Disability and the Transformation of Historians' Public Sphere

Catherine Kudlick and Paul Longmore, November 2006

Asked to lecture on the aspects of his life that influenced him to study the public sphere, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas focused half his remarks on "personal motifs deriving from my childhood." Most important, he had been born with a cleft palate. He not only underwent numerous surgeries but found that "other people did not understand me very well" and that "they responded with annoyance or rejection." He recognized that his own experience of "disability"—not just physically and functionally, but interpersonally, socially, and culturally—shaped the core of his interactions with others and hence his ideas about society. He explained that growing up under such conditions "inspired me to pursue the philosophy of language and the kind of moral theory that I developed in this framework."1 The experience of disability generated fundamental questions for Habermas from which he produced work that reshaped much of modern intellectual discourse. This scholarship has deeply affected many historians' analytic thinking, but it also has other important unrecognized implications for our profession.

During his journeyman working years, Habermas remained acutely aware that other people often refused to take his ideas seriously because of his speech disability. Anticipating that he would be dismissed as making an argument peculiar to his own situation, he countered that, "You find ... an experience of illness or physical handicap in the biographies of many philosophers." This was not just a shrewd stratagem to refute disability-based bias and establish the validity of his work. It was also a foundational concept built on a profound insight. It identified illness and disability as key to human experience, as one of the central sources of both individual and collective consciousness. His observation also suggests that disability and its influence may have been—and continue to be—far more extensive than the hyperkinetic world of academe might lead us to believe. Despite the image of uniformity in bodily function, stamina, strength, style, and appearance suggested by our seemingly homogeneous professional environment, disability is in fact a reality in the daily lives of many historians because of our own physical and cognitive conditions, family circumstances, or the vast diversity of students we serve.

A conservative estimate places the number of Americans with disabilities at 51.2 million or approximately 18 percent.2 Assuming that the demographics among historians are not radically different from the population as a whole, nearly one in five of us would benefit directly from the open and candid discussion of disability in our profession. "Disability" is, of course, a fluid contested term that encompasses a wide spectrum of physical, cognitive, and sensory circumstances as well as a broad range of social experiences. Further, the experience of disability varies not just among conditions, but also among individuals sharing the same condition. While such diversity must be kept in mind, the term represents a distinct, if extraordinarily complex, modern historical phenomenon. Perhaps because of this complexity, many look to medicine to provide easy answers. But even if medicine actively seeks cures for every sort of health condition, people with disabilities will not just go away, taking with them the need to consider issues of access and accommodations. On the contrary, thanks to medical breakthroughs, more people are not only living longer with more complex disabilities but are thriving. This development—along with sensory, motor, and cognitive realities of an aging population—ensures that disability will assume greater importance in modern societies, not less. For the history profession this means that growing numbers of individuals with disabilities will be seeking to join our ranks, even while more and more senior scholars acquire disabilities. In addition, we need to broaden our awareness of disability issues because integration and equal opportunity are core democratic values and should be primary objectives of our profession. Finally, because we produce some of our richest work as historians in our later years, the discipline would be deeply impoverished were we to neglect accommodating disability.

Concomitant with the rise in numbers and awareness, a major transformation has been taking place in thinking about disability over the past quarter century. Although there is consensus that disability entails limitations in not just physical but—more important—social functioning, disagreement arises over the sources of those limitations. The long-dominant view regards disability as a problem or deficit located in the individual. It prescribes medical intervention as the only effective solution. It exhorts such individuals to engage in heroic striving to overcome personal tragedy. Unfortunately, the history profession—like the academy in general—still largely operates based upon this inadequate understanding.

This outdated anatomy-as-destiny paradigm has far-reaching implications for how historians approach disability both intellectually and professionally. It regards the social marginalization of people with disabilities as natural and self-evident. It ignores the social, cultural, economic, and political factors that structure their lives and determine their status. It prevents us from seeing people with disabilities as another kind of historically excluded minority. As with class, race, gender, and sexual orientation, cultural values about work, citizenship, and social identities are central to the experience of disability. Similar patterns of institutionalized prejudice and discrimination reflected in an inaccessible physical or professional environment have impinged on people with disabilities. At the same time, the older view of disability devalues the experiences and perspectives of disabled persons both individually and collectively. Moreover, the failure to understand disability as grounded in social structures casts provisions regarding access, accommodations, and protection against discrimination as acts of charity and voluntary benevolence rather than policies ensuring civil rights.

The persistence of this older idea prevents most scholars from thinking about disability in our profession's historically significant discussions of diversity and equality. It limits how we see disability as both issue and opportunity. As a result, few of us ask the questions that logically follow on Habermas's insights: how can our understandings of disability enrich the public sphere of historians? How can they broaden professional opportunities for scholars with disabilities?

