Rembis on Hanes and Brown and Hansen, 'The Routledge History of Disability'

Roy Hanes, Ivan Brown, Nancy E. Hansen, eds.
Michael Rembis

Roy Hanes, Ivan Brown, Nancy E. Hansen, eds. The Routledge History of Disability. Routledge Histories Series. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. 540 pp. $225.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-19357-4.

Reviewed by Michael Rembis (University at Buffalo (SUNY)) Published on H-Disability (October, 2018) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

In many ways, The Routledge History of Disability is an impressive work: twenty-eight chapters, forty-nine authors, nineteen countries or geographic regions, and more than two thousand years of human history. Contributors to The Routledge History of Disability cover topics familiar to disability studies scholars and disability historians, such as the freak show, eugenics, and Nazi Germany. There are also less familiar topics included in this volume, such as disability in Nigeria, Belgian-Congo, Ireland, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Authors write on topics as varied as gender and disability in ancient Greece and “dull” students in a Norwegian folk school. They ponder societal responses to “the intellectually disabled” and expose developments in disability issues in Ottoman Turkey. The scope of the material presented in The Routledge History of Disability alone makes it noteworthy.

Yet this volume, with all of its positive attributes and potential contributions to disability studies, raises some questions and concerns about the representation of the history of people with disabilities, the creation of the sub-discipline of disability history within the larger historical profession, and the relationship between disability history and disability studies. Before I address these concerns, I would like to point out the strengths of this ambitious collection. The strongest contributions to The Routledge History of Disability are the chapters that focus on geographic and thematic areas that have been most well researched and most frequently written about within disability studies and disability history, such as sensory or intellectual disabilities and people with mobility impairments or atypical bodies—in the Netherlands, Canada, Great Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Belgian-Congo, Australia, and ancient Greece. In these chapters, authors take care to situate their work within existing disability studies and disability history literature, and they, to varying degrees, employ historical methodologies. They, for example, think about the importance of using diverse primary sources in constructing historical scholarship, and about the ways in which gender and social class work to co-constitute disability and shape the experiences of disabled people in the past.

In the book’s second chapter, disability historian M. Lynn Rose presents a nuanced analysis of the importance of gender and social and economic context in the creation of intellectual disability among women in ancient Greece, which she argues “has little to do with modern definitions” (p. 35). The title of the chapter, “The Courage of Subordination,” comes from Aristotle’s Politics. The gendered concept of silent and courageous subordination articulated by Aristotle, Rose argues, “provides a starting point from which to examine the contextualized meaning of female intellectual ability and disability” in ancient Greece. According to Rose, “some women embodied the courage of subordination; other women were very insubordinate indeed” (p. 37). Both types of women became disabled, for different reasons. Disability, especially something akin to intellectual disability, became knowable in ancient Greece only through the gendered social, cultural, and economic contexts within which it was created. It took its meaning, Rose asserts, from its “community’s context.” It was “dependent on expectations and resources” (p. 46). As Rose concludes, “intellectual disability is a fluid concept, and perhaps nothing more than a concept, that varies widely over time and between cultures” (p. 42).

The Routledge History of Disability contains several other chapters written by authors, like Rose, who create clear temporal and geographic boundaries and analyze the ways in which other identity categories (such as gender, race, or religion) and material conditions and social and economic structures (such as colonization) interact to create disability and shape the lived experiences of disabled people in the past. A fine example of this approach is the history of disability in Belgian-Congo, 1908–60, written by Pieter Verstraete, Evelyne Verhaegen, and Marc Depaepe. In this chapter, which is a revision of Verhaegen’s unpublished master’s thesis, the authors note the simultaneous presence and absence of disability and disability education among the colonized peoples of Congo. The mutilation of Congolese rubber plantation workers by their colonizers and the presence of “river blindness” meant that disability was probably a prominent feature of daily life in Belgian-Congo in the first half of the twentieth century (p. 238). Yet it was conspicuously absent both from the governing structures created by Belgian colonizers and from later histories of the region. Given their area of expertise and their focus in the chapter, the authors note, for example, that the colonial government made no provisions for “special education” in Congo. They contend that this could have been the product of European colonizers’ ideas concerning the inherent primitiveness of the Congolese people. In some ways, they were all seen as disabled when compared with Europeans, and therefore “special education” was not necessary in the colonial context.

