- Victorian Disability:Introduction
H.G. Wells's "The Country of the Blind" (1904) tells the tale of a traveller to a remote region of South America who happens upon a curious village in an isolated valley after an avalanche separates him from his party. The buildings, he observes, are strange affairs, cobbled together with a perplexing variety of multi-coloured stones, while the streets are lined with low-lying curbs as if to guide the pedestrians who use them. Reflecting on these and other odd features of the place, he soon comes to the conclusion that whoever these people are, one thing is certain: they have no sense of sight. Recalling the old adage "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king," he enters the village as a kind of conqueror, confidently expecting the afflicted people of this valley to bow before his self-evident superiority. "I can see," he grandly announces to the group that comes to greet him.
"See?" said Correa.
"Yes, see," said Nunez, turning toward him, and stumbling against Pedro's pail.
"His senses are still imperfect," said the third blind man. "He stumbles, and talks unmeaning words. Lead him by the hand."(547)
Having lost the faculty of sight many generations ago, the people of this valley have developed an entire culture that is adapted to their sensory abilities, from a creation myth to a system of governance. They treat the traveller as a kind of "unformed" man, a creature of the rocks who lacks the capacity to manage the simple, day-to-day tasks that their children perform with ease. Puzzling over Nunez's physical impairment, they finally conclude that he "must have been specially created to learn and serve the wisdom they had acquired, and for all his mental incoherency and stumbling behaviour he must have courage, and do his best to learn" (550). No king, then, the traveller becomes a kind of charity case to the people of the valley, a pitiful creature to be cared for and assisted in his efforts to become more fully formed—to become, to their minds, human.
Wells's ironic tale depicts a sighted man who learns to understand his supposed normality as a kind of affliction, one that puts him at the mercy of a [End Page 45] community where the senses of hearing, touch, smell, and taste surpass that of sight. The text plays upon many aspects of the Victorian preoccupation with the nature of ability and its relationship to contemporary discourses of citizenship, education, health, and aesthetics. It was during the Victorian period that Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind girl who had learned to both read and write, became a kind of international celebrity and many popular novelists put the personal and social challenges faced by characters with disabilities at the heart of their texts, making the trials of Tiny Tim and Edward Rochester among the best known in the language. Nor were such concerns limited to the imagined pathos of those with disabilities. A series of Poor Laws and Elementary Education Acts (1870, 1880, 1893, 1899) were among a number of legislative efforts to define ability in the wake of industrialization and imperial expansion. By the end of the century, the growth of eugenics fomented a new and intense scrutiny of "fitness" in physical and mental capabilities. Taken together, these cultural, governmental, and medical discourses helped to redefine the very meaning of ability, putting the body and its faculties at the very heart of a new bio-politics.
Wells's story, however, suggests the degree to which the emergent definitions of what constituted an able-bodied man or woman were already being questioned and contested in the period. In fact, the Victorians did not use the term disability as expansively as we use it today. Victorians would not have grouped together, in their terminology, a blind person, a "mad" person, an "invalid," a "cripple," an "idiot," and an individual with what we now call Down Syndrome (after the Victorian doctor John Langdon Down) in the one discursive category of "disability." When various groups that might now be understood as disabled were...