In the interdisciplinary field of disability studies (DS), one arena that has not received as much attention is that of intellectual disability. Many logistical reasons explain this dearth of scholarship, such as the difficulty of accurately and ethically representing the realities of people who may not be able to communicate their experiences. In Intellectual Disability in the Twentieth Century: Transnational Perspectives on People, Policy and Practice, edited by Jam Walmsley and Simon Jarrett, seventeen authors make a concerted effort to shine a light on stories that have been largely overlooked in contemporary conversations of disability history. Throughout the twelve chapters, contributors map the contours of the long and often painful global histories of intellectual disability as they impacted and were impacted by social movements, policies, and even war.

Two features of this book are especially noteworthy—first, the inclusion of "life stories." The "nothing about us without us" motto of the disability rights movement demands a centering of disabled people's voices in conversations that involve them. Enacting this maxim becomes complex both when few historical records exist of those voices (as is the case of many disabled children who were sent to live in institutions in the twentieth century) and when impairment inhibits a person from communicating their experiences. Walmsley and Jarrett acknowledge this paradox, admitting that the collection is largely "about people with intellectual disabilities, not by them" (16). DS still has much work to do in recovering intellectual disability in our canon, but this collection demonstrates a step in the right direction by including life stories. The editors emphasized to contributors "the importance of actually hearing, rather than hearing about people's experiences," which culminates in the chapters' diverse approaches to depicting these experiences (16). In the collection, life stories range from first-person narratives (Stefánsdóttir, Chapter 8), to snapshots derived from oral history projects (Kremsner, Koenig, and Buchner, Chapter 2), to fictional vignettes based on amalgamated themes from various historical sources (Turnpenny, Chapter 7). Most of the individuals represented in these stories would be considered to have mild or moderate disabilities—which the editors admit continues to exclude people with profound intellectual disabilities. However, contributors' efforts to fairly, yet creatively, represent the realities of people with intellectual disabilities offers an entry point for centering intellectual disability within DS scholarship.

The second distinguishing feature is the foregrounding of transnational perspectives. Each chapter offers a unique view of one country's grappling with intellectual disability, including the major players on the twentieth-century global stage (United Kingdom, United States) as well as lesser-known histories (Australia, Austria, Czech Republic, Ghana, Karydaki, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, New Zealand, Taiwan). The diversity of content and approach to historiography—coupled with the various styles of constructing and interweaving life stories with historical information—makes for a compelling and informative read both for disability scholars and readers generally interested in disability and/or history. Some common themes throughout the chapters include the role of family as a critical support system, the rippling effects of wartime conditions on disability policy and care, eugenics, de/institutionalization, the endurance of medical and moral models of disability, and the intended and unintended effects of socially "normalizing" disability. Walmsley and Jarrett elected to organize the chapters alphabetically by name of country as opposed to grouping chapters by theme or by geopolitical area to "allow both the links and disconnections to speak for themselves" (8). While this approach does allow the reader to arrive at their own insights, it can become difficult to envision a timeline, cause-and-effect, or other organizing metric for understanding intellectual disability in the twentieth century transnationally. However, readers should remember that this collection is innovative and represents a daring move toward recovering histories that many governments and societies would prefer to forget.

A concluding chapter would have helped knit together claims made and questions posed throughout the collection. Philip M. Ferguson's final chapter on US history of policy and practice, however, leaves readers with a harrowing final thought: "In too many cases, almost two decades into the twenty-first century, [these] stories remain unfinished, just more elaborately told" (204). Intellectual Disability in the Twentieth Century: Transnational Perspectives on People, Policy and Practice is not intended to be a comprehensive historical account; rather, the collection draws attention to a neglected history by focusing on its transnational variables and the lives at the center of that history. As Ferguson reminds us, though many of these histories are active, policies continue to change, and rights are still denied to many. This book's greatest contribution is its unwavering devotion to prioritizing the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities in a world that has historically viewed them as problems to solve.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2021 Anna Barritt

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

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.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)