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  • Using Historical Materials to Teach Representations of DisabilityA First World War Case Study
  • Emmeline Burdett (bio)

Thinking critically about disability involves recognizing that the idea of disability as an “individual tragedy” for the disabled person is entirely insufficient and unhelpful. This traditional approach encourages the idea that the disabled person’s social circumstances are irrelevant. Disability studies instead views disability as something which takes place within a societal context rather than in a vacuum. As Hugh Gregory Gallagher writes, “There can be no doubt that the way a society perceives and deals with a handicap is a major factor in determining just how disabling – in a real sense – the handicap will be” (25).

Gallagher gives a number of examples of how societal perceptions of disability work in practice. He writes:

A condition such as poor eyesight is largely a trivial matter in a society where eyeglasses are readily available. In an aboriginal hunting society, poor eyesight is a calamity. In traditional Inuit society, the insight of a schizoid personality is often valued; in modern America it is often feared. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was accustomed to a life of valets and chauffeurs found his paraplegia a less disabling condition than would a poor man who was similarly paralyzed.


Gallagher’s examples are instructive and provocative, introducing as they do the idea that disability is not an unchanging condition, but one that has differing effects in different circumstances. This idea is of fundamental importance to disability studies. It also opens the door to an appreciation that there is another level to what the disability studies academic Donna Reeve has termed “psycho-emotional disablism.” Reeve defines this as behavior on the part of others which constitutes a “barrier to being” for a disabled person. Reeve contrasts this with “barriers to doing,” which are restrictions on a disabled person’s freedom of movement caused by living in an inaccessible structural environment – although it should not be forgotten that this kind of spatial apartheid often also has adverse psychological effects. According to Reeve, “barriers to being” may include such things as “When a disabled child is not invited to a family wedding because they might be ‘disruptive’” or “Being subjected to jokes or stares from strangers because someone walks differently or uses a wheelchair” (Reeve 123). [End Page 179]

Reeve writes that the internalization of the acceptability of this rude and hurtful behavior may be particularly problematic for people who become disabled. This is because someone who acquires an impairment may, potentially, have lived for years or decades unaware of the existence of this kind of prejudice, or may – before being on the receiving end – have assumed that it is just something that a disabled person has to accept.

One way to help students think about these issues is through novels. With the recent commemorations marking the centenary of the First World War (which began in 1914), Louisa Young’s 2011 novel My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You provides a useful way in to a discussion of these issues, not because it offers a disability studies-friendly portrayal of impairment, but because prior knowledge of disability studies can help students analyze the book critically, and instructors can suggest areas of research about aspects of disabled ex-soldiers’ lives which Louisa Young herself seems not to have considered.1

I came across My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You through a book group at London Metropolitan Archives (lma), in Clerkenwell, in London. Because the group meets at an archive, the archivist who runs the group always brings documents that relate to the novel we are discussing. On this occasion, she had two scrapbooks: one from the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, which pioneered techniques of facial reconstruction. Louisa Young’s character Riley Purefoy is treated there after the lower half of his face was badly damaged by a bomb blast. A second scrapbook came from its sister hospital in Roehampton, where soldiers with wounded limbs received treatment in the form of prosthetic limbs, and rehabilitation. The newspaper clippings in these scrapbooks demonstrate striking differences between the ways in which men at the two hospitals were portrayed in the press (Burdett). While men at...


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pp. 179-182
Launched on MUSE
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