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.

One of the aspects of writing a history thesis is the historiography part of your work. Basically, you write something that indicates not only that you understand the scholarship that has gone on before, but where your work will fit in with that scholarship.

My thesis adviser described it to me as going to a party. Before barreling into a conversation, you listen to the people who are part of it and try and get a sense of what people are saying/thinking before you say anything.

I don’t think this is the best analogy for the internet age. (Also, too many people do exactly that, at parties, on the bus, and in classes.) I think a better analogy would be lurking around a popular blog for a while before commenting, and then trying to make your first comment be something useful, interesting, and on topic. Basically, historiography is so you don’t get admonished to LURK MOAR.

The problem with the stuff I’m doing is the historiography is a bit… problematic. I’ll put aside the issues of most disability history being related to how medical professionals and administrative folks viewed people with disabilities (don’t worry, I will write more on this, I assure you), since that’s really a main point of what we’re writing. However, what I do need to do is talk about the sorts of histories that institutions for people with disabilities would put out for themselves, with very specific goals in mind.

I’m currently looking at Journey to Independence, subtitled Blindness ~ The Canadian Story. It’s put out for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. It can easily be summed up as “CNIB! It is so awesome! Let me tell you all the awesome things that were done because of them! Before the CNIB, things were bad, but now they are Awesome! Look!!!” Which, you know, it’s a coffee table book put out by the CNIB. Of course that’s what it’s going to say. But I have to at least talk a bit about it. (The book isn’t bad if all you want is a shallow skim of the history of blindness in Canada that doesn’t go into any of the reasons many blind people reject the CNIB. It has a lot of stuff about Halifax, actually.)

The other book I’m looking at right now is called Reading Hands: The Halifax School for the Blind. This book starts with the “best” opening sentence ever: “The history of the blind was long one of sadness.” Then Christianity comes along and “It was quite natural therefore that the afflicted mortals congregated about the doors of the churches, where they could expect not only kindly treatment and understanding, but also often relief from physical pain and hunger.”

It pains me so.

There’s a word to describe these sorts of histories: meliorist. Things Were Bad! Then! Something Awesome Happened! Then! Things Were Better! I think this is how history tends to be taught, because it’s very Feel Good. It’s also very plodding and doesn’t reflect the nuances of history. Was the CNIB a good thing? I don’t know, but I do know a lot of blind people in Canada hate it. (I need to do more research to understand why, because I don’t actually know.) Was the Halifax School for the Blind made of awesome? I don’t know, but I do know they did a lot of things in an attempt to be “good” and seem to have been founded by actual blind people. (A step above the folks who ultimately founded the School for the Deaf, for what that’s worth. I’m really excited to learn more of the history of the school.)

Of course, writing something that’s basically “everything this group did is BAD BAD BAD” isn’t good history, either. I mean, it has a purpose, don’t get me wrong. But viewing all people who advocated for Oralism in the early 20th Century as bad ignores the nuances of their arguments, and also assumes everyone was doing it for the same reason. (Douglas Baynton, IIRC, argues that gender played a huge role in this – women who were teaching in the Deaf schools often advocated for Oralism because they thought it was very important to “have a voice in public”. I don’t think they did the right thing, and I think it had long-term horrible consequences for Deaf people, but it’s not as simple as “they were bad, and they should feel bad.” This isn’t to excuse abuse, neglect, eugenics, hatred, everything that was part of it all. I don’t think the intentions excuse anything. But they’re also important to know. Nuances.)

Baynton’s book Forbidden signs: American culture and the campaign against sign language has a limited preview available on Google Books, if you are interested in such things. I really enjoy his introduction, and he talks a bit about the scholarship he’s responding to there.

I have no doubt that I am going to write much more about this stuff, because I do enjoy looking at how the history of disability has developed the way it has. And also ranting about “awesome” book titles like Bender’s The conquest of deafness; a history of the long struggle to make possible normal living to those handicapped by lack of normal hearing.

6 thoughts on “Anna History Rants: Introduction

  1. Do keep writing about the historiography of disability. I find this quite interesting. (I’m also a graduate student in history, though not specifically in disability history.) I’m not sure I could take reading that much ableist “scholarship.” As it is I gnash my teeth a fair bit about ableism when reading history that isn’t (ostensibly) about disability. (Ableism from historical actors, ableism from historians, ableism from historical actors that historians fail to see as in any way problematic…I’ve seen all of that.)

  2. “And also ranting about “awesome” book titles like Bender’s The conquest of deafness; a history of the long struggle to make possible normal living to those handicapped by lack of normal hearing.”

    The awesome. It hurts.

    Definitely interested in these posts.

  3. As someone planning on teaching, I’m looking forward to more in this series. This part, as a history buff (why yes, I’m going to be teaching secondary history), is fascinating from that point of view, too.

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