Public Disability History is a blog journal and a forum for exchange between the diverse actors involved and invested in issues regarding disability. It’s a website to gather and provide resources for the history of disabilities. Furthermore, it offers a “fast track” publication mode for theoretical/methodological reflections with a lower threshold than full scholarly publications.
L’invalide (around 1823) by Nicolas Toussaint Charles
(Musée de l’Armée, Paris)
Under Napoleon (1769-1821) the face of warfare changed dramatically: huge armies consisting of thousands of soldiers, equipped with firearms, were involved in massive battles resulting in more (deadly) casualties. While edged weapons, which were still the main weapon of the cavalry, caused ‘clean’ and easy to be treated wounds, the nature of gunshot wounds was completely different. Bullets penetrated the body and drove pieces of clothes inside the wound, this, usually in combination of severe fracture of bones, increased the risk of gangrene. More serious wounds were caused by artillery in the shape of iron balls, canister (small pieces of iron or balls) or explosive shells and grenades. This kind of ammunition caused such serious damage that entire limbs could be blown away or shredded to pieces. In the eyes of surgeons, only an immediate amputation could save the life of soldiers inflicted by gunshot wounds or artillery fire.
Terry Crowdy (2014) provides us a very faithful number of amputees in one battalion consisting of 995 effective soldiers. After the famous Battle of Wagram (5-6 July 1809) in Austria 152 soldiers of this Battalion were wounded, amongst them 12 soldiers became amputees. At the same battle the famous French surgeon Dominique Larrey (1767-1842) performed 300 amputations on the 1200 wounded soldiers he treated. Larrey, who even made his doctoral thesis on amputation as treatment for gunshot wounds (Dissertation sur les amputations des membres à la suite des coups de feu, 1803) proudly claims that he performed about 200 amputations in 24 hours at the Battle of Borodino (7 September 1812) in Russia. During this Russian campaign in the year of the same battle, amputation had to be applied several times in the case of toes, fingers or noses inflicted by frostbite.
Without modern anaesthetics, amputation was horrible, not only the process of being amputated, but many people also considered life as an amputee as a ‘useless’ life. Nevertheless, there are some examples of officers with amputated limbs who continued their service as commander of a fortresses (e.g. Pierre Daumesnil, 1776-1832) or as instructor in a military school (e.g. Clément de la Roncière, 1773-1854).
Doctors were encouraged to remove amputated limbs out of sight of approaching soldiers to make sure that they were not discouraged for the next battle. General Jacques Casimir Jouan (1767-1847) was wounded at Dresden (26-27 Augustus 1813) and still remembers the pain when his left arm was amputated:
“I always heard that when one was sawing the bone, the pain was the worst. I don’t consider myself to be differently built than other men, but it is still that the amputation of the bone of my arm was not as painful compared with the cutting of my flesh.”
It was a custom in the French army to give a compensation to all amputees. This could be an honorary rank for a private (e.g. lieutenant) or a sum of money. This amount of money was not fixed and it depended on the years of service, the soldier’s rank and even on the outcome of a battle. Doctor Pierre-François Percy (1754-1825) mentions how an infantry soldier, who lost both arms, received the small sum of 60 francs in 1806 1. During his banishment on Elba from the 4th May 1814 till the 26th of February 1815, Napoleon proclaimed that disabled soldiers had the right to obtain 400 francs for two arms, 500 for two legs and 600 for three body parts. Disabilities were also taken into account when a soldier retired from the army and a lost limb made it possible to have a higher pension. Soldiers could also apply to stay in the famous Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, or other places for poor, retired and disabled soldiers. Besides that, private initiatives also existed to support disabled soldiers. General d’Aboville (1776-1843), who had lost an arm at Wagram, funded 1000 francs for ten year to a manufacturer who employed blind soldiers or amputees. It was also a custom to give disabled soldiers an honorary place at festivities and they were highly respected by their comrades. In 1810, due to the occasion of his second marriage, Napoleon offered 6000 dowries of 600 francs to all disabled soldiers who married. It took six months delay for about 4000 veterans to actually receive this money. Later, Napoleon even gave land – ‘veteran camps’ - in the conquered countries to his disabled veterans.
Despite the high number of amputees, not so many soldiers described in detail how it felt to be amputated and how they looked at their life as a disabled person. A notable exception is Jacques Chevillet (1786-1837), trumpeter of the 8th Chasseurs à cheval, who was engaged at the Battle of Wagram.
When he was fighting for his life, around 9 PM on the first day of this famous battle a shell exploded in front of his horse. Chevillet, who was just promoted sergeant, writes:
“Ahh!” I cried, feeling myself struck in the arm. My horse was struck down at the same instant and I found my leg stuck underneath him. My first action was to try to get myself up and to bring my left hand to my arm… But alas! I felt that my arm had been cut off. My horse, my poor Rondeau made several movements of his feet and head while moaning. In less than five minutes he was dead. (…)" (translation T. Cardoza, 2017, p.177)
While the battle between French and Austrians continued in all vigour, Chevillet had to stay on the battlefield and witnessed the horrors of war, unable to move because his leg was stuck under his dead horse. Meanwhile he had to watch how the horse of his friend had lost his two front legs and was lying next to him and how several wounded French and Austrian soldiers were hit by fragments of the shell and died around him.
After the fight Chevillet’s comrades discovered their friend between the corpses, they lifted his dead horse and Chevillet was put on a captured Austrian horse, while his arm was still hanging on his shoulder by a bit of flesh. One hour after midnight they finally found a doctor who could dress his wound, but since there were so many wounded, Chevillet had to wait for treatment until 5 AM. The surgeon, Mr. Valette, trimmed the flesh and the nerves, after tying off the bleeding artery in the wounded arm of our wounded chasseur.
As said before, Chevillet is one of the very few soldiers who expressed how it felt to be an amputee:
“I cannot tell you thee emotions I felt seeing myself an amputee for the first time. Then, taking my right arm in my left hand, I looked for the last time on the most beautiful flower of my life that I had to lose forever. The biggest of my regrets was to think that with my arm, I lost all hope of being happy, the talents that I had acquired in music, playing the clarinet, good handwriting, and finally all means of working.” (translation T. Cardoza, 2017, p. 180)
Chevillet gave his right arm to an Austrian peasant and asked him to bury the arm at the foot of a tree in his garden, saying that his arm was the arm “of a French soldier, who gave a good beating to the Kaiserlicks (the Austrians), but that is now over. He won’t beat anyone anymore…” (translation T. Cardoza, 2017, p.181)
Chevillet, and many other amputees, received a bonus of 100 franc from emperor Napoleon, but this was – in his opinion - not enough compared to the sacrifices he made for the Empire. Thus, when the birthday of Napoleon on the 15th of August came close, Chevillet put all his hope and efforts in obtaining the Legion of Honor. After a failed attempt to give his petition personally on the 15th, Chevillet succeeded four days later. In front of Napoleon, he was called a ‘hero’. Napoleon spoke to Chevillet ‘like a good father’ and granted an annuity of 500 francs from the domains of the crown, because this would – financially - be a better compensation than the Legion of Honor, which would only bring half of this sum. Even the descendants of Chevillet could benefit from these 500 francs in perpetuity.
For Chevillet meeting his beloved Emperor and hearing of the promise of receiving the annual sum of 500 francs, must have been one of the most beautiful moments of his life. Another beautiful moment was his arrival home after almost six months of travelling, including a sickness which forced him to stay in the hospital for three months.
Chevillet doesn’t mention what happened to him after his amputation. When a leg was amputated, soldiers had to help themselves with simple peg legs, though certain officers could even use more sophisticated artificial legs. But in Chevillet’s case, his amputated limb could not be replaced by a piece of wood. As so many other soldiers who had lost an arm, he continued his life wearing a shirt or jacket with an ‘empty sleeve’. For many family members of Napoleonic veterans, the sight of a disabled veteran was not uncommon, so they had no other choice than to help Chevillet and other veterans in their needs. It may certainly not be forgotten that disabled veterans as Chevillet also provided a substantial income with their military pension.
But how would Chevillet feel when he looked at his stump, years after the fall of Napoleon in 1815? Did he feel pride, thinking about the French victories in which he participated? Or did he feel regret, thinking about that final battle which caused him to lose his right arm? Given the fact that he knew many other disabled veterans, he certainly didn’t feel isolated or marginalised. He was mutilated, he was a survivor and as so many people with disabilities, he tried to make the best of his life…
Bert Gevaert (Bruges, 1978) wrote a PhD on disabilities and deformities in ancient Rome and combines teaching in a secondary school with writing books and articles about various kinds of subjects (e.g. martial arts, disability studies, classical antiquity,...).
 In 1806 the price for bread was around 60 centimes and most men earned a daily salary between 75 centimes and 4,5 francs. Compared to men, the salary of women was usually much lower, sometimes even less than one third. ____________________
Recommended citation Bert Gevaert (2019): Jacques Chevillet (1786-1837), a rare emotional voice of a Napoleonic amputee. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 6.
The musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just finished its fourth and final season. Up until the end, fans were biting their nails and debating which of her three love interests the main character Rebecca would end up with. Throughout, we got to enjoy the creative, funny, and intelligent song and dance numbers the show has become known for. But there’s more than the musical element that sets Crazy Ex-Girlfriend apart from other sitcoms. In particular, it’s an unusual series in that it makes mental illness a central topic.
Of course, mental illness in not an uncommon theme for film or television. But characters with psychiatric illnesses are rarely the heroes, usually the villains. The idea we get from media about people with psychiatric disorders is that they’re either dangerous, ridiculous, or both. Even in a story set in a psychiatric clinic, such as One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, the patient-hero is not “truly” mentally ill. For all its criticism of oppressive system and practices in psychiatry, that narrative centers not on people who experience psychological suffering, but on someone who in “reality” does not belong in the clinic. The uniqueness of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is therefore that it allows a person actually suffering from a psychiatric disorder to have agency and gain audience sympathies.
