Tuning in on disability history

by Pieter Verstraete, KU Leuven

We all produce sounds and we all are surrounded by sounds. Whether we now have a disability or not, sound, one could say, is among the many things that are capable of uniting us. That is of course not to say that sounds cannot be used in order to divide humanity. On the contrary. Despites its potential to bring people together, sound also is very much implied in a multitude of processes, strategies and tactics that intentionally as well as unintentionally divide people.1

The way sound plays a constitutive role in the way disabled and non-disabled persons relate to one another is made painfully clear by disability activist Amanda Baggs in her ground-breaking YouTube video In my language. Baggs’ video not only clearly illustrates the segregative power of sound – in particular human language – but also points towards possible ways of altering our habitual way of listening to and producing sound.

Amanda Bagg’s 2007 movie In my language already has attracted 1.441.103 views on YouTube

Disability historians already have taken up this acoustic approach. Several scholars have started to explore the way historical soundscapes have resulted in the construction or deconstruction of particular categories of disabled persons. One example that is definitely worth mentioning is Rebecca Scales’ analysis of the role played by the radio in the rehabilitation of World War One blinded soldiers in Interwar France.2 Scales’ analysis powerfully shows that sound is political and was – and still is – intimately involved in the way we define what a human being is and how it should behave.

I myself have listened to the sound of another area and time period. Together with my colleague Ylva Söderfeldt I explored extensively the source material that covers the existence of European deafblind persons – and this in order to counter-balance the dominant positions occupied by famous American deafblind in the histories that exist.3 After having gone through the material it struck us that the way the ‘voices’ of European deafblind were treated throughout the nineteenth century changed dramatically. Where at the beginning of the 19th century intellectuals writing about the first discovered deafblind individuals wrote respectfully about these subjects, this attitude had been completely replaced by the overwhelming dominance of the sound produced by professional educators. In the reports to be found about deafblind individuals in the second half of the nineteenth century it was the voice of the teacher that mattered.

Sound, so it seems, is a fruitful pathway for disability scholars who are eager to reconstruct our contemporary attitudes towards persons with disabilities. Listening to sound is always an interpretative act. The way we listen to sounds – for example voices – cannot be disconnected from the cultural, social and political contexts in which we were raised and in which we operate.4 What the sound produced by for instance a Deaf person means therefore differs from time to time, and from place to place.

By listening closely to the reigning norms and values of a particular time-period one will better understand why and how particular things happened. Take for instance the ‘invention’ of the white cane. In order to understand what happened we have to go back to the Interwar period when European cities increasingly were confronted with enhanced mobility.5 The fact that more and more people started to make use of cars altered the urban soundscape enormously and brought with it a number of problems for the persons with visual disabilities. Not only did the noise produced by the cars prevent them from orienting themselves on the basis of what they heard. They also experienced a lot of problems to make clear to the drivers of those cars that they wanted to cross the road. In response to the transformed soundscape of the 30’s Madame Guilly d’Herbemont for instance introduced the white cane in France. In order to make themselves visible amidst the traffic noise the ‘blind’ needed to raise their white canes and wait until one could hear the approaching cars slowing down.

Illustration from the French journal Voilà of 15th October 1932
stating: “The white cane has crossed the Atlantic and starts
to conquer the USA//
© Oblin-Brière (1981). La canne blanche.
Toulouse: Privat.
The example of the white cane clearly demonstrates how the transformation of city-sounds can lead to technical innovation. Disability scholars, however, also will need to reflect on how persons with disabilities themselves have altered our soundscapes themselves. One example I can think of is the enormous impact the educational experiment with the Wild boy of Aveyron had on the way sounds have started to sound from the end of the nineteenth onwards. For it was Maria Montessori who by orienting her educational ideas and ideals towards the reports of the Wild boy of Aveyron boosted the didactical use of sounds in schools.6 Without Itard’s educational experiment our schools would sound completely different. There’s a lot more to say and write with regard to what one can hear when tuning in on disability’s past.7 I leave it up to you to add existing insights, possible avenues to explore, or, why not, to produce particular sounds yourself.

[1] Bailey, P. (1996). Breaking the sound barrier: A historian listens to noise. Body & Society 2 (2), 49-66.
[2] Scales, R. (2016). Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France, 1921–1939. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[3] Verstraete P. & Söderfeldt Y. (2015). Deaf-blindness and the institutionalization of special education in 19th century Europe. In: Rembis M., Nielsen K., Kudlick C. (Eds.). Disability history handbook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[4] Sterne, Jonathan (Ed.) (2012). The sound studies reader. London: Routledge.
[5] Oblin-Brière, M. (1981). La canne blanche. Toulouse: Privat; See also Anderson, J. & Pemberton, N. (2007). Walking alone: aiding the war and civilian blind in the inter-war period. European Review of History—Revue européenne d'Histoire 14 (4), 459-479.
[6] Verstraete P. (2016). Lessons in silence: Power, diversity and the educationalization of silence. DiGeSt, 3 (2), 59-74.
[7] For an introduction to one possible intersection of disability studies and sound studies see: Friedner, M. & Helmreich, S. (2012). Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies. Senses and Society 7, no. 1 (2012): 72-86.

Recommended Citation: 
Pieter Verstraete (2017): Tuning in on disability history. In: Public Disability History 2 (2017) 12.

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