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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