Doing Public Disability History

By Daniel Blackie

The clue is in the name. Public disability history is ultimately about getting people – the public – to think about disability history. Simple as that. Only it’s not really that simple, is it? As I’ve found out over the past few years, doing public disability history is actually quite challenging.

The first, and most important, thing to consider is how to reach the public? During the Disability and Industrial Society project I learned that there are many ways to do this and that the best public engagement strategies employ as many of them as possible.

For example, our public engagement programme included a touring museum exhibition, public lectures, panel discussions and workshops, as well as regular blogposts, tweets, podcasts and pieces in the popular media. Although very different formats, all involved writing to greater or lesser extents. The text for the panels displayed in the exhibition, the notes for lectures, the emails back-and-forth with journalists. Writing, writing, writing. And this is something disability historians have to think about when doing public history.

Disability and Industrial Society’s Blog page. Blog posts were an important part of the team’s public engagement strategy
Disability and Industrial Society’s Blog page
Blog posts were an important part of the team’s public engagement strategy
Perhaps the most obvious issue in this regard is length. A 140 character tweet, a 150 word exhibition panel, a thousand word blog post, a one hour lecture: all impose space or time constraints that mean we have to choose our words carefully.  As too do people’s attention spans. 

It doesn’t matter how great or interesting the message, there’s only so long you can realistically expect to hold a person’s attention. Short and sweet is definitely best when it comes to public engagement. Language is also important. It’s no good presenting disability history in terms that nobody but specialists can understand. Clear, jargon-free language is absolutely essential if you want to reach as wide an audience as possible. 

Grabbing people’s attention is another challenge. Images and objects can be a help here. I visited our exhibition a few times after it opened at the National Waterfront Museum in Wales.  It was one of several exhibitions visitors to the museum could visit, so we had lots of competition for people’s attention. Every time I visited, I noticed some visitors start to rush past ‘our’ part of the building, presumably on their way to enjoy something else the museum had to offer. Many, however, quickly stopped in their tracks after an image or artefact in our exhibition caught their attention. Most lingered a while and started to examine other aspects of our displays, some at quite great length.

‘Falling in of a Mine’ (1869). One of the images featured in our exhibition
‘Falling in of a Mine’ (1869)
One of the images featured in our exhibition
The perspectives and stories we choose to highlight can also act as ‘hooks’ to entice members of the public to stop and think about disability history. Dramatic historical episodes or incidents, can be especially useful in this regard. 

During our research for the Disability and Industrial Society project, for instance, we uncovered the story of two mining brothers from south Wales – Davy and Griffith Ellis. Griffith had a mobility impairment and used a wooden leg. In December 1865, both brothers were working underground at Gethin Colliery when a terrible explosion occurred. Fearing suffocation from the deadly gases that followed the blast, they attempted to get out of the mine together as quickly as possible. Due to his mobility impairment, however, Griffith had trouble keeping up with his brother and fell behind. Worried that he might not make it to the surface in time, Griffith called out for help and his loyal brother went back to get him. It was a fateful decision as both men perished, overwhelmed by the noxious gases they tried so hard to escape. 

Incidents like this have a clear ‘human interest’ element that appeals to journalists and the general public alike. Emphasising them in our public engagement activities can help make disability history interesting to audiences beyond academia, furthering the field’s broader goals. Who doesn’t like a good story? Good stories (even ones with sad endings) have the power to entertain and hold people’s attention, but the best ones do much more than that, especially in a public history context. 

The drama, excitement, and tragedy of the Ellis brothers’ desperate and unsuccessful flight for safety is riveting, but it is also intriguing and raises lots of disability-related questions. For instance, how were men with significant impairments like Griffith able to work in such a physically demanding and dangerous sector as the nineteenth-century coal industry? By suggesting the question, moreover, the case of Griffith Ellis unsettles popular ideas about disabled people’s capacity for work. This is exactly the kind of thing disability history is supposed to do: challenge dominant disability stereotypes and get people to rethink their attitudes about disabled people. 

Yet this approach is not without potential pitfalls. Using dramatic, exciting, tragic, inspiring or disturbing ‘hooks’ to capture public imagination also risks enforcing some of the stereotypes public disability history seeks to undermine. Without proper contextualisation, for instance, Griffith Ellis’s story might become just another tale of heroic overcoming that feeds the pernicious ‘supercrip’ stereotype disability scholars and activists frequently critique. Alternatively, focusing on his death might promote the idea that disabled people have been little more than passive victims in history. 

Ultimately, of course, we cannot determine or control the interpretations people arrive at when they encounter public disability history. We can suggest a framework for making sense of the images, stories, and objects we present in our public engagement activities, but we cannot compel people to adopt it. At its best, public disability history spurs people to find out more about the still largely hidden history of disability on their own, with friends, or with their families, and gives them some ideas about where and how they might start looking.

Recommended Citation:
Daniel Blackie (2016): Doing Public Disability History. In: Public Disability History 1 (2016) 16.

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