THE BLOG

Disability History: Looking Back and Moving Forward

03/12/2013 12:35 GMT | Updated 01/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Reclaiming the history of people with disabilities could not only change our understanding of the past, but also change how disability is perceived today. Society continues to limit people with disabilities by viewing them of helpless victims. I write this without judgement because, in the past, I have unwittingly done the same. My experiences as a carer, and as a researcher of disability history, have helped me to break down these assumptions.

A concept of disability has existed universally across all societies throughout history. It is therefore, a major feature of the past which has been criminally underexplored by historians. As a universal phenomenon, a greater understanding of disability history could change the historical landscape, similar to how gender history is continuing to change the historical narrative. Interest in disability history is growing and some significant work has been completed, however, the subject remains in an infant-like state. The subject of disability history has revolved around institutions, external forces and 'great men'.

Until recently, the history of disability which did exist was mostly limited to representing people with disabilities as passive, inactive, victims of social and cultural change. Through personal experience, my own research, and the reading of more recent work on the topic, it has been made increasingly clear that this representation is false.

By recognising that people with disabilities were active in determining their own futures in the past, we can begin to challenge current ideas about people with disabilities which reduce them to being viewed as passive or helpless.

People with disabilities are today still being perceived as sufferers, casualties and victims. When we are presented with a person with a disability who challenges these preconceptions, they are seen as being inspirational, but also as exceptional and unique. The perception of disability as a whole often remains unchanged.

These preconceived ideas about disability are present in, and reinforced by, popular thought and the mass media because both are influenced by how people with disabilities are thought to have existed in the past. While this is largely not an active process, we are generally not aware of victimising people with disabilities; it often occurs indirectly through language and assumptions referring to disability.

I write this as someone who is guilty of victimising people with disabilities. In the past I have unintentionally limited people with disabilities by making assumptions about what they could, or could not, do. Through my experiences of being a carer, and through researching disability history, I have learnt how my perception of disability contributed to victimisation and how these perceptions were wrong. It was through understanding that these perceptions were based on false knowledge that I began to get a clearer image of what having a disability actually meant.

Ultimately, an individual with a disability is no more a victim than an able-bodied person. They are just as active in determining their fate and just as reluctant to let others do things for them.

Reassessing the past, and challenging this victim label, will change the way that people think about disability, but also, it can change the way that people with disabilities perceive themselves. By rejecting the culturally imposed victim mentality, which many individuals have, more people with disabilities would hopefully grow in confidence and recognise that a disability doesn't have to be a barrier. Whilst a disability might make your goals harder to achieve, it doesn't necessarily mean that your goals are unreachable.

I've seen my wife go from being a fatality of her disability to becoming a champion of it. Her disability hasn't become less of an obstacle for her, in fact it has got worse. What's changed is her perception of herself and what she can achieve despite having a disability. This change could only come about once she had rejected the idea that she had to be a victim to it.

I'm not naive enough to think that greater awareness of the past would completely solve the problems surrounding how disability is perceived. It would, however, be a start towards changing the way that our society represents, and responds to, disability.