How exclusive is disability history? How inclusive it may be?

By: Sebastian Barsch

Last week, to the occasion of the annual carnival festivities, the people of Cologne firmly took control over public space. As a result the Cologne city-scape became packed with colourful costumes, dancing people and a lot of laughter. In between all those manifestations of carnival one occasionally could encounter a man or woman dressed up like a person with disabilities.

Costume of Frida Kahlo in Cologne Carnival
Costume of Frida Kahlo in Cologne Carnival
One of those persons was my colleague Mona Massumi. She masqueraded herself as the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo suffered lifelong health problems and has often been a subject of disability theory.1 Mona decided upon this costume because for her Frida Kahlo symbolizes a “strong woman in history: despite her difficult personal circumstances (sufferings caused by her disability, infidelity of her husband and the lack of recognition as an artist) she didn't lose her passion and courage.” As Mona is quite into diversity studies, she is well acquainted with the discussions about the Mexican artist. Still, my guess is that theory was not the main reason why she chose this costume. Instead, I think her example shows that disability may have recently acquired a certain appeal, as it has become visible as opposed to hidden or simply forgotten.

What is the meaning of this carnival anecdote for disability history? Let’s have a look in the recent past of this academic field. One of the most popular and probably most cited statements in the academic field of disability history is Douglas Baynton’s sentence “Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.”2 Since Baynton published this thesis in Paul K. Longmore’s and Laurie Umansky’s pioneering book, historical research that focusses on disability (both as an object as well as a method) has been emerging rapidly. It doesn’t seem exaggerated to say that disability has become more visible nowadays in academia. Disability history indeed has increasingly become considered a valuable tool for historical research. According to me, this very fact calls for us as disability historians to reconsider our responsibilities. Maybe the time has come that academics in the field of disability history need to be aware of the legitimate claim of nonacademics to participate in the discourse. Perhaps our main task nowadays does not anymore consist in writing disability histories and thus changing an academic attitude towards disability, but make use of the stories that exist and come up with new ones in order to start up discussions and cooperation between academics, artists, persons with disabilities themselves and so on.

Let’s try to reformulate for a moment Douglas Baynton’s famous quote. When we try to find artifacts of disability history in the present, we soon discover that they are already present in the public sphere. One example is the Cologne carnival. Two others are the subjects of the first two posts of our blog, that show how disability history impacts on arts and museums.[1][2] Therefore, maybe you could paraphrase “disability history is everywhere in the present, once you begin looking for it. But until now there is a lack of transfer between academic disability history and the public”. According to me the statement holds some truth for history and public history in general. The claim of historians and history educators to promote a transfer between theory and practice seems to be very challenging. This problem was noticed years ago but it still hasn’t been solved: Already in 1987 Noel Stowe reported about a discussion on a conference for public history where panellists were asked how historians could “exist outside the cloisters of academe” and how they could “maintain their role as social critics”.3

When we try to make sense of the difficulties disability historians have experienced and still experience in order to make their analyses public, two things immediately comes to mind:

Disability rights activists, Oslo 2008
Disability rights activists, Oslo 2008
Disability history first of all is strongly connected to the “Western” culture and to a rather privileged group of people, namely academics. Thus, a relatively small group produces knowledge. And as we all know by now: knowledge can exclude people. In addition to the academic root of disability history, however, the claim “Nothing about Us without Us”4 raised by disability activists had a massive impact on the way disability history has been written. Academic narratives are still important, and we have made significant progress: these stories exist and cannot be denied any longer. However, we have to take them as a new starting point in order to publicly debate disability issues in ways that foster real change – not only on paper. This also includes non-academic disability histories.

Within the scientific community there are growing movements to promote inclusive research, raising questions about what research really is. Maybe the practice will result in a new definition of research. “Inclusive disability research is part of the universal research endeavour, and as such must contribute to on-going discussions about the role and form of research in general.” Furthermore, inclusive research is applied research: “Research by and with people with disability must provide tangible benefits to individuals and the constituency of people with disability, and work toward greater inclusion of people with disability in the community.”5 Maybe inclusive research will ultimately result in a decreasing the “elite” status of the academic researcher. And all people working at universities know that “status” is and important resource not least for the chance to gain funding and influence.

Can disability history be public? Can it be fully inclusive? These thoughts accompanied us when we planned “Public Disability History”. Our aim is to address all groups and individuals who are interested in this topic, whether those interested in research or those interested in arts, media etc. Our intended audience consists of academic historians, activists, and persons with and without disabilities, history teachers, public historians, curators, heritage counsellors, fellow disability historians and so on. In short, it is the public, it is you, and it is me. In order to realize our ambitions, one important discussion we had was discussed the level of accessibility we should aim for; not an easy task, as many of you will be aware! Difficulties relate to the tension between multilingualism vs. the dominance of English. It’s probably obvious that we are non-native English speakers and often struggle with coming up with smooth sentences. What does the unwritten rule of submitting something in perfect English do with authors who do not master this capacity? Next to this open question we also discussed the question whether it would be necessary to provide additional easy-to-read summaries. We also talked about benefits pictorial extras could have for people with learning disabilities and so on.

We didn't come to a conclusion.

But that's not a problem. We have you, our dear readers! One of the greatest advantages of an electronic blog journal is the chance for the public to participate by comments. May we ask you to comment on this blog post and to discuss with us the issues raised up in this text? Commenting is easily accessible: you can publish comments anonymously; sign them with a nickname or your full name.

Summarizing the various aspects raised in the previous lines the following questions can provide starting points for the discussion:
  • How exclusive is disability history?
  • How inclusive can it/should it be?
  • What needs to be done in order to improve the accessibility of Public Disability History?
  • How do we achieve participation of non-academic people with disabilities in this blog?
  • Is there a contradiction between theoretical discourse and practical activities?
  • ...
Please discuss with the public and us! We need your ideas!


Recommended Citation
Sebastian Barsch (2016): How exclusive is disability history? How inclusive it may be? In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 3.


1 Only one example is Micki Nyman, “The Disabled Body in Julie Taymor's Frida,” in Disability Studies Quarterly, 30, No 3/4 (2010) http://dsqsds.org/article/view/1274/1304
2 Douglas C. Baynton, "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History," in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, eds. Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, 33-57, New York 2001, cite p. 52.
3 Noel J. Stowe, “The Promises and Challenges for Public History,” in The Public Historian, 9, No. 1 (Winter, 1987), pp. 46-56, DOI: 10.2307/3377105, stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3377105, cite p. 47.
4 James Charlton, “Nothing about Us without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment,” Berkeley 2004.
5 Natasha Layton (University of Sydney, Center for Disability Studies), “Disability Inclusive Research Principles,” URL: http://www.cds.med.usyd.edu.au/disability-inclusive-research-principles


Pictures: Costume Frida Kahlo, © Mona Massumi/ Disability rights activists, Oslo 2008 © GAD