Category Archives: history

A program on disability rights in Australia

A couple of days ago, Australian investigative journalism television program Four Corners aired a story called Breaking Point. It covers some of recent Australian disability rights history, personal stories from many individuals and families, discussion of a proposed national disability support scheme, differences between the UK and Australian systems, all sorts of things. It’s rather long at the better part of an hour, but you may find it worth just dipping in, if only a little, particularly if you’re not familiar with disability rights in Australia.

From the program website:

The system of assistance for people with a disability in Australia is broken. Carers know it, charitable organisations know it and so do the governments. Now the federal government says something must be done. It’s holding an Inquiry, with the intention of creating a new and fairer system. It’s even considering a national disability insurance scheme. But will the system be reformed in time to save the families now at breaking point?

Here’s a transcript of the program.

You can access the program itself here as well as extended interviews, further reading and news highlights here.

Do check it out!

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. Well, not the bit about the water, but that it’s the sum total of Keller’s accomplishments], 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. [1. 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!]

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 [1. Industrial Workers of the World. They’re still around.]. 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. [1. Loewen, James W. Lies my Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong, New York: Touchstone, 1995.] 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.” [1. LMTTM, 22-23]

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. [1. 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!]

When we talk about Women’s History – and I understand Women’s History month is in March in the US[1. It’s October in Canada.], 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.

Happy World Braille Day!

Today is World Braille Day!

Were I a more organized person, I would now present you with a scrupulously researched history of Braille, deep insights into the so-called “War of the Dots”, and a wonderful interlude on the use of raised text in the Halifax School for the Blind.

Instead, a few things I’ve gathered from my readings:

There had been a raised-dot writing process before Braille invented his own, but it took up more space. Braille simplified it and quickly taught his friends and fellow classmates at the Paris school for the blind how to use it. Previous to that, blind people had been taught to read using embossed letters. Letters would be embossed by getting paper wet and then putting it down on carved (wooden? metal? I can’t remember) 3-d letters. This strikes me as incredibly cumbersome.

At first, Braille’s new method was embraced by the school. However, when the former headmaster retired, a new headmaster came in and was determined to get rid of everything that had been done by the former one. I wrote some notes about this:

“To dramatize and enforce the new system [of embossed writing for the blind], Dufau made a bonfire in the school’s rear courtyard and burned not only the embossed books created by Huay’s [First principal of the first school for the blind in Europe] original process but also every book printed or hand-transcribed in Louis’ [Braille] new code. This comprised the school’s entire library, the product of nearly 50 years’ work. To make sure no Braille would ever again be used at the school, he also burned and confiscated the slates, styli, and other Braille writing equipment.”


“Dafau’s students rebelled and Braille survived. The older students taught the younger students despite the punishment of slaps across the hands and going to bed without dinner.”

Reading Hands: The Halifax School for the Blind, pp 25-26.

I don’t know yet how braille made its way from France across to England and then across to North America (there was a competition! And the “New York Press” style of raised dots), and know even less about how or whether or went elsewhere. (Lucky for me, there are books! I will learn! It will be exciting!)

One thing I like about braille is that it was invented and refined by blind people. Despite attempts to wipe it out, blind students refused to give it up – much like Sign Language, in fact.

WebAim provides some insight into how Blind people use the web.

Happy World Braille Day! Please feel free to correct my history in comments, and also to leave links and book recommendations. I would like to recommend Woeful Afflictions, by Mary Klages, which is a fascinating look at Victorian attitudes towards disability.

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

Keiko Fukuda: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful

Olde-tyme Hoydenizens may remember that I wrote about Keiko Fukuda back in 2007, in the Friday Hoyden feature. Fukuda is probably the most knowledgeable and accomplished judoka alive, the last living student of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo.

Geekfeminism has an update on Fukuda Sensei, with a snippet of film from documentary “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful“. Ju-do means, very roughly translated, “gentle way”; judo’s key principle is to use minimal movements to turn the attacker’s strength back against her. The film’s name derives from an attempt to explain the essence of “ju” – “soft, gentle, flexible, adaptable”. Filmmakers Flying Carp are currently fundraising to complete the film.

In this excerpt, Fukuda talks about how she was ‘frozen’ at fifth dan (fifth degree black belt), for no other reason than that she was a woman. She was finally promoted to ninth dan at the age of 8893. She talks, emotionally, about having had to choose between marriage and judo. Fukuda still teaches judo in San Francisco at the age of 96, clearly much loved and much respected, and there is rather delightful film of her dispensing wisdom and rising from her wheelchair to demonstrate an armlock on a much larger student.

Transcript/description to follow now available, courtesy of Quixotess!

Continue reading Keiko Fukuda: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful

The Retrospectoscope: Pinel, On Insanity

I’m hoping The Retrospectoscope will be a series, if readers are interested. Here I hope to pull little bits out of a whole lot of historical medical and health texts. Feel free to discuss as you like.

The bias will be toward Western books from the 17th to 19th century, as that’s what’s in my collection. If you have other scans that you’d like to drop into the suggestion box, please drop me an email: lauredhel at

Today’s snippet is from Philippe Pinel’s A Treatise On Insanity. 1806. Pinel, who was a physician at Bicêtre Hospital in France, is widely considered the “father of modern psychiatry”.

Excerpt from Pinel

Description: A scan of part of page 251 of On Insanity. It reads:



108. THE blood of maniacs is sometimes so lavishly spilled, and with so little discernment, as to render it doubtful whether the patient or his physician has the best claim to the appellation of a madman. This reflection naturally suggests itself upon seeing many a victim of medical presumption, reduced by the depleteing system of treatment to a state of extreme debility or absolute ideotism.