In this video, academics discuss the importance of recognising the contributions of people with disabilities from history.
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MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Stories from history.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
One of the simplest ways people with disabilities are challenging assumptions about being passive, dependent, and unproductive is by reclaiming stories of famous disabled people from the past who made significant contributions to society.
Watch the video above, or look at the following websites:
Tom Shakespeare: “Our statures touch the skies” blog
All of the people mentioned in these resources made great contributions to the societies in which they lived and worked. In addition to people you may have heard of — like Emily Dickinson, Winston Churchill, and Frida Kahlo — there are many distinguished disabled people from history who have been forgotten. As Tom and Rosemarie explain, reclaiming different stories from the past can help to raise awareness of the different ways people with disability are actively contributing in society today.

Talking points

  • Take note of who is mentioned in the video and on the linked websites. Are you surprised by how many famous people were/are disabled?
  • Can you think of any famous people with disabilities in your own local history?
  • Are there particular stories that highlight the value of contributions by disabled people for you?
In the next step, we look at a wide range of ways that people with disabilities are contributing to society.
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