Category Archives: history
I’m going to copy the email I just received from Disability Rights International:
It is with great sadness, that we at Disability Rights International (DRI) mourn the death of Paul Steven Miller, a former DRI board member and a legend in the disability rights movement in the United States. Paul died at his home on October 19, 2010, following a long illness, surrounded by his family and friends.
Born with achondroplasia, a genetic condition that results in dwarfism, Paul graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986 – several years before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – and experienced firsthand the need for such legal protections when 45 law firms rejected him during his employment search, with one member of a firm telling him the reason: Their clients would think that they were running a “circus freak show.” But despite facing such overt discrimination in his early career, Paul became an internationally acclaimed expert in discrimination and disability law and was the trusted advisor on these issues to Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Following the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, Paul was appointed White House liaison to the disability community. And in 1994, Paul was appointed a Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he served ten years.
In 2004, Paul left the EEOC and accepted the position of professor and director of the Disability Studies Program at the University of Washington. In early 2009, Paul took a leave from the university to become Special Assistant to President Obama for managing appointments and nominations to the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Additionally, Paul served on the Obama transition team at the Department of Labor.
Paul is survived by his wife, Jenni Mechem and his two young daughters, Naomi and Delia.
Our thoughts and love go out to them as we remember the amazing Paul Steven Miller.
If you were lying awake last night thinking “You know what I need? I need to read a well-written, engaging book that deals with Deaf cultural history in the US, and that includes discussion of gender, race, and class distinctions. Gosh, if only I knew of such a book!”, I have exciting news: Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900-1942 is totally the perfect book for you!
Although the book is basically chronological, Burch divides the subject into overall themes and discusses them at length. She starts with the Oralism vs Sign Language in Schools issue, then discusses the growing Deaf community, Deaf-focused Associations and Clubs (including Deaf athletes competing in mainstream sports), barriers to Deaf people and working, and legal issues that Deaf people faced, including proposed bans on Deaf-Deaf marriages (think of the children!) and bans on Deaf people driving.
Throughout, Burch discusses intersectionality. While the chapters are primarily focused (due to sources) on white Gallaudet-educated men, she devotes time in every chapter to discussing how white women in the same situations were treated, and how Black Deaf people had almost entirely different experiences from white Deaf people, such as the segregated school system and racism within the Deaf community. I’m pretty certain this is Burch’s earliest work, and I know her later stuff focuses a lot more on these issues.
One thing I really liked about this book as well is that Burch puts a short sketch of the life of various Deaf people in every chapter. This gives us someone to “root” for, as well as someone to celebrate or make note of. It’s easy to look at a book like this, that talks about broad cultures, and forget that individuals were actually involved in it. I also like that, for the most part, these were people I hadn’t heard of. While Gallaudet and Clerc are discussed – they have to be, really, for any history of Deaf education in the US – the life sketches are of people like Alice Taylor Terry or Thomas Francis Fox.
I found the text very engaging, and not difficult to read. Like most people, I’ve groaned my way through dull prose that made me want to sleep rather than read, but Burch’s writing kept me wanting to stay up late reading.
I give this book 5/5 stars, and would totally recommend it to anyone. The only thing that makes me eager to put it aside is that I have some of Burch’s later books and edited anthologies in my To Be Read (TBR) pile.
When writing in my own space, I tend to make a lot of jokes about how much I enjoy doing “history in the future!”, by which I mean a lot of primary sources are on-line. Last year, for example, I randomly put the name of one of the people I was writing about into Google, and out popped a bunch of articles he’d written about his theories on Deaf people in the 1860s, which drastically changed my thesis.
For those of us who like to highlight disability related history, the internet can be a huge boon. Whereas as little as five years ago, reading Susan Burch’s description of the Hotchkiss videos for the National Association of the Deaf would have been my only way of learning about them, various video-sharing websites (especially YouTube) allow for us to see these videos, and get a better idea of their impact and importance, for ourselves.
