A Report on Disability & the Victorians: Confronting Legacies Conference

From July 30 to August 1, 2012, I had the pleasure to participate in the Disability & the Victorians: Confronting LegaciesConference, hosted at the Leeds Center for Victorian Studies at Leeds-Trinity University College. Over the course of three days, the conference brought together delegates from Canada, the United States, Great Britain, Uganda, Belgium, Australia, and many more, in hopes of integrating the disciplines of Victorian Studies and Disabilities Studies together. With three keynotes and sixteen sessions, as well as a visit to the Thackray Museum, the conference presented an abundance of energetic discourse on the topic of disability—as many of you already know from my Tweets on the conference!

As disability studies has emerged as a significant aspect for revealing key histories in Victorian culture (see: Martha Stoddard-Holmes, Fictions of Affliction (2006), Julia Miele Rodas, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies,” Victorian Literature and Culture 36.1 (2006), and the Special issue on “Victorian Disability” in the Victorian Review (2009)), one of the agenda of the conference was to uncover new avenues for a revisionist approach to disability studies, outside of the social construction model. Various speakers at the conference challenged traditional histories of disability that pinpointed the Industrial Revolution and nineteenth century social reforms as a period in which disability was conceptualized, classified, and marginalized; rather, as some of the presentations have revealed, disability has a rich history, and new creative disability narratives are revealed by seeking out non-traditional sources (e.g. police reports). In particular, the Plenary Roundtable session held on the last day and led by Iain Hutchison (University of Glasgow), Fred Reid and Nancy Hansen, focused on how to offer new directions for scholarly discourse on disability studies, especially directions addressing the testimonies of the disabled themselves. Hutchison acknowledged the fact disability is important for understanding the landscape of nineteenth social history, for it overlaps important historical areas—economics, medicine, politics, society, etc—and a focus on cultural approaches can possibly challenge the (perhaps outdated?) social model of disability.

A key issue discussed during the Roundtable, which sought to integrate the dominant themes of the conference, was how to create an interdisciplinary perspective from multiple sources, an issue reflected in the three keynote presentations, which stressed the importance of looking at sensitive and neglected histories. Martha Stoddard-Holmes (California State University), the first keynote, presented “Desiring Cognitive Difference in the Victorian Novel: The Case of Anne Catherick,” discussing the eroticization of madness as presented in Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White (1860). Can intellectual deficiency be sexually desirable? Stoddard-Holmes made a strong case for confronting critical discomfort, pushing towards challenging approaches for conceptualizing disability in relation to the history of mentality and moral management—particularly in the Victorian novel.

David Wright (McGill University), also spoke of Victorians and mental disability, in his keynote “Did the Victorians Invent Disability? A Case Study of ‘Mongolism.’” Examining the emergence of “Mongolism” (taxonomy of mental illness grouping individuals with Down’s Syndrome), Wright argues that the Victorian preoccupation of taxonomy was not about the perseverance of the dominant cultural motif, but rather a devotion to the Enlightenment ideals of betterment of mankind. As certification of “idiots” were largely undertaken by non-medical persons, the presentation challenged the “invention” of disability by medical experts in the nineteenth century—showing that disability in fact, needs to be historically re-evaluated for its roots are far more diffusive and complex.

The third keynote was presented by Vanessa Toulmin (University of Sheffield) , founder & director of National Fairground Archives, Sheffield, which holds over 6000 images relating to the history of the freak show—records, as Toulmin contends, that can be either “interpreted as both a history of exploitation, or a record of performance genres.” In the keynote, “’To Show or Not to Show’ the Victorian Freak Show: Issues of Contextualization, Cataloguing and Interpreting for Modern Researchers,” which contained controversial material that was actually approved by an ethics committee, Toulmin discussed how forms of illegitimate entertainment actually became institutionalized over time—including exhibitions, museums, circuses, world fairs, and side-show traditions. The display of disability as entertainment was actually quite widespread, and far from being displayed in the margins of society, it was actually assimilated into culture and society. As suggested in the keynote, we can clearly draw parallels between the culture of curiosities that emerged in the 16-17th centuries, and the “freaks of nature” exhibits; moreover, Toulmin argues that these entertainment environments forces us to rethink traditional histories about the “freak show,” in light of histories of performance and display—as evident with Toulmin’s narrative about learning lessons about curating and displaying these exhibitions following media controversy and outraged response. Modern media representation is something that needs to be considered when dealing with sensitive materials, for media misrepresentation actually can undo careful historical contextualization.