Such questions rooted in disability experience invite historians to turn the same critical gaze we apply to other times and places to understanding ideas and practices our profession takes for granted. Values such as fitness, hard work, productivity, stamina, and success are shaped by specific ideals of physical ability associated with modern capitalism.3 While each of these qualities has its merits, the combination might well be limiting and exclusionary. Simply put: we need to examine how we approach the work of history and ask how an understanding of disability can help us do that work more effectively.

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Approaching disability through a 21st-century paradigm will require that historians routinely take new matters into account when we teach, recruit, and conduct business. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 directs employers to provide "reasonable accommodations" to job applicants and employees with disabilities. It allows exemptions if an accommodation would impose on the employer an "undue hardship." Yet 16 years after the ADA's passage, higher education still largely ignores its employment provisions. A recent informal survey of the Chronicle of Higher Education's faculty-jobs database found that only 71 out of 1,297 listings, fewer than 6 percent, mentioned the ADA. Higher education institutions seldom gather data on faculty with disabilities.4 History departments should request their college and university administrations to establish training workshops for department, hiring, and RTP (Retention, Tenure, and Promotion) committee chairs about how to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state disability-related laws.

As we grapple with the material costs of social equity and integration, we must bear in mind that disability-related innovations are not just for "those people"; they offer both intended and unintended benefits for everyone. The example of ramps and curb cuts—originally introduced to afford mobility for wheelchair users—benefited society by making public spaces more integrated, but now far larger numbers of people who walk appreciate them. Likewise, in less tangible ways, the accommodation of scholars with disabilities enriches history programs by offering a broader spectrum of human experiences and perspectives. A commitment to diversity that includes disability is built upon the principles of access, reasonable accommodations, and universal design. It is a hallmark of a pluralistic democracy that values justice, diversity, opportunity, and basic human dignity, and willingly devotes resources toward that end.

Such an approach represents an alternative path to the goals all historians cherish: originality, creativity, rigor, and engagement. Habermas's work exemplifies this in scholarship. Former AHA President Lynn Hunt illustrates the same possibilities when it comes to teaching. In her parting presidential column that appeared in the December 2002 issue of Perspectives, she revealed how a disability lay at the root of her success as a teacher. "Beginning in graduate school I had panic attacks of unknown origin and meaning," she wrote. "Only in the 1970s did I learn to call it ‘agoraphobia,' and only in the 1980s did I address the problem with the help of professional therapists who specialized in the problem."5 Her situation—discussed in the context of whether the lecture format is the most effective way for historians to convey knowledge—ended up having what she described as "its pedagogical upside," for Hunt proved to be an exceptionally gifted lecturer.6 "From the very first I was on the lookout for anything that might make the class more bearable, for me and for them. For me, slides, music, videocassettes, and now PowerPoint presentations (preferably all in the same lecture!) were in the first instance ways of keeping the fear at bay." Just as it is appropriate to acknowledge the hardships of Lynn Hunt's agoraphobia, it is fitting to recognize her as a teacher whose disability called forth her creativity. Such praise is a far cry from the saccharine admiration of "overcoming adversity" or transcendent inner wisdom that so often characterizes flattery imposed on disabled people. Rather, it underscores the imaginative, pragmatic, and useful ways in which people with disabilities in general deal with their lives and work. There could be significant benefits to research and teaching alike if we fostered a professional environment where scholars were seen as making valuable contributions as historians with disabilities and not despite disability.

For the same reasons that departments augmented their efforts to recruit, retain, and promote scholars who broaden the representation of women, racial/ethnic, and other minorities, we need to think about disabled people doing first-rate work as targets of opportunity. Facilitating diversity among faculty members and generating variety and innovation in teaching and research are inseparable practices. Moreover, because disabled people have traditionally been underrepresented in the academy, disabled scholars serve as role models. This holds true not just for disabled students and colleagues, but also for the countless others questioning their own relationship to the prevailing values of body perfection and youthful, boundless energy that dominate campus life. Thus, disabled people should be an integral part of all diversity discussions, from graduate student recruitment to faculty hiring, development, and promotion.

In addition to being more imaginative about who we enlist in the historical profession, we need to think more consciously about the physical environments we create. The accessibility of our offices, classrooms, and conferences lays the fundamental groundwork for an inclusive profession. Can someone riding a wheelchair even get in the door? Are the dais and podium creating real barriers to participation that underscore someone's marginal status? When you lecture, do you describe your slides or come up with other original ways for their content to be revealed both for students with vision impairments and others who just happen to process information differently? Do you ever make your syllabus and other in-class materials available in alternative formats such as large print or electronically? Addressing such questions could inspire new ways of how we convey information for everyone.