Transcript, as provided by pdurr on YouTube:
Description: John Hotchkiss is an older white man wearing a suit and signing for the camera.
Excerpt of Hotchkiss discussing memories of old hartford from the NAD Motion Picture Project
translation of excerpt by P. Durr – NOTE translation’s accuracy is not confirmed.
“Another time Clerc called a boy who had passed by his house asking, “Please tell (name sign of bent L handshape going downward from top of lips to bottom of chin indicating a beard) S-T-E-W-A-R-D to please have wood delivered to me.” “My pleasure,” the boy replied and went on his way. But this boy completely forgot about this message as his mind was set on playing. Thus, it totally slipped his mind to inform Steward (name sign) of Clerc’s message of his need for wood and Clerc never received any.
A few days passed and again Clerc approached this boy, tapping him with his walking stick and holding him by the shoulders. “I told YOU to PLEASE tell Steward to bring me wood and you said, ‘Ah huh, Yes, Yes, Yes’ but instead you went off and completely forgot. Darn you for forgetting.” and he went off in a huff. As days went by, Clerc would continue to bump into this boy and would always say “Darn, you’re the boy who forgot” (hand at mouth) and stomp off.
The boy was embarrassed and became weary of Clerc’s insults so he decided to go to him and asking his forgiveness for having forgotten to deliver the message to which Clerc let out a joyful laugh and said “alright, you are forgiven, you are forgiven, be on your way.” And with that they departed.
Context, of course, is important. Hotchkiss is telling a story about Laurent Clerc, who is considered the father of the US Deaf Community – for certain definitions of Community, which I will get to in a moment. Dr. John Hotchkiss himself is a very important member of the Deaf community, having been part of the first generation of Deaf students to attend Gallaudet University. Once he graduated he took up teaching, and was a passionate advocate for the continued used of Sign Language in teaching Deaf children.
In the 1910s, the National Association of the Deaf began making several films of Sign Language masters such as Hotchins, and they toured the country. While they were mostly seen by Deaf students, there were hearing students who also saw these ‘silent’ films, exposing them to “the beautiful language” as well.
These films were created as a means of combating the oralist movement (requiring Deaf people to learn to lip read and articulate verbally, a movement that also attempted to ban Sign Language in schools), as well as recording the history of US Deaf people. Looking at the present, the increasingly easy access to video technology is leading to a similar growth in easily accessible videos by and for Deaf people, many of them on YouTube.
What is not obvious from this one video but would be if you went seeking out the rest of the National Association of the Deaf videos from roughly this time period is that “the beautiful language” that they’re preserving is pretty much the beautiful language of white men with the means to attend Gallaudet University. Gallaudet accepted one class of women pupils, and then refused to accept any more for over a decade. Even afterwards, women pupils were discouraged from attending, because they risked “stealing” jobs from more-deserving men. As well, there was a great divide between white and non-white/people of colour in terms of Deaf education. There was a segregated Deaf school system in parts of the US, and Black Deaf schools developed their own form of Sign Language. You can read a bit more about this at the Black ASL Project. Historians like Susan Burch make it very clear that there was no attempt by white Deaf leaders to support Black Deaf people, and only limited support in the non-segregated school system of the North and Western US.
I like to highlight some things in disability history because I find it frustrating that, if you want to learn about the history of disability in a non-specialized context, you’re probably only going to learn the tragedies. I’ve taken classes that have talked about forced sterilization and the eugenics movement, both in North America and abroad, but never had a class that dealt with the foundation of the Deaf press, say, or the National Fraternal Order of the Deaf – even in classes that were about Fraternal Orders in the US. I’ve taken classes that have focused on the resistance of marginalized people, but somehow fail to mention decades of resistance by people with disabilities, and often fail to mention even the success of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
We have a history that is more than tragedy, that is more than the last 20 years of fighting. It is not all brave plucky fighters, and it is certainly not all wonderful people who had no prejudices and only celebrated good things. People with disabilities are people, and I think talking a great deal more about this history is part of the way we fight against stereotypes and the boxes people put us in.
