Sunday, May 01, 2011

BADD 2011: Disability History

I've had a rant coming on since, oh, 2008 (my paper at the Berks conference that year reflected the beginnings of this rant), and nothing in the time since has allayed my concerns, so here it is, for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2011. (This is DSTU's sixth time in the event; read our past entries here: 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.)

Disability history is too important to hide away in journals, it's too important to bury in jargon, it's too important to present to empty conference rooms.

Disability history is more than a line on your CV, academics.

I'm frustrated whenever I find some really amazing disability history in a scholarly journal. Why? Because it's in such an inaccessible place, and often presented with such inaccessible language that it will never reach the majority of the audience who wants, needs, and will use that history in their work. Of course I know that journal articles and conference presentations are part of the game of academic careers. But if your work is valuable and relevant beyond the department hallway, don't you have a further obligation to find that audience and present that work in accessible formats?

Blog about disability history. Post disability history images on Flickr. Curate a disability history exhibit off-campus. Make a zine. Start a Wikipedia entry, or improve one that exists. Speak to non-academic audiences about your work. Speak to children about it (there's a real challenge). Write for non-academic audiences, on op-ed pages, in local publications, in national magazines. Make a podcast. Make a video and post it online. Donate a copy of your book to a public library. Don't wait for someone else to do it. Don't assume your work is too esoteric. Don't dumb it down, but use plain language and express yourself clearly. Take a class if you need new skills. Enormous potential is wasted when you don't take responsibility for putting it where it can be read and seen and discussed, by teachers and retirees, by activists and local government officials, and other folks who can't take books out of university libraries or attend scholarly conferences. It's not just giving, either; taking your work off-campus is also an opportunity to see its practical dimensions, and to learn about resources for further study that aren't in the usual places.

What can disability history do if you take it off-campus? It can ignite, it can comfort, it can inform, it can connect, it can solve mysteries and correct misunderstandings. Tracking down a history of families like mine was a priority when my son was first born--if I don't know those stories, how do I know where we fit in? Whose pasts can we learn from? There was a hunger to know that went far beyond thinking about a postdoctoral project or an interesting reading to assign to a class. The conventional wisdom is full of nonsense about disability history; solid scholarship that reaches into the community can engage that nonsense and replace it with something far more powerful.

If you're doing disability history, it should matter.

ETA: In comments, the question of "what is disability history" came up. If you're interested in further information on disability history, come join the H-Disability listserv (just past our 10th year, and reaching over 500 members), and the Disability History Association. (Why didn't I think to link to these originally?)


Wheelchair Dancer said...

Yes! Yes! and YES! Again.


Ruth said...

So true!

Roia said...

Sing it, sister!

kethry said...

I have a question - and I ask this as a student historian - what do you actually mean by disability history? family/individual history or social history of the disabled?

If you mean the latter, then yes, there's some great stuff out there, and yes, its a b****r to track down. but definitely worth it when you do. "In the eye of the beholder" by Robert Garland is one such - that one covers disability history in ancient greece and rome. I'm also itching to read "The Staff of Oedipus" by Martha L Rose, but haven't managed to lay my greedy little mitts on a copy ... so far!

Selene said...

Too true, I'd love to read more about this! Great post.

Penny L. Richards said...

@kethry: both, I guess! Me, I mostly write about 19c. US families and disability in the context of education, immigration, aging, etc., and their appearances in popular literature. But I mean disability history more broadly--hey, maybe this is the place to link to the Disability History Association!
I'd also invite folks interested in disability history to join the H-Disability listserv, now ten years old and reaching 500+ members:

Custom Term Papers said...
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kethry said...

Penny - thanks for those two links, they look very interesting! Am in the middle of researching wet and dry preservation in the Mesolithic at the moment (translation: skiving off work doing this.. naughty kethry) but I have bookmarked and will have a more indepth look later on... :) Thank you!

Paula Apodaca said...

You can rant anytime you want...your info is darling when you get heated...
I have been doing this about epilepsy. I felt no one wanted to hear about epilepsy, but the more I wrote, the more comments I got. It afforded me a chance to try out ideas that might work into a book on the subjective quality of life with epilepsy.
Thanks, penny, for your support and for the pieces you have included on your own blog (like the Ida McKinley) that met ion epilepsy.
Paula Apodaca

Samuel Miller said...

As a 54-year-old independent Disability Studies researcher and full-time stock market trader, the fact that I'm not currently enrolled or teaching at a university makes it problematic, and rather expensive, to procure academic journal articles. It's extremely vexing that I am unable to access, for instance, the Project Muse online database. I have to make do with buying used books, reading limited Google Book excerpts and finding freely available articles on the Internet.

Yes, I do appreciate the fact that “Disability Studies Quarterly” is available online, and I do post frequently on the DS-HUM listserv.
But I think that more attention must be paid to the needs of persons with disabilities, such as myself, who are actively pursuing scholarly research in the field of Disability Studies, but have a full-time career and haven’t attended university for decades. I’m certain that there are many independent researchers in my position who desperately require, and would appreciate, online database access. (Purchasing academic journal articles cost $25 and up.)

It’s ironic that I’m posting this here, as I was mentioned in the acknowledgements page of this anthology, published in 1986 by Temple University Press, but no longer in print:

Anyway, thanks for lending a sympathetic ear. I would encourage you to at least follow me on Twitter. I’m an early contributor to the field of Disability Studies.

Samuel Miller
Blog: Hephaestus: Disability Studies
Blog: My Disability Studies Blackboard
(Montreal, Canada)

Penny L. Richards said...

Hi Samuel Miller--if you're not already involved, you might want to check out the National Coalition of Independent Scholars:
There's also an H-Scholar listserv for independent scholars in the humanities, and these issues come up often there.

Susan Senator said...

I'm so glad I found this post because that is exactly what I've been thinking about writing, but in my case it would be a history of autism -- but told in an accessible, warm, engaging way rather than a dry and researched tone. I want to discuss the autism movement, but in a down-to-earth format. Great post!

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Well said...

Van Products said...

Great argument! It's true that a lot of really valuable information isn't accessible to people who are outside of academia. And that's unfortunate, because academic pieces written on disability have some great insights and observations you can't necessarily find in a more popular magazine or site. This is a great call to action for those in academia. They should apply their passions outside of their university, and help out us "normal" people!