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Disability History Month - A Mini Display

Written by James Cullis, posted on Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Disability History Month strikes as a prime opportunity to explore the different ways in which disability has historically been conceptualized and understood in a variety of social and intellectual contexts. Thus the books on display offer a snapshot into the way disability has been recognised as constituting a specific type of lifestyle and how this has distinct cultural and political ramifications.  

Contemporary disability theory is defined by the view that the idea of disability itself is socially constructed and that the political institutions which make up society create and enhance cultural barriers that define a disabled person’s existence. This view is best articulated by Tom Shakespeare in his work, Disability: the Basics on display here at Christ Church library.  

One key feature of disability is the way it engages with questions around the human body. To have a physical disability in some senses, is to be forced to confront the perceived limits of biology.  In her work, The Minority Body: A Theory of Disability, Elizabeth Barnes addresses these issues with a view to understanding cultural attitudes towards the body as indicative of social norms that promote an ‘ideal’ body. Yet for Barnes the discourse around the disabled body ought to be seen primarily as being on par with how we might view sexuality, gender or race.  

Barnes’ approach contrasts nicely with traditional notions of the biopolitics of the disabled body. In her contribution to the volume Recovering Disability in Early Modern England, Nancy Hirschmann demonstrates how the idea of disability was understood by two of the most famous philosophers of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. For Hobbes, to have a physical disability entailed being restricted in the control of one’s own physical movements, while for Locke the question of disability was tied to the issue of membership of a political community and whether having a disability prevented full membership of a society. In both authors, contrary to Barnes, the disabled body stood outside the norms of society.   

Such works are complimented by more conventional narratives on Disability History in terms of theatre and cultural representation. The idea that issues surrounding disability have historically been a prominent feature of the cultural landscape is not in itself a ‘new’ insight. In her Literature and Intellectual Disability in Early Modern England: Folly, Law and Medicine, 1500-1640, Alice Equestri explores the way cultural depictions of intellectual disability drew both from realistic and more artistic representations of the subject.   

Similar themes are assessed by Genevieve Love, in her work, Early Modern Theatre and the Figure of Disability. Here, the issue is not intellectual – but physical disability with a focus on the role of prothesis. This ‘physical material’ dimension to disability and the theatre provides a significant basis with which to explore the place of disability within  early modern cultural history. 

In all, these books provide an exciting peek into what Disabled History Month has to offer. They also reveal a forgotten side to history. One that is just waiting to be read.   


Written by James Cullis for Christ Church Library’s Disability History Month display, 16 November – 16 December 2022