- The New Disability History: American Perspectives
Although I am not sure I know what constituted the old disability history, the editors of this volume assert the existence and importance of a new disability history. The chief attributes of this history appear to be autonomy and agency. These themes apply particularly to the histories of blindness and deafness, which occupy six of the fourteen essays in the book. Autonomy implies that people with disabilities put their identities as disabled above other identifiers, such as age, class, race, or region. We learn from David Gerber that veterans who became blind during the second world war formed an organization known as the Blinded Veterans Association. As members of this group, veterans overcame their previous identities as, for example, white southerners and in the process overturned their previous prejudices against blacks and Jews. In other words, the experience of disability remade these individuals. Hannah Joyner, in a particularly engaging essay, reports on the experiences of an antebellum southern deaf person sent off to New York for his education. When the war breaks out, this person finds himself trapped behind enemy lines. In New York, with time on his hands, the person has a growing awareness of himself as a disabled person and, like the blind world war two veterans, finds himself transformed. Once a typically advantaged southerner, he becomes an abolitionist when armed with his new sensibility. When he returns to North Carolina after the Civil War, he is a different person.
The theme of agency is important to disability history, just as it is to the history of other minority groups. In the new history, people write about the struggles of people with disabilities to live life on their own terms, rather than to have their lives framed and interpreted by professional intermediaries. A pejorative label for the old disability history is medical history, which implies an acceptance of a doctor’s diagnosis, and hence the acceptance of disability not as a descriptive attribute but rather as a form of inability to perform basic functions. The struggle of deaf people to speak in their own manual language—sign language—rather than to communicate orally in a manner similar to non-deaf people is the emblematic battle. It is subject to the same ambiguities as the issue of black power. Does the use of sign language relegate deaf people to segregated lives as second-class citizens or does it create a sense of group pride that is ultimately more useful and empowering than the use of spoken language would be? R.A.R Edward’s essay, in which he looks at Horace Mann’s efforts to get deaf people to benefit from public education by encouraging them to speak rather than to sign, illustrates those ambiguities nicely. [End Page 248]
Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky make the bold claim that, “Like gender, like race, disability must become a standard analytical tool in the historian’s tool chest. That is the goal of the new disability history: to join the social constructionist insights and interdisciplinarity of cultural studies with sold empirical research as we analyze disability’s past” (p. 15). It is a tempting vision, yet one that, I believe, overstates the field’s potential. Disability presents the historian with a way to organize disparate material by asking of a particular time and place what constituted ability and what conditions allowed or forced a person to remain outside of society’s chief institutions, such as the labor force or marriage. Who, for example, was expected to work and who was given an exemption from working or a ticket to leave the labor force? How did we get from an era in which the existence of an impairment, such as blindness, relegated one to inactivity to a time in which federal legislation explicitly says that employers are not allowed to discriminate against someone who is blind on the basis of his or her handicap? These are good questions, well handled...