Category Archives: anna history rants

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.

International Women’s Day: Subverting the Narrative

The earth from space in a purple filter, with text: Blog for International Women's Day - Equal Rights, Equal Opportunity

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.

Check out Gender Across Borders throughout the day for more posts. A list of participating blogs

Erasing History

[A version of this post appeared at my personal blog.]

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…

(pg 26)

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.


Disability Social History Project
Disability Studies, Temple U Blog
Greg Carrier on Medieval Disability
Debilitas Mentis

Feminist Icons

One of the fastest ways to make women with disabilities seem pathetic and worthless is to erase or ignore their lives. Why should the Feminist movement celebrate women like Helen Keller, when everyone knows that Keller’s entire contribution was she learned how to talk – and that was entirely Anne Sullivan’s work, after all.

This is, of course, completely untrue 1, but there was a concentrated effort to ensure that Keller’s accomplishments were ignored. “Radical Marxist” isn’t as nice a story as “deaf-blind woman overcomes”.

If you learned about Helen Keller in school at all, you probably learned the same pablum-esque story I did: Keller was a horrible brat of a child who screamed and kicked and was bad. Then, Anne Sullivan, that angelic woman, came along and, through her virtuous patience, finally got Keller to learn. She stuck Keller’s hand under the well water, and spelled “water” into her hand. And suddenly, Keller learned that “water” meant this stuff pouring over her hand. And then many years later she graduated from Radcliff College, and this is why all the students in my class should try their hardest, because look at how much Helen Keller accomplished, The End. 2

This idea of Keller is so pervasive that even books written about Keller in her lifetime – books that she wrote the introduction for – include the same story. To be vain and quote an essay I wrote last semester:

The only blind person who is given any voice or agency within the work [Ishbel Ross’ Journey Into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind] is Helen Keller, who wrote the forward for the book, and is presented as “[rising] above her triple handicap to become one of the best-known characters in the modern world.” … [D]espite dedicating a whole chapter to Keller, Ross makes no mention of Keller’s politics or activism, instead describing Keller’s grace, “agelessness”, and book collection.

No mention of her membership in the Wobblies 3. I guess that didn’t fit the narrative.

I learned about Helen Keller’s actual life story by reading the book Lies my Teacher Told Me. 4 It’s a book that’s a bit hard for me to evaluate properly because I went to school in Canada and it’s focused on American education and teaching. The section Keller appears in (cleverly titled “handicapped by history”) talks about hero-building and erasing things that add complications in our respected leaders. About Keller, Loewen writes:

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.”

At the time Keller became a socialist, she was one of the most famous women on the planet. She soon became the most notorious. Her conversion to socialism caused a new storm of publicity – this time outraged. Newspapers that had extolled her courage and intelligence now emphasized her handicap. Columnists charged that she had no independent sensory input, and was in thrall to those who fed her information. Typical was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, who wrote that Keller’s “mistakes spring out of the manifest limitation of her development.”

Keller recalled having met the editor: “At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I Have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him” She went on: “On, ridiculous Brooklyn Eagle! Socially blind and deaf, it defends an intolerable system, a system that is the cause of much of the physical blindness and deafness which we are trying to prevent.” 5

Among other things, Keller helped found the American Civil Liberties Union, donated money to the NAACP, supported birth control, was part of the women’s suffrage movement, and spent time in Halifax. 6

When we talk about Women’s History – and I understand Women’s History month is in March in the US7, so that’s not too long from now – we are doing something wrong if we do not include the lives of women with disabilities. Helen Keller isn’t the only woman with disabilities who has been ignored, erased, or sanitized for public consumption – it happens over and over, to queer women, to women of colour, to women who are ‘marked’ as ‘not-mainstream’.

I think we can do better than this. I think we’re brave enough to not only confront that important women of our past participated in and encouraged others to participate in abuse, neglect, genocide of certain groups of women, but also brave enough to celebrate histories outside the mainstream.

  1. Well, not the bit about the water, but that it’s the sum total of Keller’s accomplishments
  2. I think I’ve just described the plot of The Miracle Workeranother reason why I’m irritated that the show’s being put on. Ooh, let’s perpetuate the idea that Keller’s life began and ended at that water pump!
  3. Industrial Workers of the World. They’re still around.
  4. Loewen, James W. Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: Touchstone, 1995.
  5. LMTTM, 22-23
  6. What? I like my city! She spoke at the closing ceremonies of the Nova Scotia School of the Deaf and Dumb. I’ve read her letters to the principal. I get kinda wibbly. Helen Keller was here!
  7. It’s October in Canada.

Quotation: Why We Do Disability History

[I promise that I am so close to being done all this reading that there will soon be less quotation-posts, but I keep finding all these lovely words, and I’m very fond of them.]

Reminders of the immediate relevance of history to contemporary issues of disability confront us daily. In but the latest example, as we write these words [in 2001], the United States Supreme Court has accepted appeals from several states which claim that Congress exceeded its constitutional authority in imposing the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] on the states. Congress lacked evidence to prove that state governments had engaged in a historical pattern of discrimination against persons with disabilities, this argument claims in part; without evidence of state discrimination, the general government overran its jurisdiction. The essays gathered here indicate that evidence of discrimination against disabled people reaches well beyond our living recollection. Until we can document the past with the evidence and rigor that solid historical research necessitates, the absence of disability from our written history, its suppression in our formal collective memory, jeopardizes the current quest of Americans with disabilities for full citizenship. This history matters, and not in the abstract.

– Paul K. Longmore & Lauri Umansky, The New Disability History: American Perspectives, pg 14. Sadly, there is no limited preview of this book on Google Books, but Why I Burned By Book and other essays on disability, by Longmore, does have limited preview, and I love that book to pieces, especially the last essay.

Obviously I have quoted this for truth because I’m an historian and I’m often questioned on why I consider the history I do to be both political and activist in nature. And, this is (in part) why.

Anna History Rants: Harlan Lane

My name is Laurent Clerc. I am eighty-three years old. My hair is white, my skin wrinkled and scarred, my posture crooked; I shuffle when I walk. Undoubtedly my life will soon end in this time and place: 1896, Hartford, Connecticut. I spend most of my day sitting alone at my dining room window, looking at my orchard and remembering. I also read the paper and occasionally friends come to visit. I know what’s going on. Important people, distinguished gentlemen, are repudiating the cause to which I have devoted my life. Endowed with the sacred trust of my people’s welfare, they seek, without consulting us, to prevent our worship, marriage, and procreation, to stultify our education, and to banish our mother tongue simply because our way and our language are different from theirs….

– Lane, Harlan, When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, pg 3.

I have issues with Lane. He outright states in his introduction that he made stuff up when he couldn’t find out what happened, and I feel he wrote well-researched historical fiction rather than an actual history book.

But still. Lane didn’t write the first book about deafness from the POV of actual deaf people (Lane is Hearing – he cites Jack R Gannon’s book as the first history written by someone who was Deaf), but he wrote the one that launched a thousand ships, so to speak. He challenged, quite viciously, the idea that deafness was something to be “conquered”, and argued that a deaf-focused history was necessary.
Continue reading Anna History Rants: Harlan Lane

Anna History Rants: Introduction

My daytime work is as a Masters student in History, and I am writing my thesis on the history of disability and education. I don’t want to go into too many details, because my field is very small and I would like to one day be successful in it, so I’m trying not to leave too much of a Google-trail.

Anyway, I have been encouraged to post some of my thoughts about history & disability as I am working away at my thesis.
Continue reading Anna History Rants: Introduction