The committee approved my thesis proposal (and I passed my French Proficiency Exam – necessary for Canadianists) and thus I’m now at the stage of my MA where I’m researching, reading secondary sources, and writing stuff up.
[When I lay it out like that it looks so sad and boring. This is the bit where I get to do what I want, in the archives! Looking at letters and school records! I get to apply theories and see if they work, and maybe even develop my own! This is totally my idea of how to have a fun summer! Also, the archives are air-conditioned, which helps.]
My particular project is focusing on the development of residential schools for blind and deaf children and youths. I’m looking at how and why they were founded, what their teaching methods were, and who they hired to work there. I’m also looking at the types of jobs that these children were trained for, and what that says about the way disabled children were perceived by society at large in Nineteenth Century Canada.
I’m also wondering exactly how many blind piano tuners and deaf printing-press operators the province of Nova Scotia thought it could support.
I’ve written before that the history I do is explicitly political. It’s partly about a part of our past that is highly neglected, and partly about arguing, simply by doing it, that this history is important, that it has long-term consequences that we’re still feeling.
But I also write it because people with disabilities have a past, a present, and a future. Because we’re important enough that having a history that’s not just focused on a few Great Examples – Helen Keller, Louise Braille, Beethoven, Terry Fox – isn’t enough. Because knowing how things turned out in the past might give us some insight into how things might be in the future.
Another reason I’m doing this is because it challenges people, and asks them to think.
Every time I tell people I’m doing disability history, “centering the experiences of people with disabilities in the historic narrative”, they are taken aback. They’re surprised. Just by doing history in my department, and telling people how awesome my research is, I’m making more of them think about disability, and about people with disabilities. Without ever having a conversation about language, people in my department have stopped referring to people doing unthinkable things as “mentally insane”. Without my ever leading a classroom discussion about theory and frameworks, my classmates discussed the assumptions about disability presented in several of the readings we did.
These are small things. If I’m lucky, I’ve made 30 to 40 people reconsider their ideas of disability and think about people with disabilities in the past.
And yet, these small things are so satisfying.