Disability in History

Douglas C. Baynton, November 2006

A spate of recent articles has declared disability to be the next academic frontier, an analytic category with the transformative potential of race, class, sexuality, and gender. Not everyone is buying it, however. Responding to an American Historical Review essay by Catherine Kudlick, "Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other,'" the blogger "Invisible Adjunct" insisted that "the enterprise smacks of academic opportunism. Now that we've exhausted the possibilities for race, class, and gender, runs the subtext, it is time to find or else to create for ourselves a new Other." Readers' comments that followed mostly agreed that while disability matters, it does so only in a very narrow and limited way. As one exasperated instructor asked, "How do you jimmy handicapped awareness into Marco Polo?"1

At the least, new scholarship that defines disability as historically and culturally contingent has challenged how we think about important historical figures such as Helen Keller, Randolph Bourne, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. No longer content with perfunctory observations on courage in the face of adversity, biographical accounts of disabled people have begun to explore how attitudes toward physical difference and anomalous bodies shaped their lives and careers. Others are excavating forgotten stories of disabled people who organized to demand equal rights long before the latest phase of the disability rights movement.

Disability is also moving from the margins to the center of several well-established histories. The history of the international eugenics movement and the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, which once focused almost entirely on race, is being transformed by new research that puts disability at its center. Important interventions have been made in the histories of modern industry and warfare as well, two enterprises that have been highly efficient at producing disability at the same time that they have furthered, in various ways, the marginalization of disabled people. While little of this work has extended beyond the modern West, enough has been done to show that disability can carry radically different meanings across cultures and historical periods.

But none of this addresses the Marco Polo question. Why should anyone who does not specialize in the history of disability take particular notice? Does the concept of disability have significance beyond the history of disabled people? It will be 20 years next month since Joan Scott confronted a similar question in "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," in the American Historical Review. In that essay, she observed that the typical response to women's history at the time was, "women had a history separate from men's, therefore let feminists do women's history," or "my understanding of the French Revolution is not changed by knowing that women participated in it."2

Scott contended that to challenge these assumptions, it was necessary to demonstrate not just that women participated in the making of history, but that "gender is a constitutive element of social relationships" and "a primary way of signifying relationships of power." To do this, Scott turned to political history, a field where historians were inclined to discount the significance of gender. Taking Edmund Burke's commentary on the French Revolution as an example, she began by pointing out that it was "built around a contrast between ugly, murderous sans-culottes hags (‘the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women') and the soft femininity of Marie-Antoinette."

As it happens, Scott's example offers several interesting possibilities for the historian of disability, highlighting not only gender but also notions of beauty, disfigurement, and misshapen bodies. Moreover, Burke's argument was based on a contrast between the natural constitution of the body politic and the monstrous social deformity to which the Revolution gave birth. He described "public measures . . . deformed into monsters," "monstrous democratic assemblies," "this monster of a constitution," "unnatural and monstrous activity." Tom Paine, for his part, turned the metaphor around in his response to Burke: "exterminate the monster aristocracy."

The metaphor of the natural versus the monstrous was fundamental to social thought of the time, and had been for many centuries before. Thus, the instructor of the class on Marco Polo might begin by questioning the meaning of the monsters that illustrated the margins of the original edition of the book on his travels. Dog-headed men, men with heads below their shoulders, men with one leg and one enormous foot, one-eyed men, and giants were believed for centuries to populate the exotic Orient. What is the significance of this common use of anomalous bodies as a marker for otherness, and often for evil? Did Asians use similar markers in their depictions of the strangers from the West?

Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the industrialized West, the concept of the natural was joined and to some extent displaced by the concept of normality. As the counterpart to the natural was the monstrous, so the opposite of the normal person was the defective. The terms "natural" and "normal" are ways of signifying the universal, unquestionable good and right; both are ways of establishing social hierarchies and boundaries; and both are constituted in part by being set in opposition to culturally variable notions of disability. What does the concept of normality tell us—to suggest just two possibilities—about the rise of the social sciences and statistical thinking, or of urban industrial societies with their demands for interchangeable parts and interchangeable workers?

Historians know well how opponents of women's equality frequently cited female deviations from the male norm as justification for the denial of citizenship rights. Women's supposed frailty, irrationality, and excessive emotionality are in essence physical, cognitive, and psychological disabilities, but they are rarely examined as such. With the focus entirely on gender inequality, the significance of this use of disability to justify limitations on political participation receives little attention in history classrooms or research. Why were such arguments so powerful? If citizenship was measured out according to changing notions of natural or normal bodies, what does this tell us about the development of a theory of democratic self-rule in the West?

By the mid-19th century, Europeans routinely associated nonwhite races with disabled people, depicting both as evolutionary laggards or throwbacks. Physical abnormalities were often described as instances of atavism, reversions to earlier stages of evolutionary development. Down Syndrome, for example, was originally called Mongolism by the physician who first identified it in 1866 because he understood it as a biological reversion by Caucasians to the Mongol racial type (a modern version of the medieval monsters of the Orient?). How might a disability analysis change how we understand the history of the ideas of evolutionary progress and decline?

It is not new to point out that American blacks have been often depicted with exaggerated lips, amusingly long or bowed legs, grotesquely big feet, bad posture, missing teeth, crossed or bulging eyes, and otherwise deformed bodies. At least since 1792, when Benjamin Rush explained that the skin color of Africans was due to their suffering from congenital leprosy, black skin itself has been treated as a disfigurement, something akin to an all-body birthmark and often a sign of sin or degeneracy. Taking their cue from physicians who explained how African disabilities made them unfit to live in freedom, 19th-century defenders of slavery pointed to the many physical and mental defects to which Africans were supposedly prone. The white race was sometimes described in the 19th-century west as the "normal race" and the physical characteristics of other races as defects and deviations from the norm. The relation of racial categories to cultural beliefs about the "normal" body has gone largely unexplored.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the major immigrant nations began to enact laws built around the concept of defect to restrict who might enter their countries. At first, people seen as mentally and physically defective were excluded, as well as those charged with criminality, sexual deviance, or immorality, all of which were described at the time as manifestations of mental defect. The concept of defect continued to figure significantly in the enactment of restrictions based on race and nationality; claims that certain nationalities were prone to congenital defects was an essential element in crafting the image of the "undesirable immigrant."

The attribution of defects to women and minority groups has been noted by historians, but mainly for the purpose of condemning it as a slur against them. Like Charles S. Johnson, chair of the social science department (and later president) of Fisk University, who lamented in a 1928 speech that "the sociologists classify Negroes with cripples, persons with recognized physical handicaps," historians have devoted their attention to the injustice of defining a minority group in terms of defect. Little thought has been given to why these attributions have such power to discredit, why they are so furiously denied and condemned by their targets, and what this tells us about the cultural meaning of disability.

All of this is to say that disability seems to crop up in a great many places. Given the fundamental nature of physical experience, the life-altering power of an acquired disability, the human tendency to classify and rank others on the basis of appearance, and the ubiquity of body metaphors in everyday language, is it likely that disability would not have significance everywhere we look?

—Douglas C. Baynton is associate professor at the University of Iowa and holds a joint appointment in the department of history and the department of speech pathology and audiology.


1. Catherine J. Kudlick, "Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other'," American Historical Review 108 (June 2003), 763–93. The Invisible Adjunct blog posting can be read at http://www.invisibleadjunct.com/archives/000153.html.

2. Joan Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis," American Historical Review 91 (December 1986), 1053–1075.