[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Disability]: Rembis on Hanes and Brown and Hansen, 'The Routledge History of Disability'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Tue Oct 16 12:23:39 MDT 2018

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Tue, Oct 16, 2018 at 11:26 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-Disability]: Rembis on Hanes and Brown and Hansen,
'The Routledge History of Disability'
To: <H-REVIEW at lists.h-net.org>

Roy Hanes, Ivan Brown, Nancy E. Hansen, eds.  The Routledge History
of Disability.  Routledge Histories Series. Abingdon  Routledge,
2017.  540 pp.  $225.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-19357-4.

Reviewed by Michael Rembis (University at Buffalo (SUNY))
Published on H-Disability (October, 2018)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

In many ways, _The Routledge History of Disability _is an impressive
work: twenty-eight chapters, forty-nine authors, nineteen countries
or geographic regions, and more than two thousand years of human
history. Contributors to _The Routledge History of Disability_ cover
topics familiar to disability studies scholars and disability
historians, such as the freak show, eugenics, and Nazi Germany. There
are also less familiar topics included in this volume, such as
disability in Nigeria, Belgian-Congo, Ireland, Hong Kong, and
Singapore. Authors write on topics as varied as gender and disability
in ancient Greece and "dull" students in a Norwegian folk school.
They ponder societal responses to "the intellectually disabled" and
expose developments in disability issues in Ottoman Turkey. The scope
of the material presented in _The Routledge History of Disability_
alone makes it noteworthy.

Yet this volume, with all of its positive attributes and potential
contributions to disability studies, raises some questions and
concerns about the representation of the history of people with
disabilities, the creation of the sub-discipline of disability
history within the larger historical profession, and the relationship
between disability history and disability studies. Before I address
these concerns, I would like to point out the strengths of this
ambitious collection. The strongest contributions to _The Routledge
History of Disability_ are the chapters that focus on geographic and
thematic areas that have been most well researched and most
frequently written about within disability studies and disability
history, such as sensory or intellectual disabilities and people with
mobility impairments or atypical bodies--in the Netherlands, Canada,
Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Belgian-Congo, Australia,
and ancient Greece. In these chapters, authors take care to situate
their work within existing disability studies and disability history
literature, and they, to varying degrees, employ historical
methodologies. They, for example, think about the importance of using
diverse primary sources in constructing historical scholarship, and
about the ways in which gender and social class work to co-constitute
disability and shape the experiences of disabled people in the past.

In the book's second chapter, disability historian M. Lynn Rose
presents a nuanced analysis of the importance of gender and social
and economic context in the creation of intellectual disability among
women in ancient Greece, which she argues "has little to do with
modern definitions" (p. 35). The title of the chapter, "The Courage
of Subordination," comes from Aristotle's _Politics_. The gendered
concept of silent and courageous subordination articulated by
Aristotle, Rose argues, "provides a starting point from which to
examine the contextualized meaning of female intellectual ability and
disability" in ancient Greece. According to Rose, "some women
embodied the courage of subordination; other women were very
insubordinate indeed" (p. 37). Both types of women became disabled,
for different reasons. Disability, especially something akin to
intellectual disability, became knowable in ancient Greece only
through the gendered social, cultural, and economic contexts within
which it was created. It took its meaning, Rose asserts, from its
"community's context." It was "dependent on expectations and
resources" (p. 46). As Rose concludes, "intellectual disability is a
fluid concept, and perhaps nothing more than a concept, that varies
widely over time and between cultures" (p. 42).