The series centres on Rebecca Bunch, who impulsively leaves a successful career as a lawyer in New York City to pursue Josh, who was her boyfriend during a youth summer camp. She moves to a small town in California and starts building a new life and tries to win Josh back. This, she believes, will make her “truly happy”. The way she goes about her mission, however, is extreme and manipulative – that’s how she fulfils the sexist and ableist stereotype of the “crazy ex-girlfriend”. She breaks in to apartments, sets fires, stalks, and plots murder. All the while, the series is asking: is Rebecca “just a girl in love”, is she a criminal, or “crazy”?
I'm Just a Girl In Love - "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" Season 2 Theme Song - YouTube
Still, while recognizing her lack of boundaries and often appalling behaviour, it’s easy to root for Rebecca. This sets her apart from arguably the most classic fictional “crazy ex-girlfriend”, Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction (1987). While Alex is closer to a horror movie monster than an actual woman, Rebecca gets to be a complete character. Early on in the series, it becomes clear that her obsession with Josh has a deeper root than just a typical love story. Her involvement with him, and the other men she ends up dating in the series, is motivated by a profound lack in her sense of self-worth. Through flashbacks, we learn about her childhood in a dysfunctional family, with a self-centered mother and an absent father, and that she previously has been hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic after having a violent mental breakdown.
The series, thus, becomes a narrative of living with mental illness. We get to follow Rebecca through different coping- and treatment strategies: going on and off medication, individual and group therapy, building a supportive social network and reassessing her career choice. We see her sink into a deep depression, deal with intense anxiety, and even attempt suicide.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend | Anti-Depressants Are So Not A Big Deal | The CW - YouTube
This sounds like harsh topics for a musical comedy, and they are. But we also get to know Rebecca as a talented, funny, and clever person – and this is what makes the character unique as a portrayal of a person with mental illness. Whereas the role of “the mentally ill” in popular culture – in particular “crazy” women – is usually stereotypical, one-dimensional, and negative, Rebecca is a full person, and someone to relate to and identify with. Her mental illness is neither over-emphasised, nor erased. Rather, the series relentlessly examines the ambiguities surrounding narratives about love and shows that there is a thin line between what, in our culture, is considered romantic and what pathological.
Late in the series, Rebecca gets diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses. The cultural stereotype around BPD is prevalent not only in the public but far into the community of mental health providers (Knaak 2015). The way that the disorder is often characterized reads like a catalogue of the most undesirable, even immoral, personality traits. BPD patients are described as manipulative, unlikeable, violent, attention-seeking, not possible to treat and unable to have healthy relationships. The destructive effects of this stigma become clear in the series when Rebecca falls into despair after she reads up online on her new diagnosis. And at the same time, the entire series destroys the stigma. It’s impossible to dehumanize Rebecca based on her diagnosis when we get to see her as the full person that she is. It’s also abundantly clear that the fact that she has a personality disorder does not disqualify her from meaningful relationships – here, it’s worth noting that the way that the series portrays female friendship is also particularly refreshing. The series has been praised for its diverse cast and the way that it addresses and challenges stereotypes around mental illness, gender, sexuality, and race. However, it’s a shame that the series never took the opportunity to extend its clever take on these issues to other disabilities as well. A broader disability perspective is absent and actors with visible disabilities almost non-existent.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to be learned from the series about how to think about and present the social and medical aspects of disability. In the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend universe, mental illness is inseparable from the social and cultural context in which it emerges. At the same time, however, it does not write off emotional pain as “just a social construction”, but presents it as as a very real, tangible, and common type of suffering. Medicine does provide some answers to it, but not all.
This is a perspective that could be extended to disability in general: we don’t need to make a black-or-white choice between social construction and medicalization. Medical interventions and services are valuable, but cannot alone explain or remedy disabling experiences, physical or psychological.
Ylva Söderfeldt is associate senior lecturer at the Department of History of Science and Ideas at Uppsala University. _______________________________
Knaak, S. et al. (2015): Stigma towards borderline personality disorder: effectiveness and generalizability of an anti-stigma program for healthcare providers using a pre-post randomized design. In: Borderline Personal Disord Emot Dysregul 2: 9.
Ylva Söderfeldt (2019): Goodbye "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend", the show that revolutionized popular depictions of mental illness. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 5.
There is nothing to see in the Dialog-Museum in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, but there is much to hear, feel, smell and taste. The museum wants to show what it's like to be blind. The claim of the museum is that blindness is not simulated, but experienced as an adventure with (almost) all senses. The website says it clearly:
"In our exhibition blind guides lead small groups of guests through completely darkened rooms depicting different everyday situations. Without eyesight, the daily routine becomes a totally new experience. You will sharpen your senses. A role reversal is created: Blind people become ambassadors of a culture without pictures."
The museum is not alone with this approach. Meanwhile, there are many offers that seek to enable sighted people to "experience" blindness. Dark restaurants advertise with their absolutely dark rooms. In these rooms, the senses of the visitors should change: the "invisible" should be made "visible" with their hands, their ears, their mouths and their noses. Another example: For a TV documentary, a reporter attempted to self-test what it would be like to be blind by wearing opaque glasses and trying to cope with a supposed everyday life.
Many historical museums take other paths when dealing with blindness. As a rule, they do not try to sell blindness as a happening. Rather, they create additional information offers to enable blind visitors to visit exhibitions. For example, the "Museum of the Senses" of the "Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum Hildesheim" has created an exhibition in which not only audio guides and Braille texts accompany the exhibition. In addition, they offer exhibits that appeal to the sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. For example, it can be "felt", "heard" and "smelt" as it might have been in ancient Egypt, ancient Peru or China.
Such approaches are important and good. Nevertheless, they raise some questions. Questions regarding the image of what seeing people make of people who are blind. It seems that these images are similar to the ideas children have when they shut their eyes and play "blindly". Often, the stereotype of a problematic exaggeration of the senses of blind persons is also revealed here, when it is said: If one cannot see, one can smell better. So the question is: Can seeing people really get a realistic picture of blindness?
Children playing "blind" Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Austria by Erich Schmid (talk)
Firstly, persons who are born blind do not have the reference of seeing. Therefore, they cannot compare seeing with blindness like sighted people pretend to do. For most of blind persons not using the sense of sight is a normal state. Of course, they get told that most of the people around them "see" and get explained what this so-called seeing means. They are raised in a visual culture where people talk a lot about how things look like and are visualized. So to imagine what it means to be blind sighted people would need the life-long experience and not a couple of hours or days to perceive the same way.
Besides that, there are also technical problems. No one knows how it smelled in ancient Egypt or what the sound of a city in ancient Peru was like. Such offers may revive what is actually outdated in historical science, namely the idea that "the past" could be revived.
It's a good thing that museums are trying to be inclusive as well, of course. But it will not be enough for non-disabled people to imagine how people with disabilities could perceive something "different". Sighted people will not be able to imagine how people who are blind from birth perceive the world. But if they make use of the idea that blindness could be simulated by eye-witnessing, in the end, they only strengthen their own stereotypes. Disabled people thus become objects of non-disabled again.
However, the stereotype of blind people having an increase of tactile or auditive sensitivity congenitally can easily be disproved. The developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky investigated blind children already 100 years ago. He defends that this is not a natural inherent process, like a kidney that takes the role of the failed one but rather this "indicated phenomenon […] proceeds along a very complicated and roundabout route of overall sociopsychological compensation, without substituting for or replacing the failing organ." (Vygotsky 1993: 99) He argues furthermore that their other senses seem stronger because blind persons need to do an adaption to the visual world. Therefore they practice them more. Through listening more closely or touch the Braille letters with their fingers those daily actions become more and more used to them. For Vygotsky, the biggest difference between the blind and the sighted is to be seen in their behaviour, rather than their biological disposition.
Another stereotype is that people who are blind do not have any visual images and that their world would be "dark". Referring to approaches from Neuroscience these could show that when imagining pictures, images or memories the same brain parts of both, sighted and blind persons are active. The neurologist Helder Bértolo did research on visual activations in dreams. His results show that congenitally blind persons have visual contents in their dreams and are even able to draw them. The experiment suggests the assumption that there can be visual imagery without visual perception. (Bértolo 2005: 173) So obviously there seem to be insights into the blind world of perception that sighted people are not able to see or experience.
"Blind subjects were able to represent graphically the oneiric scenes they previously described orally. No statistical differences were found between the groups." (Bértolo et al., 2003)
Which ways would have to be gone? Inclusion can only be achieved through inclusive expertise. People with blindness should therefore not be questioned on a one-to-one basis as to whether particular offers from an exhibition are particularly important to them. Rather, they would have to be involved in the entire process of exhibition design right from the start.
As a good example, the DHM in Berlin offers special exhibitions for blind and visual impaired visitors since 2015 when developing a concept for an inclusive museum. Before opening such an exhibition the museum educational service invites target groups to show them their projected conception. Inasmuch as pre-testing the exhibition for others they are involved in the planning process. Of course, it would be even better to include them right from the beginning. Nevertheless, it can be seen as a start in the right direction of participation and to support the idea of not talking about or planning for disabled people but of getting them on the table.
Ultimately, in the context of inclusion and thus a perspective of disability studies in museums, the question remains: do we have to continue to work with categorizations, even if categories are generally questioned? Or to put it another way: can there really be inclusive exhibitions without resorting to categories of disability? Of course, talking about the category "blind people" is not unproblematic. "Blindness" is a spectrum, and a lot of people who are said to be blind have some functional vision. To make it clear: The focus of our argumentation is on blindborn people with no visual experience. But even this group is diverse.
On the other hand: it is not only the questioning of the use of categorizations but furthermore the criticism on how society deals with blindness as such we should focus more. The cultural model of disability accepts an impairment on the body side. But beyond that, it asks for the reactions within a predominant abled society when dealing with disabilities. Certainly, there is a dichotomy that is repeated over and over again. Sighted vs. Blind. If so contrasted blind persons often appear as either victims or superheroes. Both ways are not appropriate.
Something that sighted people could actually learn from experiments of playing blind is to question the massive priority that seeing has in our culture and to challenge the concept of ability as such.