Hazel McFarlane takes a similarly careful, multilayered approach in her study of blind asylums and missions in Scotland. Making extensive and thoughtful use of primary documents, McFarlane reveals the importance of gender, class, and dominant notions of morality in shaping the creation of, and the daily work within, asylums in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the nineteenth century. Institution administrators concerned with their own reputations and the reputations of their asylums implemented repressive rules and regimes that forbade, or at the very least made it difficult for, blind women to express their sexuality, bear children, and become mothers. And although notions of respectability changed over the course of the nineteenth century, one of the results of the asylum was “virtually to eradicate the participation of blind women in mainstream [Scottish] society” (p. 296). But asylum administrators did not have the last word in every case. McFarlane’s chapter is one of the few chapters in the book that reads institutional documents creatively in an effort to root out moments of resistance among asylum inmates. McFarlane found that age mattered in resistance. Inmates admitted at a younger age were less likely to resist the “rules and regimes of ‘the house.’” Other, older inmates refused to attend religious services and formed relationships, some of which resulted in pregnancy, which McFarlane argues showed that inmates were “capable of making their own decisions, and were prepared to face the consequences” (p. 289). Despite their removal from mainstream Scottish society, nineteenth-century women inmates of blind asylums worked to shape their own lives, which in some cases included becoming a mother.

In “Breaking the Rules,” Karen Yoshida, Susan Ferguson, and Fady Shanouda model innovative ways to use oral history to explore the experiences of polio survivors in twentieth-century Ontario, Canada. They argue that their interviews with a small group of people who attended camps for “crippled children” in the 1940s and 1950s challenge “the dominant negative views of disability reflected within the archival documents” (p. 455). In their study, the authors compare the memories of campers with two documents: The History of the Ontario Society for Crippled Children (1967) and Summer Camp Objectives (no date of publication). After presenting a brief history of the Ontario Society for Crippled Children, the authors move systematically through the “objectives” of summer camp (p. 465). They list the ideologies camp organizers hoped to instill in campers, including participation, self-expression, independence, socialization, and sense of personal worth, and juxtapose those ideological goals with the memories of campers. The authors conclude with a discussion of “gendered subjectivities, social practice, and performances within the camps,” and “future narratives” (pp. 477, 479). Although they rely on a limited array of archival sources and their analysis of both historical documents and oral history interviews is colored by early twenty-first-century understandings of disability and the lives of disabled people (rather than analyzing the past on its own terms), this chapter, which makes a conscious effort to bridge theoretical insights from disability studies with disability history methodologies, is a promising example of the interdisciplinary scholarship that is helping to redefine both fields.

In all, there are a handful of chapters, like the ones mentioned above, that stand out in their efforts to incorporate existing historiography and historical methodologies into their scholarship. Other chapters in The Routledge History of Disability do not engage as rigorously with the discipline of history or the subfield of disability history, which often includes accounts or interpretations of the lived experiences of disabled people. This might be because the majority of the contributors to this volume are not primarily historians. As a historian who has been working in the field for twenty years, I find it a bit disconcerting that forty-one of the forty-nine contributors to The Routledge History of Disability are not historians, and the book’s three editors are also not historians. I call attention to the lack of historical training among most of the volume’s contributors not as a way of claiming or defending intellectual or professional territory but rather as a way to address structural shortcomings in the book and raise questions that historians of disability, and disability studies scholars, should contend with moving forward.

Most of the contributors to The Routledge History of Disability come from the human service or helping professions, such as medicine, “special” education, psychology, social work, and public health, or other academic disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, political science, and geography. A few come from disability studies and deaf studies. I mention this not to single out any one author or group of authors but to note that the background and training of the contributors to this book are important, because they have shaped the book’s focus, and the design and execution of each of its chapters.

Given the background and training of the contributors to this volume, it is not surprising that only seven of twenty-eight chapters engage with larger historiographic concerns or historical methodologies. The chapters in this volume, with a few exceptions, are teleological, presentist, and progressive, or what some historians might call “Whig” histories. This progressive orientation toward the present can be seen in the book’s introduction. The editors write that the “handbook shows a shift from a history of segregation and exclusion toward greater inclusion and the provision of civil rights for disabled people” (p. 5). It is apparent in some of the chapter titles as well, such as “The Italian Path to School and Social Inclusion.” It is also visible in some of the chapters’ stated aims or goals. For example, one chapter states that its goal is “to contribute to a better understanding of what has occurred in the past and how this has evolved into the current situation, with an emphasis on the resulting opportunities that are opening for people with disabilities today” (p. 356). The result of this apparent presentism is that most of the chapters contained in The Routledge History of Disability offer little more than an encyclopedic inventory of key moments in the past when governments implemented legislative measures or social or educational programs intended to benefit disabled people. With several notable exceptions, the chapters cover centuries or millennia of history, forgoing nuanced analyses of changes and continuities and of specific social forces and historical actors, resulting in a breadth of coverage that some readers may find impressive and useful, but which does little in the way of teasing out the rich complexities, contradictions, and power relations that drive human history, or of placing disability history in conversation with other sub-disciplines within the historical profession.