Even though there were some amazing papers being presented at the conference, due to my own research interests, I stuck to the sessions on d/Deafness. Traditional histories on the deaf argue that until the 1860s, deafness was often described as an affliction that isolated the individual from the Christian community, the tragedy being that the affliction denied the deaf the reach of the gospel. After the 1860s, deafness was redefined as a condition that isolated the deaf from the national community; being cut off from communicating with others was a tragedy. The papers in the first session argued that contextualization and deaf narratives actually revise this history; different perceptions on deaf history concentrating on race/ethnicity, policies, or religion, speak towards a performance of disability, emphasizing the cultural construction of disability? Esme Cleall (University of Liverpool) spoke of disability as defined within cultural contexts of colonialism of nineteenth century British empire, as narrated through John Kitto, the “Deaf Traveller,” whose privileged status as a white, British male contradicted with his marginalized position as a deaf man. Martin Atherton (University of Central Lancashire) discussed how the 1834 Poor Law categorized the deaf as part of the “deserving poor,” allowing them to be seen, for the first time, as disabled; and yet, these restrictions also gave the deaf, for the first time, something to rebel against. Toni Morgan (Leeds-Trinity University College) finished off the session by questioning n whether the deaf had “true personhood” as defined by religion, focusing on William Sleight’s voice from the Dumb (1849): promotion of sympathy and benevolence as an aspect of Christianizing deaf to hear the world of god, at the same time, deafness also portrayed as innocence or as messiahs.

The second session on deafness continued with recurring themes of charitable benevolence humanitarianism, and performance all wrapped with social controls and institutionalization. Mike Mantin (Swansea University) presented on the letters children at the Cambrian Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Swansea sent home; these letters were printed in the annual reports of the institution to showcase its success as well as to solicit donations from subscribers. However, the letters are also another instance of display and performance, praising the marvels of education, while at the same time, speaking volumes about the perceptions of deaf children, who are usually silenced in history sources. Mantin also raised an important point about being wary of the kinds of motives behind these letters. Sofie de Veriman (University of Ghent) also spoke of motives, criticizing the “golden age” of deaf employment that coincided with education, with an economical case study of deaf employment in eighteenth and nineteenth century Flanders. Literacy and education may have helped the deaf obtain jobs before 1830, but after that, education did not guarantee employment. Nicola Gauld also discussed charity and institutions with an exploration to the archives of the Birmingham Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.

The last session on d/Deafness (other than my own) carried multiple themes relating to my own work: assistance and technology. Jennifer Esmail (Wilfred Laurier University) presented on the prosthetic companion of the blind man: companionship raising issues of dividing line of human and non-human animals—obviously ties to Aristotelianism—speaking on how perspectives on companion dogs as bodily extensions further enhances dividing barrier of human/non human beings. Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds) and Karen Sayer (Leeds-Trinity University College) presented on the “(dis)appearing hearing aid,” covering themes of the invisibility of hearing loss, stigmatization and conflicting authorities—the “culturally hearing”. Oralism, telephony, national efficiency concerns, and advertising all played a role in constructing the hearing aid. As Sayer explained, “When people think of hearing loss, they may or may not be resisting the kinds of visual association of technology.” Their presentation posed important questions of social history of technology and disability, questions which in part overlap identity narratives and taxonomies. Caroline Lieffers’(University of Alberta) paper on the making and marketing of B.F. Palmer’s artificial leg nicely rounded up the session, with discussions on authenticity and authority, and display and performance. This session raised questions of how versatile technology aimed to normalized disabilities, but yet contributed to stigmatization (e.g. concealing devises to hide disability and increase social participation), which suggests that the problem of disability is not so much about infirmity per se, but about ready access to technology.

Delegates were also invited to visit the Thackray Museum, which was one of my favourite parts of the conference. Below are some photos I managed to take with my iPad (with absolutely poor resolution!):

Thackray Museum

19th Century Auricles

Various Hearing Aid Instruments & Devices

Various hearing aid devices

Delegates inspecting various artifacts

This conference was simply wonderful. I truly enjoyed the many conversations with a wonderful group of scholars—particularly Graeme Gooday, John Hay, and Jill Jones, who offered me indispensable advise for my own work. I look forward to hearing more from the delegates as we take away some of the lessons of the conference. I would like to finish off my report with gratitude. Thank you to the organizers of Disability and the Victorians, especially Karen Sayer, for all their hard work in putting together a fantastic event, and for inviting me to participate. Thank you to the Review Committee and the Board of Disability History Association for selecting me for the 2012 DHA Graduate Student Award and to the Institution for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at University of Toronto, for funding that made this trip possible.

My presentation, all set up!

Latest Comments

  1. Iain Hutchison says:

    Jaipreet, it was a great pleasure to hear your presentation at the Leeds Trinity conference, and it was a priviliege to be your chair. Best wishes with your ongoing work – and I must say this is a beautiful website that you have set up. Iain


  2. Julia Miele Rodas says:

    So sad that I could not be there!


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