_The Routledge History of Disability_ contains several other chapters
written by authors, like Rose, who create clear temporal and
geographic boundaries and analyze the ways in which other identity
categories (such as gender, race, or religion) and material
conditions and social and economic structures (such as colonization)
interact to create disability and shape the lived experiences of
disabled people in the past. A fine example of this approach is the
history of disability in Belgian-Congo, 1908-60, written by Pieter
Verstraete, Evelyne Verhaegen, and Marc Depaepe. In this chapter,
which is a revision of Verhaegen's unpublished master's thesis, the
authors note the simultaneous presence and absence of disability and
disability education among the colonized peoples of Congo. The
mutilation of Congolese rubber plantation workers by their colonizers
and the presence of "river blindness" meant that disability was
probably a prominent feature of daily life in Belgian-Congo in the
first half of the twentieth century (p. 238). Yet it was
conspicuously absent both from the governing structures created by
Belgian colonizers and from later histories of the region. Given
their area of expertise and their focus in the chapter, the authors
note, for example, that the colonial government made no provisions
for "special education" in Congo. They contend that this could have
been the product of European colonizers' ideas concerning the
inherent primitiveness of the Congolese people. In some ways, they
were all seen as disabled when compared with Europeans, and therefore
"special education" was not necessary in the colonial context.

Hazel McFarlane takes a similarly careful, multilayered approach in
her study of blind asylums and missions in Scotland. Making extensive
and thoughtful use of primary documents, McFarlane reveals the
importance of gender, class, and dominant notions of morality in
shaping the creation of, and the daily work within, asylums in
Edinburgh and Glasgow in the nineteenth century. Institution
administrators concerned with their own reputations and the
reputations of their asylums implemented repressive rules and regimes
that forbade, or at the very least made it difficult for, blind women
to express their sexuality, bear children, and become mothers. And
although notions of respectability changed over the course of the
nineteenth century, one of the results of the asylum was "virtually
to eradicate the participation of blind women in mainstream
[Scottish] society" (p. 296). But asylum administrators did not have
the last word in every case. McFarlane's chapter is one of the few
chapters in the book that reads institutional documents creatively in
an effort to root out moments of resistance among asylum inmates.
McFarlane found that age mattered in resistance. Inmates admitted at
a younger age were less likely to resist the "rules and regimes of
'the house.'" Other, older inmates refused to attend religious
services and formed relationships, some of which resulted in
pregnancy, which McFarlane argues showed that inmates were "capable
of making their own decisions, and were prepared to face the
consequences" (p. 289). Despite their removal from mainstream
Scottish society, nineteenth-century women inmates of blind asylums
worked to shape their own lives, which in some cases included
becoming a mother.

In "Breaking the Rules," Karen Yoshida, Susan Ferguson, and Fady
Shanouda model innovative ways to use oral history to explore the
experiences of polio survivors in twentieth-century Ontario, Canada.
They argue that their interviews with a small group of people who
attended camps for "crippled children" in the 1940s and 1950s
challenge "the dominant negative views of disability reflected within
the archival documents" (p. 455). In their study, the authors compare
the memories of campers with two documents: _The History of the
Ontario Society for Crippled Children_ (1967) and _Summer Camp
Objectives _(no date of publication). After presenting a brief
history of the Ontario Society for Crippled Children, the authors
move systematically through the "objectives" of summer camp (p. 465).
They list the ideologies camp organizers hoped to instill in campers,
including participation, self-expression, independence,
socialization, and sense of personal worth, and juxtapose those
ideological goals with the memories of campers. The authors conclude
with a discussion of "gendered subjectivities, social practice, and
performances within the camps," and "future narratives" (pp. 477,
479). Although they rely on a limited array of archival sources and
their analysis of both historical documents and oral history
interviews is colored by early twenty-first-century understandings of
disability and the lives of disabled people (rather than analyzing
the past on its own terms), this chapter, which makes a conscious
effort to bridge theoretical insights from disability studies with
disability history methodologies, is a promising example of the
interdisciplinary scholarship that is helping to redefine both

In all, there are a handful of chapters, like the ones mentioned
above, that stand out in their efforts to incorporate existing
historiography and historical methodologies into their scholarship.
Other chapters in _The Routledge History of Disability _do not engage
as rigorously with the discipline of history or the subfield of
disability history, which often includes accounts or interpretations
of the lived experiences of disabled people. This might be because
the majority of the contributors to this volume are not primarily
historians. As a historian who has been working in the field for
twenty years, I find it a bit disconcerting that forty-one of the
forty-nine contributors to _The Routledge History of Disability_ are
not historians, and the book's three editors are also not historians.
I call attention to the lack of historical training among most of the
volume's contributors not as a way of claiming or defending
intellectual or professional territory but rather as a way to address
structural shortcomings in the book and raise questions that
historians of disability, and disability studies scholars, should
contend with moving forward.

