The British Industrial Revolution brought with it new risks of disabling injuries and illnesses as more people worked in new trades with emerging technologies. In Disability in the Industrial Revolution: Physical Impairment in British Coalmining, 1780-1880, authors David M. Turner and Daniel Blackie examine coalmining, one of the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution, in terms of how it disabled workers and how those disabled workers shaped the Industrial Revolution. The authors frame their investigation in a historical context that includes a comprehensive understanding of disabled coalminers, including their lives beyond work.

While the book would interest many, including disability scholars and historians, the book would also work well in a university classroom. The writing is thoughtful and engaging, and the authors take care to make nuanced arguments accessible to readers from different backgrounds and with differing areas of expertise. Turner and Blackie approach their project with integrity, which includes their noting when primary evidence is thin and only suggests a possible perspective.

Central to the authors' argument is how disabled mineworkers and their communities contributed to an evolving understanding of disability as different from categories such as "disease or ill health" (4). What makes their undertaking innovative, in part, is their comprehensive approach, which includes disabled coalminers' lives beyond the mines and the interdependency of coalmining communities.

There are many useful areas that open up and also focus on specific understandings of the emerging category of disability. Chapter 4, "Disability, Family and Community," is a uniquely helpful chapter because it emphasizes, with disability at the center, the interdependence of social, familial, and religious communities in coalmining towns. Using records, such as Methodist publications, Turner and Blackie make known important similarities and differences of disabled coalminers "in the community; at home; and in the religious activities of mining areas" (130). The authors extend the dynamics of disability beyond the embodiment of disability, and, in doing so, ask us to consider how religion, communities, and homelife shaped and were shaped by disability's plasticity.

One of the challenges raised by addressing the emergence of disability as a category is the flattening of histories, such as the authors' representation of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's important argument about industrialization in her introduction to Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Flattening the histories of the UK and US disallows and decontextualizes Garland-Thomson's discussion about the emergence of US freak shows within industrialization and within the context of the Civil War, slavery, and women's rights. In other words, Garland-Thomson's work on industrialization is intersectional. What is confusing is the authors' reference to the "industrialization thesis" as a world phenomenon when discussing Garland-Thomson's work. However, Garland-Thomson, in the sources cited, references industrialization in the US. This is but a minor quibble because the crux of the authors' argument is not engaged with Garland-Thomson's work and the authors do acknowledge that there are different histories of industrialization other than the UK, such as the "United States or Belgium" (6).

This important book not only contributes new understandings to disability studies, it also creates new opportunities for how we engage with previous and ongoing scholarship. Turner and Blackie, for example, chronicle how disabled coalminers often returned to work if they were able to do so, information previously missing from disability studies scholarship (201). Studying how these returning workers were accommodated will help us better understand access and disability as emerging concepts. Turner and Blackie set a solid and needed foundation for further work in understanding how people with disabilities contributed to and shaped the Industrial Revolution and emerging understandings of disability.

Works Cited

  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1996.
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