Closing with a perspective change from H.G. Wells – The country of the blind: When the main character Nuñez climbed Ecuador‘s Andes and got lost out there coincidentally he found a country where everybody was blind from birth. After observing them for a while the first thing he wanted to do was to teach the blind population how to "see". But since they did not have a concept of seeing like he did they considered him being crazy. He tried to trick them by running away assuming they could not see and therefore follow him. He tried his best to convince them that they had a deficit and that a normal state would be to "see" the world through "eyes". But neither did they believe him nor where their special perception really deficit enough to let him escape from them. They made him obey and he had to follow. In their notion, he alone was abnormal because he seemed to have tumour-like shapes in his face and was constantly talking about this so-called "seeing" which they figured must have been some kind of mental disease.
Sebastian Barsch is professor for history didactics at the University of Kiel. Susan Krause is doctoral researcher at the University of Bielefeld. _____________________________
Bértolo, Helder (2005): »Visual imagery without visual perception?« In: Psicológica: Revista de metodologia y psicologia experimental Bd. 26, p.173-188. Vygotsky, Lev (1993): »The blind child«, in: Robert W. Rieber/Aaron S. Carton (Hg.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky Volume 2: The Fundamentals of Defectology. Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disabilities, New York/London: Plenum Press, p. 97-109.
Sebastian Barsch / Susan Krause (2019): The blind - the special? In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 4.
The Dutch novelist Arthur Japin recently wrote a book with the title Kolja. “Kolja” was the pet name of Nikolaj Konradi (1868-1922), a Russian child who is said to have been born deaf and trained to speak. Or, as the author writes himself: “who was deaf-mute and who miraculously learned to speak”. Kolja was the pupil of Modest Tsjaikovski (1850-1916), the brother of the musician Pjotr Tsjaikovski (1840-1893). Modest was hired by the wealthy parents of Kolja as a guardian and supervised him during his education at the French school of doctor Jacques Hugentobler (1844-1924) in Lyon.
Book cover: "Kolja" by Arthur Japin.
“Deaf-mute” Arthur Japin is a renowned author and again managed to write a story that kept my attention till the last page. However, as a deaf historian who specializes in deaf education, I had my doubts when I started to read; would a hearing novelist be able to write an historically and politically correct story about a deaf person? This initial reserve grew after the author and I had an intense debate over the word ‘deaf-mute’. At that moment, I did not know that the author elaborates in his book on the meaning and effects of this word, in which he was advised by a deaf person who gave feedback on the manuscript and had explained that deaf people consider this word as offensive comparable to the effect that the N-word has to black people. The publisher however, had used the word ‘deaf-mute’ in the promotion of the book and this prompted me to post a tweet to both the publisher and the author in which I requested to remove that word.
The author contacted me through the Direct Message-section of Twitter, where one can send private notes to contacts, telling me that he did respect the wish of deaf people but insisted that he needed a word that described a person who is not able to speak, as in ‘mute’. I tried to explain him that ‘mute’ is correct but that a word that connects ‘not being able to hear’ to ‘not being able to speak’ is redundant to deaf people, and even ableist as it expresses what the dominant group considers as ‘normal’. After all, I am convinced that deaf people do communicate, though their language has been denied for many centuries by the phonocentric Western societies that only consider spoken languages as true and meaningful languages, resulting in excluding words like ‘deaf-mute’ and horrific speech training methods such as the method Hugentobler which Japin describes so vividly in his book.
In the end Arthur Japin and I agreed to disagree and the word ‘deaf-mute’ was removed from all communication by the publisher. But damage had been done already: the emphasis on the magnificent speech skills of Kolja resulted in the frequent use of the word ‘deaf-mute’ in all of the book reviews that I have read.
Super spy Japin’s story starts with the death of Pjotr Tsjaikovski. By that time, Kolja was already an adult and had ended his relationship with Modest, apparently over financial matters. The death of Pjotr turns out to be a suspicious death and it is here that super spy Kolja is introduced. He reads the speech, and the emotions and thoughts of every person that approaches him, even persons he has never met before, with hardly any effort. Or as Japin himself describes it on the cover of the book, Kolja is: “… als geen ander in getraind het ongehoorde te doorgronden” (… who like no one else was trained to fathom what cannot be heard).
In order to fully understand the fictitious nature of this sentence you probably must be deaf. Just as you have to be deaf to understand that the author needs this myth of deaf people’s supernatural speech reading skills and powers of emotion reading and vibe feeling, for developing the story plot. In real life, deaf people have to ask other people continuously to repeat what they said as well as do hearing people often complain that deaf people are rude, ignorant, and cold (though, the same is said about hearing people by deaf people). This I would say is the first myth that is being used by Japin in order to seduce his readership.
It took a while before I was able to identify myth #2, but eventually it popped up halfway through the book: this time the author turned towards the supposedly extraordinary sexual experiences of deaf people. The idea that deaf people experience sexuality in an extraordinary way then is explained by referring to the fact that they miss one sense and that the other senses compensate for the loss. So, someone who cannot hear is considered to have extraordinary visual and tactile experiences. A myth that especially hearing adolescents are eager to test for themselves with deaf adolescents, in a way that can be described as sexual harassment. Apart from these two myths, the author must be applauded for his eminent descriptions of the experiences of being deaf, in which I fully recognize my own experiences. For example on page 138, where it is described that being deaf means that one has to register, interpret, conclude, deduce all kinds of elements of information in order to make sense of it all. And: to be persistent as each withdrawal or failure puts yourself offside. As Japin writes: “Ons hele begrip hangt af van op te lossen raadsels” (Our complete understanding depends on riddles to be solved).
The different meanings of “deaf” How about the historical aspects of the book? Regarding the lives and times of the brothers Tsjaikovski, I dare not to give my opinion as I lack knowledge on this matter. Regarding the history of deaf people and their education, however, there are several things that can be mentioned. First of all, there is the question of what “deaf” actually means? And secondly, related to the previous comment, what is understood by “education”? According to the author, Kolja was born deaf and learned to speak. I would like to reframe this as “Kolja, the boy of whom it is thought that he was born deaf, and who was trained to speak”.
Kolja was born in 1868 and in that time, it was not possible to measure hearing loss. The profession of audiology only started hesitatingly in 1920 with the first audiometers (Sente, 2004). It was only after WWII when audiometers could reliably measure hearing loss in magnitude (dB) and frequency (Hz). And it is then that the categories of mild, moderate, severe and profound hearing loss were created. This means that, before WWII, anyone with any amount of hearing loss which formed an obstacle for informally perceiving and learning a spoken language, was labeled ‘deaf’. In fact, there are very few people who hear nothing at all as most deaf people have some hearing residues - though most are not aware of it. However, these residues do help in learning a spoken language.
Another aspect is that we only know since the start of audiology that it matters when the deafness started. The first three years of life are known as the prelingual period, in which the fundaments of language acquisition are laid. It does not matter if this is a sign language or a spoken language, but it does make a difference if there is a rich language input. As mentioned, we do not know if Kolja had a mild, moderate, severe or profound hearing loss but we also do not know when this hearing loss had started: at birth, in his early years or later in his childhood? The story suggests that Kolja has been able to hear for some time, and had an awareness of sound, as he clung to people and pianos, and searched for rhythms and patterns.
Post card view of the Hugentobler Institute.
Education, or modeling? As Kolja’s parents were very wealthy, they were able to send him to the Hugentobler Institute in Lyon, where he was trained in the oralist method in which the use of signing was strictly prohibited. The method controversy in the education of deaf people reached its climax in 1880, when the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf (ICED) decided that the pure oral method was preferred over the combined method in which speech was combined with signing (Brill, 1984; Beelaert, Bruyneel & Leeman, 2009). The oral method was at its best a training method, but definitely not an education method. One of the goals of education is individuation in which a child becomes a free, independent and autonomous person. In the time of Kolja, this process was known as ‘Bildung’ but this word was not used in deaf education. Here, a different kind of ‘forming a person’ took place, that is: ‘modelling’, to shape deaf children in the form of hearing people (Tijsseling, 2014). Many books on deaf education describe how to train deaf children to sit and stand without moving (instead of waving arms and hands and move heads), to communicate only with the mouth (instead of using your hands and facial mimics), and to walk correctly (instead of shambling and pounding).
Rigid measures and strict discipline were used to make deaf children speak. Japin describes the method of Hugentobler very well but this is just one of the many oral methods of that time. The psychologist Vygotsky (1896-1934) valued the oral method as it made it possible for deaf people to communicate with hearing people (and not only to communicate among each other, as they did and do) but it could not be regarded as social education as it was so hard to learn deaf children to speak that it turned out as a form of disciplining and conditioning (Tijsseling, 2014). Vygotsky also gives a horrific image of this “education”: “When forcing a pupil to master a difficult sound, the teacher could knock out his tooth and, having wiped the blood from the hand, he would proceed to the next sound.”
To conclude, “Kolja” offers an insight in the life and education of a deaf son of wealthy Russian parents at the end of the 19th century but it is recommended to read the book for the suspense story about the Tsjaikovski brothers while ignoring the extraordinary supernatural talents of Kolja, that are necessary to reveal the truth.
Corrie Tijsseling is a research coordinator at GGMD - a Dutch non-profit organisation for Deaf people. In 2014 she defended her PhD on the history of education for the Deaf in the Netherlands. ______________________________________
References Beelaert, B., Bruyneel, C. & en Leeman, K. (2009) Vive la parole? Milaan 1880 als scharniermoment in het dovenonderwijs. Gent: Fevlado-Diversus.
Brill, R.G. (1984). International Congresses on Education of the Deaf. An Analytical History, 1878-1980. Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
Sente, M. (2004). The history of audiology. Medicinski Pregled 57(11), 611-616. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2298/MPNS0412611S
Tijsseling, C. (2014). “School, waar?” Een onderzoek naar de betekenis van het Nederlandse dovenonderwijs voor de Nederlandse dovengemeenschap, 1790-1990. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1925). “Principles of social education for the deaf-mute child”, in: Bieber, R.W. & Carton, A.S., (Eds). The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky. Volume 2 The Fundamentals of Defectology (Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disabilities), ed. R.W. Bieber & A.S. Carton. New York/London: Plenum Press, 1993, 69.