Commenting note: I am, as I said, on Thesis Time right now, which basically means I’m hardly at all around. If you decide to comment, please keep commenting policies in mind, and I’ll do my best to keep up with them.
Image: A grey banner divided in three parts. A photo of a young Helen Keller is in the center. On the right, it reads “Political Activist. Radical Thinker. Suffragist. Pacifist. Journalist. Socialist. Who was she?” On the left it reads “Helen Keller Mythbusting Day 2010”
Today is awesome Helen Keller Mythbusting Day!
A few years ago someone on a feminist site posted a list of the top 100 historic women in the US, and the list included Helen Keller. A commenter mentioned being surprised to find that out, because… well, what did Helen Keller actually do?
The answer to that question is what this Blogswam is all about.
First, I’d like to thank the wonderful, amazing, and totally awesome Jhameia of Intersectionality Dreaming for making our awesome banner while travelling across Canada! Thank you, Jha, you are awesome!
Second, if you post something for Helen Keller Mythbusting Day, please leave a link here in the comments.
If you’d like to participate, but aren’t sure how, check out the Intro Post, which has ideas and links for more information.
Please check back throughout the next few days!
Previous Posts about Helen Keller on FWD:
I encourage you today to check out Gender Across Border’s Blog(swarm) for International Women’s Day. Throughout the day, the GAB editorial board (including Emily Heroy, Colleen Hodgetts, Jessica Mack, Carrie Polansky, Erin Rickard, Elizabeth Switaj and Tatiana McKinney) will be updating GAB to highlight particular posts. It’s never too late to participate!
There were two themes, and I, of course, took this one:
Describe a particular organization, person, or moment in history that helped to mobilize a meaningful change in equal rights for all.
I think it’s fairly clear that I admire Helen Keller, and resent the way what she did with her life has been reduced to parody, the subject of infantile jokes about people who are Deaf-Blind, and forgotten about. When people bother to tell bits of her story, about her learning words at a well after weeks of patient tutoring from Anne Sullivan, it becomes a form of Inspiration that’s based entirely on pity. Oh, how tragic her life could have been, shrouded in darkness and silence. And then she learned to speak! And all was well!
I’m going to interrupt this post to point you towards a previous one I wrote about Keller: Feminist Icons
[This part is actually quoted from the book Lies my Teacher Told Me.]
Keller’s commitment to socialism stemmed from her experience as a disabled person and from her sympathy for others with handicaps. She began by working to simplify the alphabet for the blind, but soon came to realize that to deal solely with blindness was to treat symptom, not cause. Through research she learned that blindness was not distributed randomly throughout the population but was concentrated in the lower class. Men who were poor might be blinded in industrial accidents or by inadequate medical care; poor women who became prostitutes faced the additional danger of syphilitic blindness. Thus Keller learned how the social class system controls people’s opportunities in life, sometimes determining even whether they can see. Keller’s research was not just book-learning: “I have visited sweatshops, factories, crowded slums. If I could not see it, I could smell it.”
I think Helen Keller changed the world, or at least did an awful lot of work towards changing it. But, even with focusing on her achievements, on her work, it’s important to put her in context.
Helen Keller was a white middle-class woman from the US. She was young and pretty and very talented. Before she became famous as The Deaf-Blind Girl (because, of course, there can only be one Deaf-Blind Girl, and she is always white), Laura Bridgman was The Deaf-Blind Girl. And Bridgman was not as pretty, not as nice, and not as accomplished as Keller.
I mention Laura Bridgman because, if the whole purpose of the Helen Keller Narrative was Nice Deaf-Blind Girl Does Good (and thus you, gentle reader, should put your life in proper perspective!), then Bridgman fits almost the same bill. She learned to read and write, wrote letters to her fans, was on public display with ribbons to hide her eyes, and was just as famous as Keller. So why is our dominant narrative Keller and not Bridgman?
Well, what better way to discount someone’s radical roots than to turn them into an Inspiring Story, and nothing more?
