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
.)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?)