Recommended citation: Corrie Tijsseling (2019): Kolja, or: how deaf people can be super spies. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 3.
Dis/ability History as a Subject of Teaching and Learning: A Lab Report [german version]
In recent years, we have seen many processes set in motion that share an aim to widen participation in society: inclusive schools and lessons, disabled access to public buildings, the media and educational and cultural events, dis/ability studies and dis/ability history as new, international research fields that have now also made their way into the German academic system. Hitherto, however, there has been little overlap between inclusive practice at schools and university-based dis/ability research in historical subjects such as history, archaeology, art history, literary history and language history. The obvious idea of linking the inclusion practised in history lessons with dis/ability as a topic, for example, has only been discussed occasionally in didactics, even though this approach would constitute “inclusive learning” in a double sense, both in regard to the learning environment and in regard to the topic of learning. History teaching has not embraced dis/ability history yet, despite this programme’s ability to link a range of different school subjects. By contrast, formats that convey knowledge and science outside school settings are already tapping into dis/ability studies’ and dis/ability history’s potential to establish creative cooperative endeavours, as blogs, podcasts, performances and exhibitions such as the participative projects LeibEigenschaften (Bremen 2012) and Touchdown (Bonn 2016/17) show.
The historical sciences at Bremen University recently used the findings of the interdisciplinary network “Homo debilis. Dis/ability in der Vormoderne” (“Dis/ability in the Premodern Era”) to test ways in which current research approaches could be translated into new teaching concepts. The university’s history didactics and historical science departments both agree on what up-to-date teaching programmes should aim for: both teacher training and MA students should engage with the socially topical and scientifically innovative theme of dis/ability. In doing so, students should explore this field as independently as possible, in line with the ideal of learning through research. They should prepare their findings either to be shared in school lessons or to be disseminated through scientific communication outside school, developing suitable formats for conveying their work to different public spheres and audiences. This will provide students with competencies that are key in a wide range of different jobs.
These reflections formed the basis of an experiment. A pilot module (“Dis/ability History - A New Perspective in the Historical Sciences”) consisting of two closely intertwined seminars was taught in cooperation between historical science and history didactics, further supported by a survey carried out by the inclusive pedagogy department. The historical science seminar taught the basic content and methods of dis/ability studies and dis/ability history from an interdisciplinary perspective and spanning various historical time periods. The aim here was to show first and foremost that abilities and disabilities are fluid phenomena that change over the course of history. Different concepts, ascriptions and practices existed and continue to exist in different cultures, social milieus and discourse communities. At the same time, the examples of selected thematic fields such as work, family relations and religion showed vividly how useful a tool the analytical category of dis/ability is: dis/ability – especially in conjunction with other categories such as gender – is a convenient lens through which to focus both on society as a whole and on its various facets. In the historical science seminar, the students developed their own topics and questions, which they aimed to research and prepare for selected target audiences (such as school classes, teachers, interested “laypeople” such as museum visitors or film audiences, or recipients with specific disabilities such as reading difficulties).
Screenshot of one of the explanatory videos.
The result was a whole gamut of multilayered, original work. In their projects, the students enquire into the ways science fiction films negotiate “normality”, “being different” and “special abilities”, examining the scenario of a society made up of mutants and non-mutants. They investigate the implications of epithets and nicknames such as “the mute” or “the beardless”, from which some contemporary family names derive, in various medieval cultural spheres. They discuss ways in which medieval texts’ and images’ contradictory information on the compatibility of “dis/ability and rulership” can be used in school teaching, also touching upon the expectations we have of politicians and those exercising power today. They cast light upon the beginnings of a psychiatric institution near Bremen, using an individual patient record to show how diagnoses such as “moral idiocy” or “hysteria” were constructed around 1900. They discuss the functions and significance of prostheses in past, contemporary and future societies, from wooden legs to cyborgs. They portray the American writer Helen Keller as a political activist. They dispel myths about the supposed causes of autism. And they enquire into the contemporary challenges of the inclusive school system by critically outlining the development of special schools.
Screenshot of one of the explanatory videos.
The history didactics seminar, where these projects were developed, served as the module’s real “laboratory”. It was decided that the students’ final “product” would be a blog page containing not only text but an explanatory video about the respective topic selected. This rendered the research findings more visible. At the same time, this public exposure encouraged the students to focus on presenting their findings to their target addressees in a manner appropriate to that audience. Beyond the topic of dis/ability, it has been useful for students to engage analytically with the innovative medium of the explanatory video (which also competes with classic lesson formats). Questions concerning the videos’ function (introducing viewers to a topic, enlarging upon or discussing it) and technical possibilities on the one hand and appropriate forms of expression on the other hand were the subject of intense debate.
Initially, all of the students saw developing a blog page with an explanatory video as an unusual, challenging and time-consuming form of “exam”. In the end, however, they were all pleased to have produced something that makes scholarly research more accessible to wider circles. The work presented gave rise to further discussion at the well-attended blog release party.
The project detailed in this report was funded as part of the federal and state governments’ joint “Teacher Training Quality Initiative” by funds of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, funding code 01JA1612. The content of this publication reflects the views of the authors. ________________________________
Cordula Nolte is professor for Medieval History at the University of Bremen. Sabine Horn is leader of the Department for History Didactics at the University of Bremen.
Recommended citation: Cordula Nolte / Sabine Horn (2019): Dis/ability History as a Subject of Teaching and Learning: A Lab Report. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 2.
Dis/ability History als Lehr- und Lerngegenstand: ein Bericht aus dem Labor
Inklusive Schul- und Unterrichtsformen, barrierefreie Zugänge zu öffentlichen Bauten, zu Medien und zu Bildungs- und Kulturangeboten, Dis/ability Studies und Dis/ability History als neue, internationale Forschungsfelder auch im deutschen Wissenschaftssystem: In den vergangenen Jahren sind viele Prozesse in Gang gekommen, deren gemeinsames Leitmotiv die Gestaltung gesellschaftlicher Teilhabe ist. Allerdings berühren sich schulische Inklusionspraxis und universitäre Dis/ability-Forschung in den historischen Fächern wie Geschichtswissenschaft, Archäologie, Kunstgeschichte, Literatur- und Sprachgeschichte bisher recht selten. Der naheliegende Gedanke, zum Beispiel im Geschichtsunterricht praktizierte Inklusion mit der inhaltlichen Thematisierung von Dis/ability zu verknüpfen und somit „inklusiven Unterricht“ im doppelten Sinn zu gestalten, nämlich hinsichtlich der Lernumgebung und hinsichtlich des Lerngegenstandes, wurde in der Didaktik erst vereinzelt diskutiert. Überhaupt ist Dis/ability History als ein Programm, das sich ideal für die Verknüpfung mehrerer Schulfächer eignet, noch nicht im Geschichtsunterricht und in verwandten Fächern angekommen. In außerschulischen Formaten der Wissens- und Wissenschaftsvermittlung wird das Potential von Dis/ability Studies und Dis/ability History hingegen schon kreativ für Kooperationen genutzt, das zeigen Blogs, Podcasts, Performances und Ausstellungen wie etwa die partizipativen Projekte LeibEigenschaften (Bremen 2012) und Touchdown (Bonn 2016/17).
Ausgehend von den Erträgen des interdisziplinären Netzwerks „Homo debilis. Dis/ability in der Vormoderne“ wurde in der Geschichtswissenschaft an der Universität Bremen kürzlich erprobt, wie aktuelle Forschungsansätze in neuartige Lehrkonzepte überführt werden können. Die dortige Fachdidaktik und Fachwissenschaft sind sich einig über die Ziele zeitgemäßer Lehrprogramme: Lehramts- und Masterstudierende sollen sich mit dem gesellschaftlich aktuellen und wissenschaftlich innovativen Themenfeld Dis/ability auseinandersetzen und dabei, dem Ideal des forschenden Lernens entsprechend, möglichst auch selbstständige Erkundungen unternehmen. Sie sollen die Erträge für den Schulunterricht oder für die außerschulische Wissenschaftskommunikation aufbereiten, das heißt geeignete Vermittlungsformate für verschiedene Öffentlichkeiten und Publikumskreise erarbeiten und somit wichtige Kompetenzen für verschiedenste Berufsfelder erwerben.
Aus diesen Überlegungen heraus wurde ein Experiment unternommen. Als eine Kooperation von Fachwissenschaft und Fachdidaktik der Geschichtswissenschaft, flankiert von einer Erhebung seitens der Inklusiven Pädagogik, fand ein aus zwei eng verzahnten Seminaren bestehendes Pilotmodul (Dis/ability History - eine neue Perspektive der Geschichtswissenschaft) statt. Das fachwissenschaftliche Seminar vermittelte inhaltliche und methodische Grundlagen von Dis/ability Studies und Dis/ability History, und zwar in epochenübergreifender und interdisziplinärer Perspektive. Hier ging es vor allem darum zu zeigen, dass es sich bei „Behinderung“ und „Nichtbehinderung“, Abilities und Disabilities um fluide, historisch wandelbare Phänomene handelt. In verschiedenen Kulturkreisen, sozialen Milieus und Diskursgemeinschaften bestanden und bestehen unterschiedliche Konzepte, Zuschreibungen und Praktiken. Zugleich erfuhren die Studierenden anschaulich anhand exemplarisch gewählter Themenfelder wie Arbeit, Familienbeziehungen und Religion, welch brauchbares Instrument die analytische Kategorie Dis/ability ist: Dis/ability ist eine geeignete Linse, zumal in Verknüpfung mit weiteren Kategorien wie etwa Gender, um das gesellschaftliche Ganze mit seinen vielfältigen Facetten in den Blick zu nehmen. In dem fachwissenschaftlichen Seminar entwickelten die Studierenden eigene Themen und Fragestellungen, die sie erforschen und für ausgewählte Adressatenkreise (beispielsweise Schulklassen, Lehrerinnen und Lehrer, interessierte „Laien“ als Museumsbesucher oder Filmpublikum, Rezipienten mit spezifischen Beeinträchtigungen wie etwa Leseschwäche) aufbereiten wollten.