Most of the contributors to _The Routledge History of Disability_
come from the human service or helping professions, such as medicine,
"special" education, psychology, social work, and public health, or
other academic disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology,
political science, and geography. A few come from disability studies
and deaf studies. I mention this not to single out any one author or
group of authors but to note that the background and training of the
contributors to this book are important, because they have shaped the
book's focus, and the design and execution of each of its chapters.

Given the background and training of the contributors to this volume,
it is not surprising that only seven of twenty-eight chapters engage
with larger historiographic concerns or historical methodologies. The
chapters in this volume, with a few exceptions, are teleological,
presentist, and progressive, or what some historians might call
"Whig" histories. This progressive orientation toward the present can
be seen in the book's introduction. The editors write that the
"handbook shows a shift from a history of segregation and exclusion
toward greater inclusion and the provision of civil rights for
disabled people" (p. 5). It is apparent in some of the chapter titles
as well, such as "The Italian Path to School and Social Inclusion."
It is also visible in some of the chapters' stated aims or goals. For
example, one chapter states that its goal is "to contribute to a
better understanding of what has occurred in the past and how this
has evolved into the current situation, with an emphasis on the
resulting opportunities that are opening for people with disabilities
today" (p. 356). The result of this apparent presentism is that most
of the chapters contained in _The Routledge History of Disability_
offer little more than an encyclopedic inventory of key moments in
the past when governments implemented legislative measures or social
or educational programs intended to benefit disabled people. With
several notable exceptions, the chapters cover centuries or millennia
of history, forgoing nuanced analyses of changes and continuities and
of specific social forces and historical actors, resulting in a
breadth of coverage that some readers may find impressive and useful,
but which does little in the way of teasing out the rich
complexities, contradictions, and power relations that drive human
history, or of placing disability history in conversation with other
sub-disciplines within the historical profession.

Despite nearly three decades of the mantra "nothing about us, without
us," and the painstaking efforts of historians who have been working
nearly as long to uncover the lived experiences of people with
disabilities, this book does not make that a focus. While the editors
and some of the authors state the importance of the need to include
disabled people as agents of their own history, most of the chapters
fall short of that goal. Instead, the book focuses on educational and
health-related services and supports, legislative enactments,
government policies, and programs related to disability primarily
from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century.
While this focus makes sense, given the background and training of
the contributors to this volume, it is not necessarily in line with
decades of disability activism, nor does it adequately reflect or
significantly contribute to the historiography on disability and
disabled people.

Of course, it must be recognized that historians are limited by their
sources. In many times and places, it is difficult, if not
impossible, to access the experiences, thoughts, emotions, or actions
of disabled people, but historians are showing that when read
creatively and within larger contexts provided by a rigorous
understanding of the historiography, traditional sources can be quite
revealing. We can see this in the chapter on nineteenth-century blind
asylums in Scotland, for example. Historians have also shown that
other less traditional sources, such as material objects, can be used
to gain insight into disabled people's lives in the past. Government
documents, institutional archives, training manuals, and other
written (usually published) sources are not the only sources
available to disability historians.

