Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Meade, Theresa and Serlin, David, eds. (2006). Radical History Review 94 (Disability and History issue).

Reviewed by Martha May, Western Connecticut State University

This issue of the Radical History Review offers a useful contribution to the growing literature on the historical construction of disabilities. As a whole, the issue also illustrates both the problems that historians bring to the larger interdisciplinary arena of disability studies, and the unique contributions that they might provide.

Editors Teresa Meade and David Serlin introduce the collection of essays which considers how historians have explored disabilities in the past. They note that disability was left to medical historians, a bias which allowed for a continuing contrast between "normal" and able-bodied people and those who were "social embodiments of their physical disability" (3). Medicine, and historians in turn, saw disabled people as victims to be managed, pitied, studied, or dismissed, at worst a sideshow of the mainstream of society.

From the advent of social history in the 1970s, through the development of more nuanced views of gender and race, historians have, one hopes, become more attentive to how social identities and categories are formed. We now routinely consider the complex forces of politics, economics, and ideology that shape class, sexuality, and many other social constructions, including disability. This type of historical approach implicitly rejects the "freak-show" mentality which marred earlier works, and seeks to situate the construction of disability in a larger social framework. That will be a large and challenging project, and it is one that the contributors in this volume have embraced, with somewhat mixed results.

Mairtin O Cathain examines the emergence of a blind workers' movement in interwar Dublin after 1928. The willingness of these men to organize and march in protest of unsafe conditions represented an early step toward disability rights activism, Cathain finds. Carol Poore's exploration of disability rights in Weimar Germany features similar findings that activists among the blind organized as early as 1912, and attempted to challenge the growing movement toward eugenics. On the other hand, Natalia Molina's study of Mexican immigrants in the United States uncovers the ways in which state officials attempted to use public health criteria to limit immigration and create new racial boundaries. Each essay contributes another solid piece of evidence necessary in our emerging understanding of disability history.

Other essays in this issue focus on the public use of history. Three essays on historiography feature overviews for those readers less familiar with recent developments. Julie Livingston's essay on African disability history is particularly important, as African history as a field relies heavily on sources outside the historical mainstream. Folktales, anthropological studies, and similar work remain significant resources for historians who write outside of the colonial context of the African past. Susan Burch and Ian Sutherland, and Robert McRuer, contribute useful historiographies of disability history and the connection between queer theory and disability studies, respectively. For teachers, the four lesson plans here are thorough and thoughtful.

A few of the articles here miss a bit more than they hit their targets. An attempt to explore how Progressive social activist Randolph Bourne derived his radicalism from his lifelong disability by Paul K. Longmore and Paul Steven Miller is notably frustrating. This is all the more surprising given the fact that Professor Longmore remains one of the most active and intelligent scholars in disability history, and Professor Miller has a similarly distinguished vita. Yet the connection between disability and radicalism that moved Bourne seems to elude them in this article. Born with facial and spinal deformities, Bourne authored an essay published as "A Philosophy of Handicap" in Atlantic Monthly in 1911. Despite a remarkable commentary, Longmore and Miller never provide the reader with the "why." Why did Bourne's disability make him more radical than other Progressives? Or why were some reformers, not disabled, more radical than Bourne? One hopes that this is the beginning of a work which will in the future provide an answer.

Finally, the issue is marred by one other unfortunate flaw common to some historians. Frequently scholars believe that ideas need to be expressed in theoretical jargon in order to sound exacting or intelligent. The typical result is less coherence and more muddle, and a less readable article. Who wants to slog through sentences that discuss "his reservations about the limits of disability studies for radical political transformation and question[s] postmodern endorsements of disability as the supposed last frontier of identity politics" (6)? Or know that we readers are about to "confront the allegedly objective models of understanding the body in favor of thinking through subjective experience and self-fashioning as the key to understanding individual bodies and identities, as well as communities and nations" (4)? All scholars have an obligation to communicate beyond university walls, and given the pressures of daily life, no one other than academics wants to wade through this type of writing. I have no doubt of the intelligence or political good will of the editors. This form of writing constructs obstacles to readers who have every reason to read and enjoy an otherwise useful edition of Radical History Review.

Copyright (c) 2006 Martha May

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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