Enabling History

Linda K. Kerber, November 2006

Embracing a recommendation of the recently formed Disability History Association, the AHA Council has added a new category to the checklist of specialties that is part of our membership form. Like African American history and women’s history, which were included in the membership taxonomy formulated in the 1970s, the history of disability is a rapidly growing field that has been embraced by a wide range of historians, including some who are themselves part of the subject they study.

In the essays that follow, three historians reflect on the subject: Douglas Baynton discusses disability as an analytic category, culturally and historically contingent, changing its meanings over time. Catherine Kudlick and Paul Longmore reflect on disability as practice, as infirmity that many of us experience and to which we all are likely to be vulnerable as we age.

Together these reflections raise challenging questions: What hidden assumptions have we made about what counts as an interesting subject of study and analysis? What hidden assumptions have we made about what is needed—besides smarts—to be a historian? What do we count as competence? Do we assess it wisely?

Our fascination with historiography is evidence enough that historians need no persuasion that the subjects we choose to study are themselves historically contingent. As Douglas Baynton wisely observes, the reinvigoration of women’s history in the 1970s and 80s encouraged distrust of oversimplified national narratives. Once the old confidence that we knew what was central and what was marginal was undermined—that women and their experience were most definitely marginal, for example—other exclusions could be seen to have been at work in the construction of historical explanations. Can the history of industrialization be understood without attention to environmental impact? Concepts of fitness, normality, and "common sense," destabilized in the context of women’s history, turn out to be useful signals for a wide range of other subjects—international relations, economic history, and now, the subject of competence itself.

We historians are lucky in our chosen work: maturity is likely to bring strength. Libraries are our laboratories; we rarely get thrown out of them when we retire or our grants run out. It is not difficult to think of many historians who have done their best work late in life; as bodies weaken, wisdom may grow.

But stop the clock at a single moment in time. At that moment, close to 20 percent of the population is being counted by the census as disabled—the figure that Kudlick and Longmore cite in their essay. But at that moment, too, every newborn baby is in need of 24-hour round-the-clock care; they cannot be left unguarded for a moment. As children get older, the need for care will slowly decrease, but it will not be gone fully until they reach 18, or more probably, 20 or, these days, 22 or 24 (think of all the college graduates who return home to live for a while). At the other end of the life course, if one is very lucky, one can reach age 60 or 65 without much need for additional care, but after that the need will increase gradually (again, if one is lucky) from needing help with lawn mowing on to the activities of daily life, throughout the next 20 years or more. At any given moment there are people who are in bed with the flu or hospitalized with ailments. Feminists are fond of emphasizing that women are a majority of the population; far more than 50 percent of the population is in need of some sort of help to get through the day.

People with disabilities are among us everywhere—in the schools and in museums, in government and other offices, and in annual meetings of our associations. Some of the disabled are visible: those who carry white canes for blindness, or sit in wheelchairs, or who hobble on crutches temporarily or permanently. Many of the disabilities are not immediately (or ever) visible to the uninformed: Deafness, the exhaustion resulting from chemotherapy. None of our institutions are inhabited by as many people with disabilities as they might be, were conditions more welcoming.

For more than 15 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act has summoned up a remarkable set of changes in the practices of daily life. Its requirements of physical accessibility have transformed the landscapes of the institutions where we work and study—and of the hotels where we hold our annual meetings. Think autoslide or power doors at entrances, wheelchair-accessible water fountains and sinks, Braille keypads in the elevators, handrails in bathtubs and showers.

All activists are hungry for their history. So it is with disability history. In turn, the new disability history will enable all of us to understand not just a social movement, but all history better. The essays that follow speak repeatedly of synergy between acknowledgment of frailty and richer understandings, wider options. Think curb cuts. Think Jurgen Habermas, in the story that begins Kudlick and Longmore’s essay.

When the ADA charged educational institutions to provide Deaf students with interpreters so that they could participate not only in classes but in all the general activities of academic life, students with disabilities embarked on graduate programs of study in history in institutions that had not traditionally enrolled them. My own department welcomed its first Deaf graduate student in 2000. When he enrolled in my graduate colloquium a year or two later, I experienced a fair amount of anxiety. What would it mean to stuff three more people (two interpreters and a note-taker) into an already small seminar room? Wouldn’t sign interpretation be awkward, interrupting the natural ebb and flow of engaged conversation and lively argument ?

I need not have worried. Students picked up quickly that it would be selfish to indulge in jargon (how were the interpreters to sign "problematizing discourse"?). Interpreters can’t sign two voices at once; members of the colloquium stopped interrupting each other or talking simultaneously. They listened for the end of each other’s sentences. Practice in watching the body language of our colleague when he signed (rather than watching the interpreter) soon carried over into watching each other. Good manners prevailed.

I did not realize how great an improvement had been made to the tenor of the seminar until the following semester, when I found myself disconcerted at the first class (in which the Deaf student had not enrolled). Jargon was flung here and there; interruptions and overlap of speech abounded, people listened less. How I hunger for the return of the signer and his interpreters!
Those who articulate the needs of the disabled articulate the needs of us all.

—Linda K. Kerber (Univ. of Iowa) is the president of the AHA.