After reading _The Routledge History of Disability_, one comes away
with the general impression that "disability" remained more or less
static throughout much of recorded human history and that it was
(only) social attitudes, societal provisions, and official labels for
disability and disabled people that changed, or progressively
developed, over time. In the hands of many, though certainly not all,
of the authors in this volume, disability becomes a vaguely defined
yet ostensibly self-evident "set of problems" (p. 91). Authors, for
example, refer to "the intellectually disabled" in various times and
places, as if "the intellectually disabled" were a more or less
stable, discrete, and readily identifiable category or group of
people regardless of context (p. 19). At least one author refers to
"mild handicaps" as if they were consistent "things" that could be
found in or on the bodies of disabled people in any era of human
history (p. 16).

It is worth repeating, as Rose does in her chapter, the "bedrock
assumption ... that intellectual disability is a fluid concept, and
perhaps nothing more than a concept, that varies widely over time and
between cultures" (p. 42). It would have been beneficial if more
contributors to this volume had recognized, as Verstraete, Verhaegen,
and Depaepe do, the "epistemological difficulty of applying a Western
concept [disability or intellectual disability or handicap] to a
bygone period in a completely different culture" (p. 238). Or if they
had read the chapter by Dave Earl who wrote, "Classifications of
disability, like other social and cultural categories, are fluid and
historically contingent, and subject to change, resistance, and
contestation over time.... There is certainly no reason to assume
that people included in current classificatory schedules neatly align
with older categories and understandings" (p. 308).

Because most of the authors in _The Routledge History of Disability_
are not historians, few of the chapters in the volume think about how
disability history might inform or be informed by other historical
sub-disciplines, such as labor history, women's history, the history
of colonialism or empire, the history of the welfare state, military
history, religious history, or the history of the migration of
peoples, ideas, and cultures across national borders. "A Short
History of Disability in Italy," written by a medical doctor, a
political scientist, and a psychologist, illustrates this point. This
"short history," which spans thousands of years, raises questions
about context and periodization: What is "Italy"? Is it a geographic
location? A shared community? A set of beliefs? A common culture or
language? When historians write about the Roman Republic or the Roman
Empire, are they writing about "Italy"? Is Roman Catholic Western
Europe "Italy"? How do we account for something like the Black Death,
the Renaissance, and the rise of city states on the Italian
peninsula? The questions continue with the rise of the Enlightenment
and the modern nation-state, as well as the various political regimes
that have influenced life in Italy in the modern era. The authors
move freely among all of these temporal and geographic frames. They
approach these questions, which have animated generations of
historical inquiry, uncritically, using them instead as unqualified,
and unexamined, markers in a progressive march through time, which
culminates in the validation of their own professional role in the
life of "the disabled person."

The authors' progressive, presentist approach, their freewheeling use
of "Italy" as an organizing concept, and their lack of engagement
with historiography and historical inquiry can be seen in their
conclusion, which does not address historical questions or related
concerns but rather focuses on current twenty-first-century issues
concerning disability and disabled people. In their conclusion, the
authors write, "First, regarding the historical overview, we stressed
the progressive efforts over the centuries, and especially in Italy,
to enrich the identity of the Person with disability as a valid part
of human diversity" (p. 91). Not only is the idea that there have
been progressive efforts over the centuries to enrich the life of the
disabled "Person" historically inaccurate and deeply, problematically
misleading, but it also creates a static, monolithic archetype in
"the Person with disability," which undermines decades of political
and academic work. Unlike some of the other authors in _The Routledge
History of Disability_, the authors of "A Short History of Disability
in Italy" forgo a more subtle or nuanced reading of the past to
create a linear progressive narrative in which "the idea grew that
each person had rights and value just for being a human." Once this
realization occurred, then, "a debate emerged in Italy about how best
to reintegrate [disabled people] by means of rights, personal
supports, and contextual supports." The authors conclude that this
new perspective "might be best represented" by the "normative,
law-based agreement between the community and its citizens who have a
condition of disability," which when "best practice assessment and
plan development" are based on "evidence and human paradigms, we can
build pathways towards lives of quality and meaning" (p. 92).

