Why History?

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.

8 Comments

  1. I want to thank you for helping me decide to major in history. It’s important that these stores get told, and I want to do my part. Thank you for all the work you do.

  2. Any chance of me having this for the next Disability History Association newsletter (fall 2010)? It’s good, and it needs to be said.

  3. As a fellow history grad student, thank you. The discipline as a whole is horribly, horribly ignorant of disability issues, certainly as applied to history.

  4. Penny – feel free. What sort of attribution would it need? I’m happy to send you my full name & uni affiliation if that’s need. 🙂

    Sarah – I didn’t know you were a history grad student! Tell me more!

  5. Though my interest has always been religion more than history (and my major neither), I think what you’re doing is awesome. The present is much easier to understand once you know how we got here.

  6. I’m finishing up my first year in a History PhD program. My focus is women/gender in the U.S., though I’m a long way from coming up with a dissertation project. I would love to include disability somehow, but we’ll see if that happens.

  7. Sure, name and affiliation would be great, and I’ll link back to FWD as the place this essay originally appeared.

  8. There did use to be way, way more piano tuners and printing-press operators than there were today, though–they are two professions in which there has been a dramatic decline since the 1950s, both because fewer people have home pianos and because printing technology has become significantly more automated.

    When I was a little girl, most of the piano tuners in my area (Massachusetts in the US) had been trained at the Perkins School for the Blind; it was unusual to meet a piano tuner who was sighted. I don’t know if Perkins has that program anymore.