- Social Perceptions of People with Disabilities in History
According to Herbert Covey, “historians have written volumes about institutional settings but little about people with disabilities within their families or host communities” (p. 277). Although intended to remedy that situation by looking at the history of disability from a social history perspective, this volume succeeds best in illustrating the paucity of data on the subject. Instead of history from the bottom up, what emerges is an overview of secondary sources that relies heavily on surviving paintings and other artistic artifacts to guide the narrative.
It is an exceedingly ambitious book. It seeks to uncover the social experiences of people with leprosy, mental illness, blindness, deafness, and other physical and developmental disabilities throughout the course of Western history. Each chapter takes a particular type of disability and proceeds to tell how people with that disability or impairment fared from ancient times through the nineteenth century. Black-and-white illustrations amplify the points in the text. The discussion of the association between people with disabilities and begging, for example, includes a copy of Peter Bruegel the Elder’s 1568 painting The Cripples. Here and elsewhere the author relies heavily on the genre paintings of northern Europe, but he tells the reader very little about each painting. He notes that in the Bruegel painting each of the five beggars at the center of the painting wears a different hat, including one with a bishop’s mitre on his head. Yet he makes no further comment on this matter and concludes his brief commentary with the unexciting conclusion that “Bruegel seems to be drawing attention to, in the opinion of some, the misery and difficulty of having to live by begging” (p. 20). Even though Covey has so little time to dwell on any one painting, the reader still expects more. As an exercise in art history, the book also suffers from a lack of color illustrations, shutting the reader off from the paintings’ full impact.
Not only does Covey have to process his evidence quickly, he also has little time to develop background historical detail. As a result he indulges in a series of mega-generalizations about change over time, on the order of “Western curiosity and inquiry about human existence in this world erupted in a new way at the [End Page 543] close of the Middle Ages” (p. 34), or “Greece was essentially a country of politicians” (p. 248). Specialists in medieval or Greek history might be uncomfortable with these statements.
If not cutting-edge history, this book is nonetheless quite valuable for the sheer volume of information it uncovers about the history of people with disabilities. The chapters that work best allow Covey to tap into a growing but still manageable body of literature. The chapter on deafness, for example, shows the early development of communities of deaf people in such countries as France. Residents of these communities did not regard themselves as inferior or disabled so much as they believed themselves to be members of a foreign-language-speaking ethnic community. Despite this evidence of self-sufficiency, governments in France and elsewhere “worked hard to get them [deaf people] to conform to a hearing world” (p. 233). Authorities preferred that deaf people read lips rather than use the sign language, even though that produced hesitant French speakers rather than confident signers. I can think of no better introduction to this subject than the one that Covey provides.
One can only admire the range of Covey’s scholarship and applaud his efforts to tackle a difficult area of social history. Covey concludes that “there is an untold story waiting to be told about the many unseen number of people with disabilities” (p. 278). This book, best read as a primer or textbook, will make it easier for others to tell this story.