Disability History at the 124th Annual Meeting
Debbie Ann Doyle, April 2010
Multiple strong sessions on the history of disability added to the intellectual mix at the 124th Annual Meeting of the AHA held January 7–10, 2010, in San Diego. Together, the sessions made a strong case that the themes of the meeting, from historical perspectives on same-sex marriage to transnational and global history, cannot be fully understood without incorporating the history of disability.
The sessions were sponsored by the AHA’s Task Force on Disability, the Association’s Professional Division, and the Disability History Association (DHA), which the AHA Council accepted as an affiliate in January 2009.
A session entitled “Access Denied: Comparative Biopolitical Perspectives on Marriage Restriction,” which was also a part of the strand on the history of marriage, analyzed the eugenic or biopolitical justifications that have been used to deny access to marriage to different groups. Scholars of disability history and queer history considered how ideas about the body have been used to both justify and challenge legal restrictions on marriage. Another session encouraged secondary and postsecondary teachers to incorporate the history of disability into the U.S. history survey course. The panelists in this session had all participated in a project to develop and evaluate lesson plans using online primary source materials, connected to the release of a new documentary film entitled Becoming Helen Keller.
The speakers in the session entitled “Reclaiming the Disabled Subject in Historical Research and Representation” argued that historians must document and describe the lived experience of people defined as disabled, treating disability as a category of analysis as useful as gender or race.
The session dedicated to exploring “Transatlantic Perspectives on the History of Disability” carried this theme into a transnational context, exploring how disability played a key role in defining the nation state in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The DHA organized two sessions using a seminar format where participants gathered around a conference table for intensive discussion. “Rethinking American Disability Movement History” focused on histories of the disability rights movement, including anti-telethon activism and the 1977 occupation of the Health, Education, and Welfare offices in San Francisco. “Constructing a National Body” examined intersections between disability, race, and gender in the United States. Speakers at a third session, “Disability in Global Context,” explored how disability intersected with racial, gender, religious, and national identity in the United States, Ottoman Syria, and in Islamic theology.
The primary charge of the AHA’s Task Force on Disability is to research and report on the concerns of historians with disabilities and suggest ways the Association can better serve that population. The scholarly study of disability is also within its purview. The Disability History Association was founded in 2003 to promote scholarship on the history of individuals or groups with disabilities.
Debbie Ann Doyle staffs the Task Force on Disability. She thanks Penny Richards for sharing summaries of the DHA sessions.