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.


Shoes like those would hurt my feet

When you think of archaeology, perhaps you think of digging in the ground for things that were made before people wrote anything down.

And the word ‘history’ might call up the image of handwritten papers hidden in archives.

Yet so much that is important about our past, falls in the crevices between these domains.

Luckily, good scholars from all disciplines have long realised this. They have braved the forces that keep them within their disciplinary boundaries (the way university departments, library shelves and academic degrees are organised for example. But foremostly their own exponential lack of time as the mass of writing about the past bulks up). So, they have studied the things in between – not just since the latest MacArthur award, as that jury report suggested, but for many years.

Classicists study what is written on objects, thus bridging the gap between things and words.

Medievalists, although often to be found within history departments, routinely use textless objects and images in their work.

Material culture scholars of North America have since long been interested in the homemade goods that European settlers were living by.

The archaeology of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial sites is blooming, for example in Sheffield.

Anthropologists do not just exchange stories with the people(s) they work with, but objects, too.

And I could go on, mentioning sociology, geography, science and technology studies…

The truth is, the most interesting things are often not be found within disciplines, but in between. From all sides, we have to make an effort to figure out what is important. And we need all the tools we can lay our hands on to understand how things work, no matter whether we call ourselves historians (as I happen to do) or something else.

The challenge therefore is not to start to study objects, as the MacArthur Foundation claimed. It is in how we use objects as sources, as data, as bits of information.

To begin with a rather well-known use of things as sources: the BBC and Discovery Channel regularly broadcast spectacular shows about dives for Ancient Greek ships. Such investigations show with what other cultures, Mediterranean settlements traded their wares. So, objects can demonstrate links and networks of communication.

But things get really exciting (in my opinion) when they bring us straight back to how individual persons of the past lived their lives.


Marie Antoinette, painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Wikimedia Commons

The way objects were designed, for example, open up a view to all sorts of past practices. How else could the most famous Queen of France enter through a door but sideways, for example? Folding-up hoops might have been practical, but they would have taken away from the very decorum her dresses were meant to heighten. Perhaps the answer is that she avoided buildings with narrow corridors and doorways altogether?

Another example of arguing back from design to practice: did her contemporaries ‘switch off’ the heating in spring sooner than modern Europeans? After all, their many layers of clothing provided excellent insulation. Indeed, it seems they did, although there was quite a bit of regional variation in preference as well. (I must confess that I cheated here: I found this out using written sources. As I said before: you have to use anything you can lay your hands on.)

Secondly, the way things have worn out or broken down can reveal how often they were used and in what circumstances.

Many nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Europeans aspired to a fancy room in their homes. But did they ever use it? As you would expect, the actual living was of course done in the kitchen. You or your parents may remember sitting up in the drawing-room on Sundays, bored and afraid of breaking a china teacup. It’s the ugly and chipped crockery and furniture – the things that you don’t normally get to see in museums – that really tell the story of everyday life.


Passport belonging to Baron W.H.J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt, 1833: Museum Meermanno/Huis van het Boek, The Hague, 70/154-161, photo by APHG

Take a look at this passport, for instance. If it had been your own expired passport, you might throw it away. So we are lucky to have this proof of how intensively it was used by its owner, an early-nineteenth-century Dutch traveller. It was taken out of his pocket and handled by customs officers all over Europe in almost every city he travelled through.

It is when we want to know not just how people went about their everyday lives, but how they liked it, that things become tricky.

When we see a photo of a nineteenth-century ‘slum’, for example, many of us are trained to judge this environment as dirty and uncomfortable. But this judgement has been passed on to us by the busybody elites that tried to gain influence over the working areas of their towns.

What we want to know is, on the contrary, how the inhabitants themselves of those workers’ quarters experienced their lives. It is quite plausible that for a great part of their everyday activities they were perfectly at ease there. But without recourse to their writings (and they did not leave many on the topic of interior decoration or city planning), it remains hard to tell.

The problem here is that when we try to conclude anything from material sources, we tend to assume a high degree of similarity between people of the past and ourselves. And it has been European elites who have determined the greatest part of our views on the past. If we give in too much to the temptation to see, for example, two-hundred-year-old slums through present-day European eyes, that would destroy the very point of doing history!

How to deal with this problem?


Jacob Olie, photo of the Amsterdam alley Gebed zonder end, 1892, from the Amsterdam city image base (beeldbank.amsterdam.nl).

One non-textual strategy would be to again take a look at practices.

People modify their environment when they are dissatisfied with the way it looks. Have a close look at the photo above: you will find that the inhabitants of these rooms have added potted plants to their view. So because we in fact find workers decorate their homes, it is reasonable to conclude that they cared about their homes and had the power to adapt them to their own liking – at least somewhat.

Another strategy works only with those things that we believe have not changed too dramatically over the course of history. Our bodies might be one such thing, at least partially (the history of body-shaping practices like wearing corsets and binding feet should not be overlooked).

If it is not too frivolous to assume, then, that the nineteenth-century British left foot was different from its right foot, just as it is today, what to make of the fact that before the twentieth century, many left and right shoes were exact copies of each other (this seems to be an example)? Even (ladies’) walking boots did not distinguish between left and right.

If we, again, may assume that feet could ache in the same way then as they can now, we (whether ‘we’ are art historians, archaeologists, or whatever) may have learnt something about nineteenth-century walking experiences from looking at an old shoe.

Note: A shorter version of this column appears on the History Matters website of the University of Sheffield.