So, for International Women’s Day, I want to remind readers that there are certain stories that we tell about certain women, and that these stories have a purpose.
Perhaps we can subvert that.
I’m reading The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, by Robert Darnton. I’ve just finished the first chapter, which makes some interesting arguments about folk tales and their use in determining what non-elites/peasants thought about… well, anything in a time period where most of them lived nasty, brutish and short, unrecorded lives.
His argument is basically that one cannot just look at folktales – whether raw, or prettied up for modern audiences, or in translation or whatever – and determine much of anything. Instead, one needs to do two things: First, one needs to look at all the surviving folktales, all the variations, and pick up the themes. Second, one needs to compare those themes to the themes one gets from folktales in other regions. It’s only in the comparison of themes that one can sort anything, and even then it’s feeling around in the dark and hoping you can sort out the elephant from the cake.
ANYWAY, what I find very interesting (as an historian who looks for hints and tips of history of disability) is where people are totally talking about disability while at the same time dismissing it or not even acknowledging it.
It’s problematic, of course, to try and apply our modern notions of disability to the past and call it good. Even the concept of disability didn’t really exist the way it does now until sometime around the industrial revolution, and there are tons of examples of people being described by contemporaries in ways that modern audiences would consider “disabled”, but that’s never anyone’s concern. So, you’ll read in the past people described as taking to their beds for months at a time, having tics and the like, but no one remarks on it as anything other than just how that particular person is.
So, in a more formal review of A Midwife’s Tale, I wrote this:
There are ten references that could be read as an opportunity to discuss mental health in A Midwife’s Tale. Ulrich mentions four people who are considered insane by the people around them – John Howard is described on page 67 as having “sank into hopeless insanity”; Rebecca Foster is “mentis inops” according to a letter outlined on page 127; and both Tabitha and Mary Sewall are described by Ulrich as suffering from “mental illness” or derangement on page 260. Three people commit suicide, including James Purrington. One of Ballard’s patients seems to suffer from post-partum depression, while Ballard herself describes her mental state as one that reads as familiar to many people with depression on page 226.
There are a variety of reasons the author might not have gone into that discussion – the one I think is going on is that the book was published in 1990 and there was even less discussion of disability in history then than there is now – but it did stand out to me.
The Great Cat Massacre does something a bit different though, at least in the first chapter.
In describing what French peasant did when hard times were really hard, Darnton writes:
…life on the road meant ceaseless scavenging for food. The drifters raided chicken coops, milked untended cows, stole laundry drying on hedges, snipped of horses’ tails (good for selling to upholsterers), and lacerated and disguised their bodies in order to pass as invalids wherever alms were being given out. … They became smugglers, highwaymen, pickpockets, prostitutes. And in the end they surrendered in hopitaux, pestilential poor houses, or else crawled under a bush or a hay loft and died…
Yes, of course Darnton. You describe a life of abject misery and back-breaking labour, so obviously people faked being disabled all the time.
Throughout this first chapter he says things like (in describing a folktale) “…two discharged soldiers draw lots to see which shall have his eyes put out. Desperate for food, they can think of no way to survive except by operating as a team of beggars, the blind man and his keeper” (pg 38), describes Simple Simon as “the harmless village idiot” (pg 40), talks about Rapunzel’s lover being blinded (pg 52), and witches adding additional hunches to hunchbacked beggars just because (pg 53).
And yet, obviously people faked being disabled all the time. Because there was nothing going on that might lead to actual disabilities.
I know, it’s a throw-away comment in a book originally published in 1984 (disability-focused history is more accepted now – we even have an association), but it bugs me. It’s not a unique occurrence, and it’s difficult to know quite how to respond.
For me, of course, the thing it does most is highlight people’s biases. When I previously tried to discuss this in a class, I could not actually get the professor to understand my complaint. “But people do fake disabilities all the time!” was her response, and there are only so many hours in a day one can give towards advocacy work.
But people with disabilities are quite common in the literature, if you actually pay attention to it.