Screenshot aus einem der Erklärvideos.
Daraus entstand eine Reihe vielschichtiger, origineller Werke. In ihren Arbeiten fragen die Studierenden danach, inwieweit Science Fiction-Filme den Umgang mit „Normalität“ und „Anderssein“ sowie mit „besonderen Fähigkeiten“ im Szenario einer aus Mutanten und Nichtmutanten bestehenden Gesellschaft verhandeln. Sie untersuchen die Implikationen von Beinamen bzw. Spitznamen wie „die Stumme“ oder „der Bartlose“, auf die manche heutige Familiennamen zurückgehen, in verschiedenen mittelalterlichen Kulturkreisen. Sie erörtern, wie man im Schulunterricht die widersprüchlichen Informationen mittelalterlicher Texte und Bilder zur Vereinbarkeit von „Dis/ability und Herrschaft“ behandeln und dabei heutige Ansprüche an Politiker und Machtausübende thematisieren kann. Sie beleuchten die Anfänge einer psychiatrischen Einrichtung nahe Bremen und zeigen anhand einer individuellen Patientenakte, wie dort um 1900 Diagnosen wie „moralische Idiotie“ oder „Hysterie“ konstruiert wurden. Sie diskutieren die Funktionen und Bedeutungen von Prothesen in vergangenen, heutigen und künftigen Gesellschaften, vom hölzernen Stelzfuß bis zum Cyborg. Sie porträtieren die amerikanische Schriftstellerin Helen Keller als politische Aktivistin. Sie räumen mit Mythen über die angeblichen Ursachen von Autismus auf. Und sie fragen nach heutigen Herausforderungen eines inklusiven Schulsystems, indem sie die Entwicklung der Förderschule kritisch nachzeichnen.
Screenshot aus einem der Erklävideos.
Als eigentliches Labor, in dem diese Projekte erarbeitet wurden, diente das fachdidaktische Seminar. Festgelegt wurde als Produkt die Erstellung einer Blogseite, die neben der textuellen Darstellung ein Erklärvideo zu dem gewählten Thema enthält. Hierdurch wurde die Visibilität der Forschungsergebnisse erhöht. Zugleich sahen die Studierenden aufgrund dieser Öffentlichkeit angeregt, sich mit der Adressatenangemessenheit der Präsentation ihrer Ergebnisse auseinander zu setzen. Jenseits des Themenfeldes Dis/ability hat es sich als sinnvoll erwiesen, dass sich die Studierenden mit dem innovativen (resp. mit dem klassischen Unterricht teilweise konkurrierenden) Medium Erklärvideo analytisch auseinandersetzten. Die Fragen nach der Funktion der Videos (Einführung in ein spezielles Thema, dessen Vertiefung oder Diskussion), nach technischen Möglichkeiten auf der einen Seite und angemessenen Ausdrucksformen auf der anderen wurden hier ebenfalls intensiv diskutiert.
Eine Blogseite mit einem Erklärvideo zu entwickeln, nahmen alle Studierenden anfangs als eine ungewohnte, anspruchsvolle und aufwändige „Prüfungsform“ wahr. Am Ende waren alle zufrieden etwas geschaffen zu haben, das Wissenschaft für breitere Kreise zugänglich macht. Bei der gut besuchten Blog Release Party regten die vorgestellten Werke zu weiteren Diskussionen an.
Das diesem Bericht zugrundeliegende Vorhaben wurde im Rahmen der gemeinsamen „Qualitätsoffensive Lehrerbildung“ von Bund und Ländern mit Mitteln des Bundesministeriums für Bildung und Forschung unter dem Förderkennzeichen 01JA1612 gefördert. Die Verantwortung für den Inhalt dieser Veröffentlichung liegt bei den Autorinnen. ____________________________
Cordula Nolte ist Professorin für die Geschichte des Mittelalters an der Universität Bremen. Sabine Horn ist Leiterin der Abteilung für Geschichtsdidaktik an der Universität Bremen.
Empfohlene Zitation: Cordula Nolte / Sabine Horn (2019): Dis/ability History as a Subject of Teaching and Learning: A Lab Report. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 2.
Using the agency of objects as an approach in university-based teacher training seminar During the winter semester of 2017/18, students on the teacher training course at Heidelberg University of Education and students at the University of Heidelberg took part in the seminar “A History of Psychiatry in Objects”. This seminar was designed and taught by the history educationalist Bettina Alavi and Ralph Höger, a doctoral candidate at the Heidelberg School of Education. The seminar adopted Disability History (Waldschmidt/Bösl 2017; Bösl 2010) as its approach, focusing in particular on the question of the “agency” of material culture (that is, the agency of things and objects). The seminar enquired to which extent objects both contribute to and constitute 20th- and 21st-century understandings of psychiatry: how are the boundaries drawn between healthy/unhealthy, normal/not normal, socially acceptable/inacceptable? Our underlying assumption was that social ideas and orders are inscribed into psychiatric objects and that the psychiatric objects themselves in turn influence the emergence of social orders. Students’ task was to summarise the findings arising from this specific perspective of psychiatric objects in the form of articles for this specialist blog. The seminar thus gave teacher training students the opportunity to take part in a form of Public History. At the same time, the seminar itself constituted a form of Public History, promoting the themes and concerns of Disability History to educators able to disseminate them more widely across society.
Schmidt, Heinrich, Die Pfälzische Kreis-Heil- u. Pflegeanstalt Klingenmünster, Landau 1926, p.2.
Seminar participants traced the agency of objects in the following historic psychiatric items: restraint belts, injection needles, keys, regulations for nursing staff, a medical file, and a carpet made by patients. The objects all came from the Pfalzklinikum Klingenmünster, a psychiatric and neurological clinic in a remote part of the southern Palatinate near Landau. The clinic served as a local example, providing participants with both a concrete context and previously unstudied objects.
We would like to take this opportunity to thank the Pfalzklinikum staff Andreas Dietz and Christel Flory. Christel Flory worked at the clinic for many years as a laboratory technician and collected the objects we investigated herself.
State of research
Psychiatric history is already an established field of research within social history and forms the subject of several relevant publications. Brink’s Grenzen der Anstalt (2010) was helpful in the context of our seminar, as the concept of boundaries – both between the outside world and the institution and within the institution, between open and closed wards and gardens and buildings, for example – proved particularly stimulating for our object-focused approach.
Beyer’s Ph.D. thesis (2009), which looked specifically at the Pfalzklinikum Klingenmünster, contained a lot of detailed information on the clinic, which helped to place the objects in context. Previous studies on the agency of objects in the history of psychiatry include Majerus (2017), who looked at pills, walls and room layouts, and Ankele (2017), who investigated hospital beds.
The students’ blog articles
In their sheer materiality, the regulations of 1903 formed the foundations of employment relations between nurses and the clinic, regulating nurses’ entire period of service. The regulations set out the training nurses were to receive and detailed the scope of their duties. They reveal a certain margin for interpretation and highlight their own normativity, for example by setting out the sanctions applied for specific conduct.
The nurses’ keys tell us about power relations, regulating how people were locked in and out of the institution. At the same time, the keys highlight the fluidity of the boundary between “inside” and “outside” the institution. The keys made both temporary openings and unplanned, forced imprisonments possible. The power of the keys thus invested care staff with significant authority. Accordingly, staff needed to be very careful with these power-bestowing objects.
A woman’s medical file from the National Socialist period reveals performative agency. The acts of writing performed in these records led to momentous decisions in a later court case. The diagnosis set down in the medical file became the main grounds for the woman’s forced sterilisation.
Injection needles were ambivalent objects. They were vehicles of therapeutic care on the one hand and medical force on the other. As objects associated both with the hope for a cure as well as with sedation and control, injection needles defined the boundaries in doctor-patient relations.
The restraint belts represent compulsory measures that restricted the patients in their free movement. With the restraint, power is directly transferred to the nursing staff which executes the compulsory measures. Even just the look of the belts might have triggered patients' anxieties.
Nurses’ uniforms are a “social skin”, delineating the boundaries between doctors and nurses, nurses and patients, and doctors and patients. At the same time, these boundaries are subject to negotiation, which can be seen from the fact that in many places, female nurses no longer wear a cap; in some institutions, uniforms have disappeared altogether.
The construction plans reflect the major shifts in child and adolescent psychiatry in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Modern facades sought to express the field’s successful “clinification”. However, it remains doubtful whether this was enough to truly draw a line under its inglorious previous history.
The carpetwoven by patients in the 1970s exemplifies the tension between the economic activity required for the clinic’s upkeep and the therapeutic measures structuring inmates’ daily routines, such as art therapy. Thus it reveals the somewhat contradictory aspects of occupational therapy, oscillating between the aspiration for meaningful, useful work and the desire for artistic self-realisation.
Students’ blog contributions were edited to various degrees.
Bettina Alavi is professor for history didactics at the Heidelberg University of Education. Ralph Höger is a doctoral candidate the Heidelberg School of Education.
__________________________ References Ankele, Monika (2017): Wie das Krankenbett zum Medikament wurde. http://science.orf.at/stories/2847043/ (last accessed 2 May 2018)
Beyer, Christof (2009): Von der “Kreis-Irrenanstalt” zum Pfalzklinikum. Eine Geschichte der Psychiatrie in Klingenmünster. Neustadt: Institut für Pfälzische Geschichte und Volkskunde.
Bösl, Elsbeth (2010): Was ist Disability History? Zur Geschichte und Historiographie von Behinderung. In: Elsbeth Bösl, Anne Klein, Anne Waldschmidt (eds.): Disability History. Konstruktion von Behinderung in der Geschichte. Eine Einführung. Bielefeld: Transcript, pp. 29-43.
Brink, Cornelia (2010): Grenzen der Anstalt. Psychiatrie und Gesellschaft in Deutschland ; 1860 - 1980. Göttingen: Wallstein Verl. (Moderne Zeit, 20). Available online at http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=46189.
Majerus, Benoît (2017): Material Objects in Twentieth Century History of Psychiatry. In: BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review 132 (1). DOI: 10.18352/bmgn-lchr.10314.