Finally, in order to fulfill our commitment to democratic pluralism, our profession needs to be more flexible and creative in how we map the paths of career development, how we define progress and success. We might begin by looking critically at the values we most celebrate and why. Overwhelmed by the number of eminently qualified people on the job market, for example, we uncritically resort to quantitative markers to determine academic worth and promise. Why do we take it as a given that someone who produces one excellent article or book is inferior to someone who produces two excellent articles or books? Is more—even of high quality—necessarily better than less, or could there be other unacknowledged attributes that the "lesser" scholar brings to the table? Moreover, if we take into account that qualities such as health, stamina, and emotions vary from person to person—not to mention from one part of the life course to another—traditional expectations of regular and copious scholarly output end up rewarding only certain contributions achieved in certain ways. We need to acknowledge that non-standard approaches sometimes require adjustments, not just in environments and practices, but also in schedules, work rhythms, and criteria of evaluation. Just as AHA President Linda Kerber recently pointed out with regard to women, history departments must rethink how we handle professional trajectories and nurture careers that do not fit a mold cast in a less pluralistic era.7

We realize that none of these problems have easy answers or solutions, and that they will provoke discomfort, incredulity, or even anger for some. After all, any challenge to how we operate professionally calls into question fundamental ideas about what we value, who we respect, and what we think of our own capacities and prospects. Moreover, like race, disability is so fraught with emotional and political baggage that many people choose to say nothing at all rather than risk offending someone by saying the wrong thing. But unlike race, disability has the added complication of being something that anyone potentially can experience, at the same time that it can be invisible. In this era of historical transition, all the older ways of doing things have come under scrutiny, yet new guidelines for relating to one another have yet to be fully determined. Historians both with and without disabilities can only gain by addressing the topic and its broader implications in hallways, department deliberations, and professional meetings. An important subject of study and category of human experience, disability has hard political and social lessons to teach our profession. Historians should proudly follow Habermas's lead in transforming something long incorrectly considered part of the private self into a new way of thinking about our public sphere.

—Catherine Kudlick is professor of history at the University of California at Davis and president of the Disability History Association.

—Paul Longmore is professor of history at San Francisco State University and a board member of the Disability History Association.

To Learn More...

  • Catherine J. Kudlick, "Disability History: Why We Need Another 'Other'" American Historical Review (June 2003).

  • Paul Longmore, Why I Burned My Book and Other Essays (Temple University Press, 2003).

  • Gallaudet University Press, New York University Press, and University of Michigan Press have book series in disability studies/history.

  • Disability History Museum: http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/.
    primary sources online.

  • The Online Disability Studies Bibliography, just being launched, will contain ever-expanding comprehensive listings of primary and secondary sources: www.instituteondisability.org/bib/

  • The Disability History Association (DHA): http://dha.osu.edu/
    Scholarly association dedicated to building the field.

  • H-Disability:

  • Resources regarding accommodations to students with disabilities: contact your campus’s office for services to students with disabilities, or the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)at http://www.ahead.org/

  • Resources regarding accommodations for faculty with disabilities: contact your campus’s ADA compliance officer; the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission at http://www.eeoc.gov/types/ada.html;
    or the National Association of ADA Coordinators (NAADAC) at http://www.jan.wvu.edu/naadac/.


1. Jürgen Habermas, "Public Space and the Political Public Sphere: the Biographical Roots of Two Motifs in My Thought," Commemorative Lecture, Kyoto, November 11, 2004, http://homepage.mac.com/gedavis/JH/Kyoto_lecture_Nov_2004.pdf.

2. Erika Steinmetz, "Americans with Disabilities: 2002," Current Population Reports, U.S. Census Bureau (May 2006), online at

3. Catherine Kudlick, "A History Profession for Every Body," Journal of Women's History 18:1 (2006) 163–67.

4. The recent commentary of deaf religious studies professor Rebecca Raphael about deaf academics could be applied to faculty with every sort of disability. "Academe Is Silent About Deaf Professors," Chronicle of Higher Education, September 15, 2006, http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i04/04b01201.htm.

5. Lynn Hunt, "Parting Shots," Perspectives, December 2002.

6. Catherine Kudlick experienced this firsthand as one of Professor Hunt's students at the University of California at Berkeley.

7. Linda Kerber, "Conditions of Work for Women Historians in the Twenty-First Century," Journal of Women's History 18:1 (2006) 121–32 first published in The Chronicle of Higher Education 51:28 (March 18, 2005) B6.