To mark this year’s Disability History Month (16 November-16 December), Beckie Rutherford considers three recent monographs that have significantly contributed to the field of disability history: charting experience in the Soviet Union, the coal industry during industrial revolution, and the British empire.
Beckie is a Royal Historical Society Centenary Fellow for 2022-3, currently completing her PhD on the life stories of disabled women and their relationships to liberation movements in twentieth-century Britain.
As Beckie suggests, this is an exciting time to be a newly trained historian of disability, given growing interest in the subject and greater appreciation of its wide-ranging implications for understanding past societies.
I joined the History Department at Warwick as a Masters student in 2017 and am now finalising my doctoral thesis. Over the past five years the field of Disability History (or #DisHist for those who remain on Twitter) has developed in innovative and challenging ways. The present moment feels like an exciting time to be emerging as a newly trained historian of disability precisely because of rising interest in the subject and a growing appreciation for its wide-ranging implications.
In celebration of Disability History Month (16 November – 16 December 2022), this post highlights three monographs that have made essential contributions to the field over the past five years. I also reflect on some of the key ways these books have shaped my own approach to researching Disability History, before closing with some reflections on the future direction of the field.
Claire Shaw’s prize-winning Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, Community, and Soviet Identity, 1917-1991 (2017) first introduced me to the idea that the concept of disability could and should be historicised. It also inspired my own pursuit of Disability History and it has been a privilege to draw upon Claire’s expertise as one of my doctoral supervisors.
Using both cultural texts and the rich archive of the All-Russian Association of the Deaf, Shaw examines the navigation of deaf identity in Soviet Russia. Her book foregrounds a vibrant and independent community of deaf people and their complex engagement with radical socialist ideology. It provides an interesting addition and point of comparison to earlier historical studies of (D)deafness, namely Martin Atherton’s Deafness, Community and Culture in Britain: Leisure and cohesion, 1945-95 (2012). Further discussion of Shaw’s method and background to the research can be found in this interview.
David Turner and Daniel Blackie’s Disability in the Industrial Revolution: Physical Impairment in British Coalmining, 1780-1880 (2018) is an ambitious account of physical impairment within coalmining communities in South Wales, Scotland and North East England. It foregrounds the centrality of disabled narratives within the familiar story of the Industrial Revolution, problematising a trope perpetuated by Disability Studies scholars: that industrialisation was responsible for the creation of disability in a modern Western context.
By focusing on mining and pit villages, Turner and Blackie turn their analysis away from the factory towards industrial communities. Their fifth chapter exploring ‘The industrial politics of disablement’ proved particularly instructive to my own thinking surrounding the political agency of disabled people. Choice case studies and examples neatly illustrate the success with which disabled miners fought for their rights long before an organised movement for disability rights emerged in twentieth-century Britain.
Esme Cleall’s recently published Colonising Disability: Impairment and Otherness Across Britain and Empire, c.1800-1914 is a pivotal assessment of disability within the context of the British Empire. Drawing on a diverse range of sources, Cleall explores the critical intersection between disability and race, illuminating issues of ‘otherness’ and ‘normalcy’ in relation to imperial selfhood. Although I am yet to access a copy of the book, I did have the privilege of hearing Cleall share some of this research when she was hosted by the Warwick Feminist History Group in 2019. At this point I was six months into my own doctoral research and Cleall’s compelling paper on the life and writings of Tilly Aston, a blind Australian writer, activist and philanthropist, guided my own approach to exploring the lives of disabled women activists in modern Britain. Cleall’s paper alerted me to the largely male-focused nature of Disability History and the potential for intersectional case studies of disabled women’s lives to expand and enrich the field.
Of course, there are many themes for historians of disability yet to address, with many now turning their attention to the subject of disabled people’s social and political organising. David Turner recently made an exciting announcement about his current book project – an accessible history of disabled people’s resistance across a 500-year period. With an anticipated publication date of 2025, Disability: A History of Resistance will be a timely contribution to both academic and popular history reading lists. As Turner explains:
I look at resistance in a broad sense, from early modern pauper and military petitions, through Victorian campaigns for inclusive education to modern disability rights and anti-austerity campaigns … The aim is to make research in disability history accessible to new audiences and to inspire others to discover this history for themselves.
A new generation of Early Career Researchers (myself included) share this ambition to write histories of disability that are both engaging and accessible. Throughout his doctoral research investigating the socio-political and technical history of the Sports Wheelchair, Sam Brady has been compiling a fascinating blog series for the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. One of the many subjects this series has highlighted is the importance of oral history interviews within Disability History research. Kirstie Stage’s nascent doctoral project provisionally entitled ‘Labour and Livelihoods of Disabled People’ is an excellent example of this, as it aims to historicise the workplace experiences of disabled people from 1970-2015.
My own plans to conduct in-person interviews were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and I have since reflected on the unexpected benefits of being forced to rely solely on remote interviews. My expectation is that in future, remote interviewing will become even more commonplace within historical research, particularly when it concerns disabled people. This is a welcome and necessary development that will help historians of disability to ensure that disabled people’s voices remain at the heart of their research.
About the Author
Beckie Rutherford is in her final year of doctoral research at the University of Warwick. Her thesis demonstrates the centrality of disabled women’s narratives to the broader landscape of liberation politics in modern Britain. It illuminates the neglected histories of three grassroots disabled women’s groups, plus the pioneering work of disabled women artists and writers.
Beckie is currently a Royal Historical Society Centenary Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London (2022-23).
Disability History Month runs in the UK between 16 November and 16 December 2022. This year’s theme is Disability, Health and Well-Being.
HEADER IMAGE: Photograph of Tilly Aston reading a braille storybook to school girls at the Royal Victorian Institute of the Blind in Melbourne, c. 1893-98. Image courtesy of Vision Australia.