Waldschmidt, Anne/Bösl, Elsbeth (2017): Nacheinander/miteinander. Disability Studies und Dis/ability History. In: Nolte, Cordula/Frohne,Bianca/Halle,Uta/Kerth, Sonja (eds.) (2017): Dis/ability History der Vormoderne. Ein Handbuch. Affalterbach: Didymos, 40-49.
Bettina Alavi / Ralph Höger (2019): A History of Psychiatry in Objects. In: Public Disability History 4 (2019) 1.
My previous post looked at the ways in which organisations and individuals within the British disability movement have used references to, and symbols connected with, the Nazi persecution of disabled people. I argued that early references were intended both to encourage a sense of common identity amongst disabled people, and to demonstrate that they were an oppressed minority. This latter interpretation was radically different from the traditional view of disabled people as suffering exclusively from their impairments. In this post, I am going to discuss Tanvir Bush’s forthcoming novel CULL, and Liz Crow’s 2008 documentary, exhibition, and art installation, Resistance. In their different ways, both of these engage creatively with the Nazi persecution of disabled people and ask what relevance this has today.
Although Bush’s novel Cull is not due to be published until January 2019, she has written an as-yet unpublished article in which she explains the novel’s themes and how the Nazi analogy is used in it. Similarly, Crow’s website contains a number of articles shedding light on various aspects of the creation of Resistance. As Bush explains,
"CULL is a dark, satirical novel that hypothetically asks what could happen if the UK government sanctioned state-sponsored euthanasia as a social cost-cutting exercise?"2
‘Grave and systemic violations of disabled people’s rights’. Bush explains in an afterword that she was inspired by the publication, in November 2016, of a United Nations report which found that the UK government was responsible for ‘grave and systematic violations of the rights of disabled people in the UK’3. The majority of the violations cited involved the UK government’s cuts to disability benefits and its relentless drive to get disabled people into work and ensure that benefits were not a so-called ‘lifestyle choice’4. The UN reiterated its findings in 2017, and Theresia Degener, the head of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) stated that the government’s ‘fitness to work’ tests ‘totally neglected the vulnerable situation people with disabilities find themselves in’5.
Liz Crow in her wheelchair dressed as a Nazi
Liz Crow’s Resistance was motivated in part by similar concerns:
"For disabled people, we find ourselves in the midst of a new system of benefits that has been charged with contributing to the deaths of thirty-two disabled people every week, a tabloid press campaign that is portraying disabled people as fraudsters and scroungers … an associated hardening of public attitudes towards disabled people, and a chilling rise in hate crime. Within these events are knife-edge judgments of our place in the world, a step away from whether we even deserve to exist at all."6
Despite these similarities, Crow and Bush take very different approaches to the question of the Nazi persecution of disabled people. Crow tackles it directly, whilst Bush alludes to it, and explores how cavalier dismissals of the value of life may come to develop, and then to become virtually unquestioned ‘facts’. Crow’s installation comprises two short films – one scripted by Crow herself, and telling the story of Elise Blick, a character inspired by an account given by Hugh Gregory Gallagher in By Trust Betrayed: Patients, Physicians, and the Licence to Kill in the Third Reich, his 1990 book about the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme.
Gallagher had mentioned a woman whom he referred to as ‘EB’, a patient at an institution in Nazi Germany, who was employed there as a cleaner. Gallagher wrote that ‘EB’ made a bid for escape, going around rather than inside the bus which had arrived to take her to her death.7 By the time of her posthumous arrival in Liz Crow’s Resistance, ‘EB’ had morphed into the pivotal character of Elise Blick. As Crow shows, the character’s surname was chosen quite deliberately:
"EB became Elise Blick, her last name translated from the German for to look, to see. Elise does not speak and the staff assume she does not comprehend, but she watches as the buses filled with patients leave and return empty."8
The Importance of Names.
‘Resistance’ is a fictional film, but, being inspired by real events, it offers an interpretation which is radically different from that to be found in the overwhelming majority of history books about the Third Reich. In doing so, it further answers Paul van Trigt's question about whether the investigation of historical violence against disabled people can lead to the emancipation of disabled people.
Crow’s film does – taking its cue from Gallagher’s By Trust Betrayed, it brings the possibility of disabled resistance to a much wider audience, and – crucially – shows disabled people valuing their lives and wanting them to continue. Crow further took the decision to name all the disabled characters in Resistance, while leaving the institution staff anonymous – a further act of reclamation, showing that the people who were killed are more worthy of remembrance, than those who facilitated their murder.
Frontcover of Bush’s novel CULL
Names are also of importance in Tanvir Bush’s novel CULL. Bush includes various references to the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme and to the ideas and persons which helped to facilitate it. Two of her characters – a celebrated physician and his daughter, a rising politician – have the surname Binding. This is a reference to Karl Binding, who, with his colleague Alfred Hoche, wrote Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (The Granting of Permission for the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life), published in Leipzig in 1920. Bush describes this tract as ‘the blueprint for the Aktion T-4 Plan and the staunch defence of many of the doctors.’9 There is also an incidental character called Dr Julian Hallywooden, whose unusual surname came about because it refers to Julius Hallervorden, the German neuroscientist whose glittering research career was not impeded by his having participated in the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme. Bush states that her aim in doing this was not to test her reader’s historical knowledge, but that "readers who made the connections might receive a jolt of pleasure, like finding a key clue to a crossword"10.
Bush’s image of finding a key clue in a crossword is apposite, but I wonder if instead of receiving a jolt of pleasure, a reader might be motivated to think more deeply about why Bush had chosen to allude to persons instrumental in the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme. The decision was clearly taken to make a point. The same is true of the grey Community Transport ambulance which makes its first appearance at the beginning of the novel, and which Bush writes is "based on the very ones in Germany that had picked up the disabled children and adults for euthanasia … in the 1930s"11.
That Bush’s novel is set in modern-day Britain, but alludes to the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme, is particularly striking, showing that there are things for every society – not just Germany – to consider. In fact, both Bush and Crow make this explicit. Bush’s novel shows how policies which make life avoidably harder for disabled people facilitate lack of understanding, foster the growth of stereotypes and hate crime, and allow a cavalier attitude towards the value of disabled lives. The novel also shows that these attitudes would be much harder to sustain without a complicit media, and of functionaries who either actively believe that people from targeted groups are merely representatives of types, or who simply do as they are told without question.12
Bush’s novel, then, advocates constant vigilance, and an awareness that seemingly small violations can often be part of something bigger. By contrast, Crow emphasises the need to create a society which is so strongly united that attempts to sow division are doomed to failure. The companion film to her ‘Resistance’ drama begins with two of the actors from the film discussing what visiting the death centres and portraying victims of the ‘euthanasia’ programme meant for them as disabled people. Then it moves on to
"A soundtrack of voices, disabled and not, talking about their experiences of discrimination … they speak of practical and emotional cost, but also describe the elation of being included. Audiences glimpse a starting-point for making that inclusion a reality and are shown the possibility of their own role in this."13
The differing approaches of these two works, and the different solutions they offer, makes the idea of seeing them as companion pieces, with each illuminating aspects of the other, attractive. They also demonstrate beyond doubt that the subject of the Nazi persecution of disabled people is one to which is still relevant, and also one to which disabled people are continuing to bring new and important insights.
 I would like to thank Pieter Verstraete for his comments on a previous version of this post.  Tanvir Naomi Bush, unpublished article explaining the genesis of CULL, 1.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Quoted in ibid, 2.  Liz Crow, ‘Resistance: The Art of Change’, www.roaring-girl.com/ wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Resistance-The-Art-of-Change.pdf , 4.  Ibid.  Ibid,14  Bush, 5.  Ibid, 7.  Ibid, 8.  Ibid, 4.  Crow, ‘Resistance: The Art of Change’, www.roaring-girl.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Resistance-The-Art-of-Change.pdf.
Recommended Citation: Emmeline Burdett (2018): Reclaiming Our History? Creative Responses to the Nazi Persecution of Disabled People, Part II. In: Public Disability History 3 (2018) 15.
In a PDH blog post earlier this year, the Dutch historian Paul van Trigt asked whether the investigation of historical violence against people with disabilities can ever serve the emancipation of people with disabilities? I believe that it can, and to illustrate this, I am going to look at the various ways in which the disability rights movement in the United Kingdom has dealt with Nazi attitudes towards, and treatment of, disabled people, and the questions which this continues to pose for contemporary Western societies. As this is a rather large topic, I am going to address it in two blog posts. In this first post, I am going to discuss the various instances of images connected with this being used to cement a sense of group identity amongst disabled people. In my subsequent post, I will be looking more closely at the programme’s wider implications, and discuss how members of the British disability rights movement have engaged with these. I hope that my two posts will provide a comprehensive answer to van Trigt’s question.
The Search for Identity Early UK texts on the subject of what would become Disability Studies did not include references to Nazi attitudes towards disabled people. An example of this is the 1966 book Stigma: The Experience of Disability, edited by Paul Hunt. The book showed disability as the collective experience of oppression, rather than as the individual experience of bodily deficit, and it contains two references to Nazism, but neither of these is connected to the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme, suggesting that at this stage it had not entered into disabled people’s collective consciousness – at least not in the United Kingdom.
The British writer Allan Sutherland dedicated his 1981 book Disabled We Stand to ‘the 100,000 or more people with disabilities murdered by the Third Reich’.2 As this dedication is unreferenced, and as the book contains no further information about the programme, it seems likely that his purpose in referring to it was to use it to cement a sense of group identity amongst disabled people. This impression is increased by a talk which Sutherland gave at the University of Durham the following year. During this talk, he explained how he had assumed that his experience of impairment was purely personal:
I myself was diagnosed epileptic at the age of four. Yet it was not until I was in my early twenties that I met anybody else whom I knew to have epilepsy. For twenty years my disability was something I lived with on my own, with no knowledge of other people’s experience of that disability … My epilepsy was part of my identity, but a purely personal part … That is one of the things that has in the past kept disabled people from starting to develop a shared radical consciousness: unlike most oppressed groups … we do not have a cultural identity of our own.3
Allan Sutherland’s comment is an important one, because it links Disabled We Stand to both the concerns expressed in earlier disability studies texts, and also with the reasons why the Social Model of Disability – which has become the cornerstone of the British disability movement – was developed. I also argue that it explains Sutherland’s decision to refer to the Nazi ‘euthanasia’ programme – if it could be shown that disabled people had been subjected to a programme of systematic state murder, the traditional view that they were suffering from their impairments with (almost by definition) no societal problems in sight, became increasingly untenable.
