Disability historian, Daisy Holder, explains how the lack of education about disability history contributes to our current treatment.
[Image: a black and white photograph of a number of women in a library. Some are searching for books on shelves and others are sitting at desks writing notes from books.]
by Daisy Holder.
Yet again, I find myself standing before a very plain looking man after explaining my disability history research. He says, "but disabled people have never had it so good, so why are you all still complaining?" My answer to him is: “because that isn't actually true.” Looking back to the early modern age, the medieval era and ancient times, disability and chronic illness was much more common than it is now. It was just a normal thing that happened sometimes, whether due to illness, injury, lack of medical attention or random bad luck. It was typical, mundane, boring even.
It has been estimated that during the Middle Ages (between the 5th Century and the 15th Century) at least 15% of people were physically disabled, which at first glance is similar to the World Health Organisation estimate of 15% in the modern world, but unlike our current estimations doesn't take into account mental illnesses and invisible illnesses. This flies in the face of people who claim that this amount of disability didn't exist in the past and we're just making up diseases to try and scrounge benefits.
Arguably, this attitude to disability only started to change during the Industrial Revolution, when productivity and being able to do the same task over and over again became so important. Prior to this, much of the work was in fields of crafts or skills which could be adapted on an individual basis if someone acquired a disability or illness. Around the same time, the medical profession began to categorise a ‘normal’ human body, opening up the concept of abnormality. This meant disability was a thing that could theoretically be fixed, a medicalised model of Disability that we still deal with today.
“Prior to this, much of the work was in fields of crafts or skills which could be adapted on an individual basis if someone acquired a disability or illness.”
Ancient history shows us a level of acceptance of disability that we could only dream of today. Recent research has uncovered evidence of ramps for disabled access in several buildings in ancient Greece. We know from studies on a Peruvian mummy of a young boy with spinal tuberculosis that in the ancient Nazca culture, they cared for, assisted and valued the vulnerable members of their community.
It also shows us that Disabled people resisted control and had a strong desire to determine their own fate and live independently, a trait that has never gone away. When deprived of their liberty and treated badly, those living in the leper house in Yorkshire mutinied against the abbot and the other staff who were stealing from them, killing one of the guards. Based on the history that many of us have been taught, you'd be forgiven for thinking that disabled people were invented during the First World War, then we were put in asylums and workhouses.
Framing of disability history has always centred non-disabled people as benevolent benefactors, while the names of disabled people aren't even recorded, furthering this impression that we just weren't around. A good example of this is Alexander Graham Bell, who initially invented the telephone as a hearing aid, and advocated for Deaf education, but also advocated against Deaf people having children and the use of sign language.
"Framing of disability history has always centred non-disabled people as benevolent benefactors..."
When famous figures have had disabilities they have usually been hidden, such as Mexican artist Frida Khalo. She contracted polio as a child, and then was seriously injured in a bus crash as a teenager, leaving her with chronic pain and illness for her whole life. The exception to this rule, of course, is if it can be weaved into a narrative of irony or inspiration porn, such as Beethoven.
But this non-disabled framing often doesn't occur to non-disabled people who are sharing our history, as the idea of a story that starts with a disability and ends with positivity isn't within their consciousness. I hasten to add that this usually isn't intentional, it's again reflective of a lack of education about just how often figures from the past have been surreptitiously disabled.
And this continues in the modern mainstream, where the lack of visibility and representation allows many people to think that disability isn't a problem most people need to worry about, even when it might actually apply not only to them, but people they know and are close to as well.
Many of us have seen the backlash toward current figures referring to themselves as disabled, such as Jameela Jamil or Selma Blair. The chorus of "you're not disabled, you're beautiful!" or "you're not really disabled, you can still go to work!" is indicative of how little disability is seen in their everyday lives, on the television or in their education.
This perpetuates a level of background ableism that not only affects how people relate to Disabled people, but how we as Disabled people continue to feel about ourselves. Internalised ableism is something that many of us have to work on, because a lack of disability narrative tells us that we only deserve pity, help and patronisation. These myths around the history of our community mean that we accept what has recently been termed ‘benevolent ableism’. This is the phenomenon where if ableism comes from ‘niceness’ or 'helpfulness’, then it should be tolerated. When it isn't, non-disabled people feel justified to respond to the rejection of their ‘assistance’ with upset, offence or even aggression.
While there is this idea that this is a very current debate, as part of a revolution in thinking that comes from the activists of the 20th century and the adoption of the social model of disability, this actually has a much longer history. Even the social model itself has been described for centuries, although not with that name.
This suppression of knowledge has been used to shut down not just active campaigning, but even exploration of our identity as a whole.
This suppression of knowledge has been used to shut down not just active campaigning, but even exploration of our identity as a whole. Challenge of the status quo is resisted, ostensibly because by pushing for more rights, we’re just being greedy. This theory is inherently flawed, as from what history shows us, we're not being anywhere near greedy enough.
Daisy Holder (she/they) is making disability history more accessible. A medical mystery, researcher, writer, captioner and Trustee at Bristol Disability Equality Forum. You can follow Daisy here on Twitter - @daisyholder and on Instagram - @holderdaisy