Setting aside, for the moment, the fact that these conclusions do not
engage with historical inquiry or disability historiography in
"Italy," one must ask why "citizens who have a condition of
disability" are constructed as separate from "the community."
Additionally, one must ask why disabled people need medical doctors,
political scientists, and psychologists ("we") to build "pathways
towards lives of quality and meaning." Embedded within ableist
structures and paradigms, the medical doctor, the political
scientist, and the psychologist cannot see that perhaps disabled
people might want to build a life of quality and meaning without
them. Even if the medical doctor, the political scientist, and the
psychologist had the best of intentions when they set out to write
their short history of disability in "Italy," we (disabled people and
academics alike) cannot leave their methods and their conclusions
unquestioned or unchallenged. If we do, then they become the masters
of our (I am disabled) historical narrative and an indispensable part
of continuing in their words to "build pathways towards lives of
quality and meaning" (p. 92).

The authors of "A Short History of Disability in Italy" are not alone
in their approach to studying disability in the past. Chapters like
"Disabilities and Disability Services in Nigeria: Past, Present and
Future," "A Journey of Change: History of Disability in Hong Kong
1841-2014," "Historical Development of Disability Services in
Singapore: Enabling Persons with Disabilities," "History and National
Policy Documents on Special Education in Sweden," and "The Italian
Path to School and Social Inclusion: Problems, Strengths and
Perspectives" display similarly limited thinking about disability and
disabled people. In the hands of their authors, history becomes
little more than preamble to a more enlightened present. This can be
seen in chapter conclusions, which are not historical but rather
commentaries on current twenty-first-century situations or future

These chapters are certainly valuable in their own ways and in their
own right. Among other things, they provide excellent summaries,
which will be useful to people interested in getting a sense of
disability services, policies, and provisions in parts of the world
that are just becoming part of a global discussion of disability in
the early twenty-first century. Ideally these chapters will also
inspire future historians to dig in and do historical work in these

Other chapters in this volume engage with history in ways that have
been considered problematic or unacceptable among trained historians
for decades. Two chapters, for instance, use the "great man" approach
to explaining disability history. The author of chapter 1, an
economist and professor of social work, argues that "we see the roots
of many of the attitudes which characterized the later history of the
social response to intellectual disability" in the "classical period"
(p. 13). In constructing his historical survey of societal responses
to disability from antiquity (the "classical period") to the
"Romantic age" (neither term is well defined), the author has a
section titled "Of Remarkable Men and the Education of the Idiot," in
which he argues that Samuel Gridley Howe was "perhaps the greatest of
the early American reformers," and that the "other great figure of
the age" was a white European man named Johan Jacob Guggenbühl (pp.
28-29). Of these and other great white men, the author writes, "one
is struck by their commitment to social change and the commitment
they showed to the causes with which they were connected. These are
not disinterested professionals pursuing careers for professional and
personal gain. They were people who could (and often did) have
excelled in a variety of areas, but chose to concern themselves with
people who until that time [the nineteenth century] were thought
worth little more than pity at best. They were products of the
Romantic age, passionate in the belief that society could be
re-organized to end exploitation and suffering" (p. 28). Any astute
reader would wonder at this romanticization of the great men of the
"Romantic age." For a historian of the nineteenth century, and more
specifically a disability historian of the nineteenth century, this
kind of historical writing seems passé at best, and at its very
worst could be considered detrimental to the field.

The author of "Changing America's Consciousness: A Brief History of
the Independent Living Civil Rights Movement in the United States"
takes a similar approach. Despite the recent proliferation of
historical work on the disability rights and independent living
movements in the United States, the chapter presents a now dated
linear historical narrative of disability in the United States from
colonial times to the late twentieth century. The main ideological
focus of the piece, however, is the great white men, Franklin Delano
Roosevelt and Ed Roberts, who led, either through (often disguised)
example or activist leadership, the movement for rights and
independent living. In a departure from other chapters, this chapter,
which takes an older approach to thinking about the disability rights
movement and its historical narrative, ends in the early 1990s. It
does not interrogate battles over community living and disability
rights that have taken place at the local, state, and federal levels
over the last nearly thirty years.