The Black Triangle To this end, the Social Model of Disability (formulated in 1976) distinguishes between Impairment, which it defined as
Lacking all or part of a limb, or having a defective limb, organ or mechanism of the body;
and Disability, which is
The disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities.4
UK Disability History Month (UKDHM) also refers to Nazi attitudes towards disabled people in order to increase feelings of group cohesion and legitimacy. As shown in the illustration, the UKDHM logo is a black triangle with a yellow circle in the middle. Inside this circle, ‘UK DISABILITY HISTORY MONTH’ is written in black letters. The logo also bears the tagline ‘CELEBRATING OUR LIVES – CHALLENGING DISABLISM – ACHIEVING EQUALITY’.
Logo of UK disability history month
The website tells us about the choice of logo. Beside a black-and-white photograph of five obviously disabled men wearing striped concentration camp uniforms, each with an inverted black triangle sewn onto them, the UKDHM website states:
Disabled people were forced to wear this symbol by the Nazis during the T4 Eugenics Programme which was intended to eliminate them. Between 250,000 – 1,000,000 were murdered by the Nazis’ false hopes of building a master race. The UKDHM Logo has taken this symbol, and in reclaiming our history we have inverted it.
Though this statement raises questions - for example, it makes it appear that the black triangle was specifically associated with disabled people in the same way that the yellow star was specifically associated with Jews, when in fact this is not entirely true5 – it is an important development. The juxtaposition of the inverted Nazi symbol and the confident tagline asserting disabled people’s right to live and be part of society are very striking, as is the assertion that the decision to invert the triangle is an act of reclamation, in the same way that gay rights activists have reclaimed the word ‘queer’. The reference to ‘our history’ makes it clear that disabled people are seen as a specific group, with a specific identity and history.
The Black Triangle Campaign in Defence of Disability Rights was founded as a response to the death of the Scottish writer Paul Reekie in July 2010. Reekie took his own life at the age of 48 after receiving a letter informing him that his disability benefits were to be stopped. Reekie’s death was not an isolated incident, but just one of many resulting from the current Conservative government’s overhaul of the benefits system. As will be discussed more fully in the next post, the Campaign uses the Nazi symbol because it wishes to draw specific parallels between the Nazis’ use of the symbol to denote people considered ‘Workshy’, and the current Conservative government and right-wing press’s characterisation of benefit claimants as ‘scroungers’. Thus, although Black Triangle and UKDHM have very similar logos, they use them for strikingly different reasons.
Black triangle campaign’s logo
As shown in the illustration, the Black Triangle Campaign’s logo, like that of UKDHM, makes use of the Nazi symbol of the black triangle – this time, the triangle appears with its point facing downwards, on a circular background of what is clearly intended to be a striped concentration camp uniform. According to Black Triangle’s website, this decision was taken because
The Nazis forced people with mental and other disabilities to wear black triangles in the extermination camps during the Holocaust.
As in the case of the UKDHM logo, the Black Triangle Campaign makes it appear that the black triangle was specifically associated with disabled people, and makes similar claims regarding the symbol’s reclamation. As shown in the illustration, the Campaign’s tagline reads ‘DISABLED PEOPLE FIGHTING FOR OUR FUTURE – CUSTODIANS OF OUR PAST’, and, significantly, the ‘OUR’ of ‘OUR PAST’ is in red, whereas the rest of the sentence is in black. In a similar way to the inversion of the black triangle on the UK Disability History Month logo, this emphasis on ‘OUR’ history may be regarded as an act of reclamation.
This was the first part of Burdett’s response to Paul Van trigt’s earlier post. The second part of her reaction will follow soon.
 I would like to thank Pieter Verstraete for his comments on a previous version of this post.  Allan Sutherland, Disabled We Stand (London: Souvenir Press (Educational and Academic) Ltd., 1981, no page number).  Allan Sutherland, ‘Coming Out Disabled’, talk given at the Approaches to Disability conference held at the University of Durham, Friday, 8 March 1982.  UPIAS, Fundamental Principles of Disability, quoted in Cameron, (ed.) Disability Studies: A Student’s Guide (London: Sage, 2014, 137).  The black triangle was used by the Nazis to denote concentration camp inmates considered Asocial and ‘Arbeitsscheu’ (‘workshy’). Thus, though this category included disabled and mentally ill concentration camp prisoners, it was not specifically associated with them.
Recommended Citation: Emmeline Burdett (2018): Reclaiming our History? The British Disability Movement and the Nazi ‘Euthanasia’ Programme, Part I. In: Public Disability History 3 (2018) 14.
Mr. Lin1, a retired teacher in his seventies, has been a left above-knee prosthesis user since 2016. He underwent amputation surgery after accidentally cutting the artery in his left thigh when carpentering in 2015. Living with his prosthesis changed the everyday life of Mr. Lin and his family, daily interactions with others included. It was an upsetting experience for Mrs. Lin to speak about her husband’s encounter with some neighbors after him being disabled:
“After his surgery, we did not go out regularly. We only told a few trustworthy people about his situation. Others guessed that something terrible must have happened to him, but they were not sure what it was. Gradually the story spread, so more and more people knew he was disabled and using a prosthesis. One day, after enjoying the winter sunshine in our neighborhood, we passed a few acquaintances on our way home. To my shock, those people with whom we had interacted for years, they turned their faces to the other side with eyebrows raised and mouths contorted (as if they had noticed something unpleasant and chosen to ignore it).”
Mrs. Lin imitated the neighbors’ facial expressions to me, then went on narrating: “They did not greet us, not even a word. I will never forget those faces. You cannot imagine how ugly they were. Why did they do that to us? We have lived in the same building for years.” She pointed to Mr. Lin with slight anger and deep disappointment and said: “I don’t understand why this person considers those people’s reactions are acceptable. I can’t take it.” Mr. Lin, sitting beside her, responded with a weak smile: “I am canfei (殘廢). It’s a fact. What can I do?”
Mr. Lin is one informant of mine during my 13-month fieldwork in the Sichuan 81 Rehabilitation Center in Chengdu, China. Drawing on narratives from my informants and my own observations, I aim to illuminate conceptions about disability, aesthetics of bodies, and care-giving/care-receiving practices in China through prosthesis users’ everyday experiences. Perceptions about disabled people are hugely influenced by cultural, social, and political factors, which bring low self-esteem and moral dilemmas to disabled people in China. My informants’ experiences always made me curious about another question – how do they deal with disabilities in their lives given the prejudice about disabled people? Most informants attribute their disabilities to supernatural beings, with fate being a common explanation. All holds true for Mr. Lin.
What is canfei? What is the relation between canfei and the official terms canji (殘疾) in China? The word canfei is composed of two Chinese characters, can (殘) and fei (廢). In the popular character reference book Shuo Wen Jie Zi (說文解字), literally “Explaining Graphs and Analyzing Characters”, can is interpreted as “injury and wound"2. The original meaning of fei is “collapsed houses”, and its meaning developed into “falling”3. Ji is explained as “disease” and “leaning on something due to diseases”4. Terms for disabled people changed in specific eras, but they always carry the meanings of fei and ji. In today’s interpretations, canfei implies disabled people’s lives are not worthy of living as fei’s main meanings include “useless”, “finished”, and “damaged without any chance of recovery.” Canji hints at that disabled people are pathological and unhealthy so that they need further treatments.
Compared to the original definitions, which are merely descriptions of particular states, the contemporary interpretations obviously carry strong and negative moral meanings. Matthew Kohrman, an anthropologist researching disability in China, reviewed the history of terms for disabled people in the 20th century and its relations with nation-building. He points out that canfei used to be a category which differentiated between the elite and the weak; in Mao’s period, canfei was regarded as a misery caused by people who are against the nation; after initiating the Reform and Opening-up Policy, disabled people started to become one of the representative groups showing that Chinese people have a responsible government, which takes care of everyone.5 In the last 15 years of the 20th century, canfei was gradually removed from the official discourse and replaced by canji, which was promoted by The China Disabled Persons Federation (CDPF).
The CDPF was established in March 19886 mainly due to Deng Pufang’s7 influences. The organization had strong connections with the government and it became a branch of the local authorities, especially in counties and towns. The CDPF rapidly grew into an influential parental organization speaking for and of disabled people in China. Changing the term for disabled people is one of the first steps CDPF took to improve disabled people’s lives. By promoting the change from canfei to canji, CDPF emphasizes the importance of evidence-based care for disabled people, such as developing rehabilitation medicine, providing basic assisting facilities, and improving disabled peoples’ social status. However, canji links disabled people to ji (diseases); at the same time, its connotation is that disabled people might be treated or cured by medicine or medical technology. Canji might encourage the medical gaze on the disabled body rather than dismantling cultural and social stigmas.
Why does Mr. Lin describe himself as canfei while understanding the negative moral meanings of the term? It could be a form of self-mockery. More significantly, it is a reflection of the neighbors’ attitudes towards himself rather than him considering himself as canfei. As a teacher, Mr. Lin was respected in his community, but now he is a person that others intentionally ignore, as if his disability lies not only in his body but also in his morality. That is, he is judged not only because of his body but also due to the degenerated morality represented by a disabled body. Mr. Lin’s experience illustrates that there is still a gap between ordinary people’s understandings of disabled persons and the values expressed in written policies. I even doubt that the change, from canfei to canji, deeply touches upon people’s perceptions about disabled people and disabled people’s self-perception, as the influences of fei and ji are still profound. Furthermore, it might create a dilemma in disabled people’s life: they may be taken care of by the government while being looked down upon in everyday life.
