Blindness and ‘The object of art-in-between’. Towards cosmopolitical encounters in museological settings

By Joyce Leysen


 “What I thought was funny … they didn’t see those little faces …”

“No, they didn’t see them, they didn’t know. They weren’t quite sure what they were for, and you felt, oh this is a little face.”

“And when she said that, I thought ‘Oh yes, look here, a little nose and …!’ and all of a sudden, the picture is more clear.”

“Those are such interesting things I think, you can’t see it, yet, you can feel it.”

(excerpt from conversation: three persons (with and without visual impairments) talking about their art experience in a Brussels museum, 2014, my translation)

The above quote comes from a conversation during a tour for people with visual impairments in a museum in Brussels (Belgium). Our group was, at that specific time, sitting in a seperate room where the persons with visual impaiments were allowed to haptically experience an ancient vase. Very much appreciated by the group.

A dip in the museum's history shows that for thirty years already the museum staff provides for activities that specifically target the group of people with visual impairments. Today the policy of this so called Museum for Blind People (my own translation) is changed from organizing activities in seperate rooms to the organization of customized tours for people with visual impairments within the regular museum circuit (see http://www.kmkg-mrah.be/nl/blinden-en-slechtzienden-0, consulted October 8, 2017).

Great, you might think, especially if you consider the following quote of a woman with a severe visual impairment who often went to the Museum for blind people: "In itself, I don't like the idea: 'We are going to that room alone.' You could sit there, and touch things. But you didn't have the feeling of going to an exhibition."
(excerpt from group conversation, Leuven, 2014, my translation).

For this person, being able to touch an object of art in a seperate museum room did not evoke the feeling of experiencing art in a museum sphere. Though she regognized some advantages of fully separate art activity, she did express a domain and relating to the museum's public exhibitions. In other words, she wanted to have the feeling of being a museum visitor, as all other (seeing) people coming to the museum for an exhibition.


"Nothing is forgotten, and nobody!" Archives for the disability rights movement as a disability policy project

By Ulrike Lux

People with disabilities in Germany have been following the public debate on disability issues and the vicissitudes of disability policy for nearly 40 years now, accompanying them critically and emphatically in their own journals, commenting and discussing them. It would be a shame if the journals Krüppelzeitung, Luftpumpe and die randschau as well as other material such as brochures and discussion papers (the so-called “grey literature”) were lost in the mist of time. Instead, we intend to make them available to the interested public in a modern and easily perusable form.

The idea came from the editorial staff of the journal die randschau published on national scale from 1986 to 2000. Some of us have been politically active for up to four decades in various political contexts. The first of us have now reached pension age.
We keep being asked about old copies of the randschau. Of course, that makes us proud and happy. So we decided to get together once more for a project with the objective to create a “final repository” for our old issues – beyond crates and cardboard boxes on storage racks and cellars – by making them publicly available on the website archiv-behindertenbewegung.de. During our preliminary discussions it became apparent that we wished for a place to collect material about the history of the emancipatory disability movement.

Archival documents

Returning to our old habits from randschau times, we met for an editorial weekend in Marburg. It did not take us long to agree on the overall objective but orientation, content and structure required a little more thought.


Deaf history and the art of writing novels

By Frances Itani & Pieter Verstraete

One of the main goals of the Public Disability History Blog is to bring disability history to the public. Although it is of course true that a lot of academic research doesn’t get translated into accessible language, to say that the public isn’t exposed to disability history is just a bridge too far. Indeed, there are numerous examples to be quoted of non-academics who are interested in the history of disability and/or are exposed to it. Often people will not consciously pay attention to the presence of persons with disabilities in the stories they read, tell themselves or watch. But there are definitely also examples to be mentioned where disability is willingly interwoven in the narrative that was invented by someone and made public through the publication in book-format, the broadcasting of a television show, the curating of an exhibition or just through some chit-chat in a local bar.

During the previous Summer break I coincidentally came across one example of disability-history-already-being-public, the novel Deafening written by Canadian author Frances Itani. The scene of the book is that of the first decades of the Twentieth century. Itani tells the story of Grania O’Neill who became deaf due to the consequences of scarlet fever, went to the Ontario school for the Deaf and married Jim – who is mobilized during the war as a stretcher barrier. I was impressed by the detailed accounts of the school experiences and the lived-through descriptions of Grania’s emotional responses to the things she encountered during her rich life. And so I decided to contact the author in order to know a bit more about how the book came about, what kind of research she did, what the author wanted to achieve with the book and how the (Canadian) Deaf people responded.

Pieter: Where did the idea for the book Deafening originate?

Frances: I started research for this book about 1996, while finishing another book, Leaning, Leaning Over Water. I was driving through Belleville, Ontario at the time and as I was passing the grounds of Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf (previously known as the Ontario School for the Deaf), I decided to pull in to the grounds of that very old school and present myself at the reception desk. After I explained that my late Deaf grandmother had attended the same school at the turn of the last century (I did not know the exact years, at the time), I was offered a tour of the grounds and various buildings. During that initial tour, I knew I was going to write a book with that setting. I didn't know, at the time, what sort of book it would be, but I knew that I would be back for more research. That was the beginning of a six-year journey: researching and writing Deafening.

Front cover of one of the many editions of the book Deafening


Unleashing Public Disability History

By Daniel Blackie

Imagine this: you’ve helped organise a wonderful workshop on disability history at a local community centre. Everything is going great. There’s a throng of people – mums, dads, children, grandparents – and they are really enthused and curious about the hidden history of disability.

The human interest element of the workshop – let’s say the colourful life story of a long forgotten one-legged former miner – has had the desired effect. Folks are intrigued, so intrigued, in fact, they’re asking for tips about where they can find out more about this person’s life. You tell them you got the story from a digitised historic newspaper you read online at the British Newspaper Archive site.

‘Oh, that’s brilliant – you mean we don’t have to travel hundreds of kilometres to the British Library to read it’?

‘No, but you do have to pay a subscription to use the service: twenty pounds to read forty pages’.

Mum then turns to her two young children and says: ‘How about it, kids? We were going to go to the new Lego Movie tomorrow, but I could use that money to get a subscription and we could read old newspapers instead’.

Suddenly the kids don’t look so enthusiastic anymore. And there, in that moment, you realise that the prospect of this family investigating disability history together has just died.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Excellent free online resources that support public disability history do exist. Disability historians just have to make sure they use them in their public engagement work. For example, the National Library of Wales’ ‘Welsh Newspapers Online’ (WNO) is a brilliant platform, and one that could definitely help avoid a spine-chilling Lego Movie moment. It actually includes many of the same titles the subscription-charging British Newspaper Archive holds.