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Ability History Month

Today ended Disability History Month – a UK event, but which embraces worldwide International Day of People with Disabilities.

This month is, amongst other things, about how societies in the past turned physical impairments into disabilities: those with physical impairments encountered social and material obstacles which kept them (‘disabled them’) from having the wide range of options in occupation, lifestyle, etc. that people without (substantial) impairments enjoyed.

Yet history also offers a wealth of examples of people turning these disabilities, or their impairments, into abilities.

Portrait of John Kitto  (1804-1854) from John Eadie's biography (Edinburgh&London, 1858).

Portrait of John Kitto (1804-1854) from John Eadie’s biography (Edinburgh and London, 1858).

In early-nineteenth-century England lived a man called John Kitto. A fall from a roof in his early teen years took away his hearing. Rather than becoming part of a sign-language community, he stuck to English. He did this by expanding his reading and writing activity, now that hearing had become impossible and speaking more difficult. After all, reading and writing in English were ways of communicating he was already familiar with and, as historian Esme Cleall found, John Kitto himself in fact stigmatised sign language.

Still, having been brought up in a poor family of manual workers, his illness and impairment seem to have given Kitto cause to read and write more, as well as offering some time and legitimacy to study (although this summary perhaps gives too rosy a picture of his life at that stage. Grim economic necessity soon began to play its part as well).

Kitto became a Biblical scholar and educator and travelled to the Middle East for his work. All this was highly unusual for people from his socio-economic background. You can read all about John Kitto in Esme Cleall‘s (upcoming) work.

Later on, famous Dutch historian Jan Romein would seize a similar opportunity when he fell ill at age twelve, we read in I.Schöffer’s biographical sketch. It enabled Romein to read a lot and even write the first of many books.

As a final historical example, in Yeats’s collection of folk tales and local Irish history we find the story of ‘the last gleeman’. Michael Moran lived in the early part of the nineteenth century, ‘being alike poet, jester, and newsman of the people.’ He was the most popular singer of religious tales and sassy poems of his day and place. But how did he achieve this position of ‘rector of all the ballad-mongers’? This is what Yeats heard tell of him, several decades after Moran’s death:

A fortnight after birth he went stone blind from illness, and became thereby a blessing to his parents, who were soon able to send him to rhyme and beg at street corners and at the bridges over the Liffey.

[Perhaps it needs mentioning here that the advantage Moran’s parents’ took of his impairment, although it would be rightly rebuked by many nowadays, may have saved the boy from possibly much harsher types of work that poor children were routinely applied to then.]

They may well have wished that their quiver were full of such as he, for, free from the interruption of sight, his mind became a perfect echoing chamber, where every movement of the day and every change of public passion whispered itself into rhyme or quaint saying.

It speaks to these people’s merit that they worked around the pain and anger no doubt caused by their illnesses, impairments and disabilities, and lived their lives. It is a testimony of their creativity that they applied these very obstacles in doing so.

Luckily, such examples are not confined to history. Much more recently, Fem Korsten wrote an article on the apparently more flippant topic of the love for high-heeled shoes. Below the surface of this theme, however, she transforms physical restriction into physical freedom – not-being-able-to-walk into being-able-to-dress-how-you-like – and, for a change, shows you how to use fashion to love your body. I suggest you go and read it. Regardless of Month or Day.

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Turkish women shocked at restrictive British clothing

Orientalising images of women’ s clothing are common enough. But how about occidentalist views?

A photo of an Egyptian street scene, taken by the European G. Lekegian & Co. This photo is easily interpreted in an orientalist frame, denying the women on the wagon any agency. I know little about Egyptian life around 1900, but perhaps these women were just taking the bus? (collection Rijksmuseum Prentenkabinet)

Many Europeans and North-Americans regard Muslim women who wear a veil with an orientalist eye. This means that they see them as specimens from outlandish and traditionalist Asian and north-African cultures that differ fundamentally from their own. Often, these women are regarded as the victims of Muslim men, who are thought either to force them to wear a veil, or against whom they would need their veil as a symbolic protection. (But see this interesting short documentary from Pakistan.)

Such European orientalist interpretations of cultures in North Africa, Asia, and indeed south-eastern Europe itself, stretch back several centuries.

Now from 1716 to 1718, as this orientalism was gaining ground, a wealthy English woman made a famous journey to south-eastern Europe. Mary Wortley Montagu joined her husband on a diplomatic and trade mission to the Ottoman Empire. In Sofia, then part of this empire, she visited a bath house. (The beautiful public baths still existing in Sofia all seem to be much younger, from around 1900.)

A bath house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme  (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl (now in the University of Istanbul; repro from Wikimedia).

A bath-house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl, late 18th century. Now in the University of Istanbul; reprod. from Wikimedia.

Montagu noted three things while there. First: the women were ‘stark naked’ and presented a beautiful sight; a sight, she suggested, as one might see on an Italian Renaissance painting. Second: for the women, the bath house fulfilled the social function of a coffee-house. Third: the women did not mock Montagu’s foreign habits, as western-European women would have done, but welcomed her politely.

I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; “Uzelle, pek uzelle,” which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming. (Letter xxvi from the collection she edited after her return to England, published online by Jack Lynch.)

Nevertheless, the Sofia women demonstrated a slight streak of reverse ‘orientalism’, that is, occidentalism.

They tried to convince Montagu to join them in their bath. But Montagu found it only self-evident that, as an Englishwoman, she could not expose herself. She excused herself – in vain. In the end, she stripped up to her stays.

probably North American

Stays, c. 1750-60, probably North American

This had the desired effect.

they believed I was locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband

The Sofia women easily convinced themselves, it seems, that she had been ‘locked up’ in her stays by her husband. Pityingly, they allowed her to keep her clothes on.