The general lack of engagement with historiography and historical
methods can be seen in _The Routledge History of Disability_'s_
_introduction, which makes only passing reference to the "minimal
literature relating to histories of disabled persons" and cites only
nine sources in its list of references, none of which are histories
(p. 2). There is no mention in the introduction, for example, of the
vibrant ongoing debates among historians of disability and historians
of medicine. Nor is there any engagement with the massive
proliferation of literature on industrialization, freaks and freak
shows, eugenics, and Nazi Germany, despite the presence of chapters,
or sections of chapters, on each of these topics in the book.

As mentioned at the outset of this review, _The Routledge History of
Disability_ should be recognized for its global reach. The range of
geographic areas included in the volume is impressive. Given the
strength of Routledge in academic publishing, this book will no doubt
become a reference book used in libraries throughout the world. But,
unfortunately for disability historians and disabled people, the book
raises as many questions as it attempts to address.

Although thirty to thirty-five years old (depending on who you ask),
disability history is still a relatively nascent field within the
larger historical profession. It is still in its formative stages,
fluid and receptive to change both from within the profession and
from outside of it. The lack of a rigid historical canon, or a firmly
entrenched hierarchy of interests and concerns, is what makes
disability history--and disability studies more generally--such a
vibrant and pathbreaking field of study. But does that openness mean
that anyone can write disability history? Would professional
disability historians presume to write a social work textbook? Would
they presume to train K-12 educators, or practice medicine or
psychology? Perhaps the editors' intent was to explode disciplinary
boundaries. If that is the case, then the editors should have stated
that at the outset.

Interdisciplinary collaborations are common in disability studies.
They are what make disability studies such an innovative and exciting
field. But _The Routledge History of Disability_, with the exception
of those few chapters noted above, does not model the pioneering
interdisciplinary collaborations common among other edited volumes
within disability studies and disability history. One is left asking:
Does interdisciplinarity in this case mean that one can write in any
field they choose regardless of their training and research
background? Do we (academics) want to ignore disciplinary boundaries
completely? And perhaps more important, do we disabled people want
our histories written by the physicians, social workers, therapists,
counselors, and educators who, despite their best intentions, have
historically subjugated, segregated, and oppressed us--often in the
name of "helping" us? Coalitions, collaborations, and allies are
imperative to our movement and to many of our academic pursuits. They
were important in the past and they will be important in the future,
and we must work to foster them and make them grow. But does that
mean giving up disciplinary rigor or the narration of our own past?
Ableism is an insidious and powerful thing that extends beyond any
one actor or group of actors.

After taking several tours through this volume, which contains a
handful of stellar contributions, I found myself asking whether we
(disabled people) want our past colonized by the very people we have
sought to resist. Is the history presented in _The Routledge History
of Disability_--one that focuses on government interventions,
schools, hospitals, asylums, and doctors, psychologists, social
workers, educators, and other professionals or similarly situated
elite members of society--our only history? Are there other stories
that can be told? Can we approach old topics from new perspectives?
Can we show the power of disability history to communicate with, and
sometimes completely reshape, other more well-established
sub-disciplines within history? _The Routledge History of Disability_
covers an impressive array of geographies, but sometimes coverage is
not enough; coverage does not always result in engagement with the
intellectual, social, or political issues at stake in writing
disability histories.

_Reviewer's note: I am the editor, with Catherine Kudlick and Kim
Nielsen, of the _Oxford Handbook of Disability History_ (2018). The
thoughts expressed in this review are my own._

Citation: Michael Rembis. Review of Hanes, Roy; Brown, Ivan; Hansen,
Nancy E., eds., _The Routledge History of Disability_. H-Disability,
H-Net Reviews. October, 2018.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51553

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

More information about the Marxism mailing list