Another reason for Mr. Lin to call himself canfei is that doing so frees him from having to play a passive role in Mrs. Lin’s narrative. Mrs. Lin accused Mr. Lin of not properly responding to the neighbors’ contemptuous behavior. By saying “I am canfei”, Mr. Lin showed his acceptance/ignoring of others’ unfair judgments and thus rejected Mrs. Lin’s accusation. To the Lins, other people’s prejudice become part of their life and something they have to deal with every day.
Fate – One Accountability for Disability
Mr. Lin told me his story while participating in an occupational therapy program: “My sister’s 60th birthday was a few months before my accident. I went to her place to celebrate with her. She is a fortune-teller. Before I left her house, she warned: ‘Brother, be careful in the upcoming months (this year). You will be lucky if you don’t die but you will pay heavily for being alive. Even if you don’t die, a layer of skin will be ripped off your body.’ I felt furious due to the misfortune she foresaw and responded: ‘Bullshit!’ After my amputation surgery, my sister asked me at the hospital: ‘Brother, do you still think I was bullshitting?’ There was nothing could I say.” Mrs. Lin elaborated: “The accident happened on the day before the National Day (Oct. 1, 2015). He was too stubborn to listen to any advice on that day. He insisted on making a peg-top which spins when being hit with a whip. Playing peg-top was a popular leisure activity at that time in our city. I suggested we clean the house and prepare food for our children and grandchildren as they would visit us during the seven-day National Holiday. However, he rejected my suggestions and focused on working around the house. Finally, he cut the vessel in his left thigh with the saw in his hands. He would not have been disabled if it was not for the holidays as most doctors were on leave. It was his fate.” “I never believed in that (fate) before what happened to me.” Mr. Lin added with an awkward smile.
Similar to explanations about misfortune in a wide range of cultures8, the Lins attribute Mr. Lin’s disability to the fate, which answers “why disabled” rather than “how disabled.” Accidentally cutting himself when carpentering is the direct reason, which does not explain why the accident happened to Mr. Lin at that particular moment; while fate is the fundamental and convincing explanation as it means that being disabled is Mr. Lin’s destiny, and the accident is a way to fulfill this destiny. Fate helps Mr. Lin to accept his disability. In Chinese culture, fate is changeable if people can detect the omens in advance. There would have been the possibility of a different life, which places prosthesis users in a dilemma of acceptance and regret. People cannot help asking the question of “what if”. What if Mr. Lin had listened to his sister’s warning and carefully avoided activities involving sharp tools during the rest of 2015? What if Mr. Lin had given up his plans and done chores with Mrs. Lin instead on Sep. 30, 2015? What if and what if…? Mr. Lin accepted his disability with its associated moral burdens. Prosthesis users such as Mr. Lin try hard to make sense of their disabilities in the complex contexts of China shaped by history, politics, and beliefs. I have to say that the journey for them is not pleasant at all.
Chunchun Wang is an anthropology PhD student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
 I use pseudonyms for all informants to protect their privacy.  Xu Shen., Tang Kejing. Shuo Wen Jie Zi Jin Shi. 1st ed. (Changsha: Yuelu Shushe, 1997), 556.  Xu Shen., Tang Kejing. Shuo Wen Jie Zi Jin Shi. 1st ed. (Changsha: Yuelu Shushe, 1997), 1274.  Xu Shen., Tang Kejing. Shuo Wen Jie Zi Jin Shi. 1st ed. (Changsha: Yuelu Shushe, 1997), 1015.  Kohrman, Matthew. Bodies of Difference: Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China, (Berkley: University of California Press, 2004), 57-82.  “Overview of China Disabled Persons’ Federation,” China Disabled Persons’ Federation, accessed 0ct. 3, 2018, http://www.cdpf.org.cn/english/About/overview_1793/.  Deng Pufang (鄧朴方) is the first son of Deng Xiaoping. He became disabled during the Cultural Revolution and then became an activist for disabled people in China. For more information: https://www.google.com.hk/search?q=deng+pufang&rlz=1C5CHFA_enHK726HK727&oq=Deng+Pu&aqs=chrome.0.35i39j69i57j0l4.7881j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8.  There are plenty of discussions regarding misfortune in anthropology, beginning with E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande (1937).
_____________________________ Recommended Citation: Wang Chunchun (2018): Understanding Disability through a Group of Prosthesis Users in China. In: Public Disability History 3 (2018) 13.
Seneb and his wife Senetites (ca. 2520 BC) (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)
People of (unusually) short stature1 are extremely popular in art: portrayal of people with so called ‘proportionate’ or ‘disproportionate’ short stature (usually achondroplasia) can be found all over the world and through the entire history of mankind. People of short stature were popular in ancient Roman and Greek art, but also in Asian, African and Latin American cultures. Fascinated by the tiny appearance of their fellow human beings, artists from Classical Antiquity till today liked to sculpt, cast, draw, paint, photograph or film people of short stature. Do these persons remind them (and us!) of ancient mythology about people of short stature living in faraway places? Do they attract us by their doll-like features? Are they funny, simply because they are smaller than ‘normal’ people? Some people consider them as more than funny, in their opinion they are ridiculous and for them they are a popular target to laugh with.
Without any doubt the Italian painter Faustino Bocchi (1652-1752) was one of history’s artists who was obsessed by people of short stature. Nevertheless, he is less famous than Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) who also made several beautiful paintings of the same subject (e.g. Las Meninas, 1653). Faustino Bocchi, who lived in Brescia, was specialized in painting people of short stature in ridiculous poses and situations. These paintings caused great amusement amongst his clients and made Bocchi a wealthy person. His tour de force, which was actually a shameless imitation of the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/7-1593), is without any doubt the portrait of a human face, consisting of grotesque ‘pygmies’.
Faustino Bocchi, A Head formed out of Pygmies (1729) (Christie’s Images/Corbis)
Today, looking at this painting, we can nod our head and condemn this painting of Bocchi, naming it ‘disrespectful’ towards a minority group, which is certainly a right attitude. On the other hand, Bocchi’s depiction of little people is only an exaggerated version of all other depictions of people with short stature in art around the world and throughout history. Almost always these people are portrayed with an emphasis on their tiny stature: they are shown with furniture, their protectors or benefactors (adult men and women or even children), various kinds of animals (parrots, dogs, monkeys,…) which make the contrast between big (normal?) and small even bigger. The animals on paintings with people of short stature seem to suggest that they were seen as nothing else than another kind of pet, meant to amuse their masters.
To my knowledge, there are almost no paintings or sculptures of people of short stature in a normal environment, where their size doesn’t matter. Almost always they are represented in art as utterly little, incredibly cute, unbelievably ugly, mysteriously strange or hilariously ridiculous. It seems like they don’t have no other function than to please and divert other people. Do they have a life outside of the painting? Do they have a wife? Do they have kids? Are they more than just people who are smaller than ‘normal’ people?
In that respect, the sculpture of Seneb and his wife Senetites, made by an unknown Egyptian artist around 2520 BC, is a unique depiction of a person of short stature. Seneb is portrayed in a very respectful manner, with his wife and children. Seneb is seated on the same height as his wife and because he crosses his legs while sitting, it can’t be seen, at first sight, that he is smaller than his wife. In this way, both are on ‘the same level’: they are equal in height and this might suggest a harmonious marriage as well. She is a beautiful woman and puts her arm around her husband in a very tender and loving way. The danger that the harmony – on the level of art and life - between this Egyptian man and his wife could be disturbed by the little legs of the husband, is avoided in a very intelligent way. The artist has replaced Seneb’s legs by two of the children of the couple, a boy and a girl. Seneb’s children serve as the legs of their father, but they are also the symbol of a successful marriage.
Seneb was a proud man, enjoying a happy life as a father, but also as a personal friend of the pharaoh. In the tomb of Seneb (near Cairo) about twenty of his royal titles can be found: friend of the Pharaoh, overseer of the dwarfs, overseer of the royal ships, overseer of the animal tenders, keeper of the seal of the gods,… Besides that Seneb and his wife were both important priests.
Why did Seneb obtain this prestigious position and why – as a consequence – was he depicted in the most respectful matter a person of short stature has ever been in history? Ancient Egyptians were very kind towards mentally and physically challenged people, but amongst them, people of short stature were the most respected. In ancient Egypt, at least two gods were venerated who had small stature: Bes and Ptah Pataikos. Bes was the god who protected women against evil, especially when they delivered babies. Ptah Pataikos, on the other side, was connected to Ptah, who was god of craftsmen and architects. Thus, both were very important gods.
Bes (3th-1st century BC) (Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)
In their appearance, Bes and Ptah-Pataikos show typical characteristics of what is medically phrased as ‘achondroplasia’, the most common form of short stature. People of short stature, who are said to have achondroplasia, usually have a torso with ‘normal’ size, disproportionate small limbs with slightly curved legs and a large (fore)head. All these characteristics are prominently depicted in Ptah-Pataikos and Bes.
People of short stature reminded the ancient Egyptians about the scarab or Sacred scarab (scarabaeus sacer), a species of dung beetle which has a normal sized torso and tiny, disproportionate and curved limbs. This insect makes small balls of dung which he rolls out or towards his hiding place. This movement of rolling a ball out of a hiding place, reminded the ancient Egyptians about the movement of the rolling ball of the sun. In the eyes of the ancient Egyptians, people of short stature were not suffering from a physical challenge, but they were representatives of the gods here on earth. In this way, they deserved the highest respect!
Bert Gevaert obtained a PhD on the representations of disabilities in the epigrams of the Roman author Marcus Valerius Martialis (40-104 AD) (Free University of Brussels, 2013).
 For this text I preferred to use the term ‘people of short stature’ instead of other (combinations of) words, e.g. ‘little people’, ‘short people’, ‘small people’ or worse… ‘dwarf’. Though dwarfism refers to the medical condition of being unusually smaller than average (https://www.lpaonline.org/faq-) and some people of short stature have no problems with the word ‘dwarf’, the term ‘people (or person) of short stature’ is less biased and less insulting.↩
Recommended Citation: Bert Gevaert (2018): People of short stature as representatives of the gods?. In: Public Disability History 3 (2018) 12.