Despite nearly three decades of the mantra “nothing about us, without us,” and the painstaking efforts of historians who have been working nearly as long to uncover the lived experiences of people with disabilities, this book does not make that a focus. While the editors and some of the authors state the importance of the need to include disabled people as agents of their own history, most of the chapters fall short of that goal. Instead, the book focuses on educational and health-related services and supports, legislative enactments, government policies, and programs related to disability primarily from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twenty-first century. While this focus makes sense, given the background and training of the contributors to this volume, it is not necessarily in line with decades of disability activism, nor does it adequately reflect or significantly contribute to the historiography on disability and disabled people.

Of course, it must be recognized that historians are limited by their sources. In many times and places, it is difficult, if not impossible, to access the experiences, thoughts, emotions, or actions of disabled people, but historians are showing that when read creatively and within larger contexts provided by a rigorous understanding of the historiography, traditional sources can be quite revealing. We can see this in the chapter on nineteenth-century blind asylums in Scotland, for example. Historians have also shown that other less traditional sources, such as material objects, can be used to gain insight into disabled people’s lives in the past. Government documents, institutional archives, training manuals, and other written (usually published) sources are not the only sources available to disability historians.

After reading The Routledge History of Disability, one comes away with the general impression that “disability” remained more or less static throughout much of recorded human history and that it was (only) social attitudes, societal provisions, and official labels for disability and disabled people that changed, or progressively developed, over time. In the hands of many, though certainly not all, of the authors in this volume, disability becomes a vaguely defined yet ostensibly self-evident “set of problems” (p. 91). Authors, for example, refer to “the intellectually disabled” in various times and places, as if “the intellectually disabled” were a more or less stable, discrete, and readily identifiable category or group of people regardless of context (p. 19). At least one author refers to “mild handicaps” as if they were consistent “things” that could be found in or on the bodies of disabled people in any era of human history (p. 16).

It is worth repeating, as Rose does in her chapter, the “bedrock assumption ... that intellectual disability is a fluid concept, and perhaps nothing more than a concept, that varies widely over time and between cultures” (p. 42). It would have been beneficial if more contributors to this volume had recognized, as Verstraete, Verhaegen, and Depaepe do, the “epistemological difficulty of applying a Western concept [disability or intellectual disability or handicap] to a bygone period in a completely different culture” (p. 238). Or if they had read the chapter by Dave Earl who wrote, “Classifications of disability, like other social and cultural categories, are fluid and historically contingent, and subject to change, resistance, and contestation over time.... There is certainly no reason to assume that people included in current classificatory schedules neatly align with older categories and understandings” (p. 308).

Because most of the authors in The Routledge History of Disability are not historians, few of the chapters in the volume think about how disability history might inform or be informed by other historical sub-disciplines, such as labor history, women’s history, the history of colonialism or empire, the history of the welfare state, military history, religious history, or the history of the migration of peoples, ideas, and cultures across national borders. “A Short History of Disability in Italy,” written by a medical doctor, a political scientist, and a psychologist, illustrates this point. This “short history,” which spans thousands of years, raises questions about context and periodization: What is “Italy”? Is it a geographic location? A shared community? A set of beliefs? A common culture or language? When historians write about the Roman Republic or the Roman Empire, are they writing about “Italy”? Is Roman Catholic Western Europe “Italy”? How do we account for something like the Black Death, the Renaissance, and the rise of city states on the Italian peninsula? The questions continue with the rise of the Enlightenment and the modern nation-state, as well as the various political regimes that have influenced life in Italy in the modern era. The authors move freely among all of these temporal and geographic frames. They approach these questions, which have animated generations of historical inquiry, uncritically, using them instead as unqualified, and unexamined, markers in a progressive march through time, which culminates in the validation of their own professional role in the life of “the disabled person.”

The authors’ progressive, presentist approach, their freewheeling use of “Italy” as an organizing concept, and their lack of engagement with historiography and historical inquiry can be seen in their conclusion, which does not address historical questions or related concerns but rather focuses on current twenty-first-century issues concerning disability and disabled people. In their conclusion, the authors write, “First, regarding the historical overview, we stressed the progressive efforts over the centuries, and especially in Italy, to enrich the identity of the Person with disability as a valid part of human diversity” (p. 91). Not only is the idea that there have been progressive efforts over the centuries to enrich the life of the disabled “Person” historically inaccurate and deeply, problematically misleading, but it also creates a static, monolithic archetype in “the Person with disability,” which undermines decades of political and academic work. Unlike some of the other authors in The Routledge History of Disability, the authors of “A Short History of Disability in Italy” forgo a more subtle or nuanced reading of the past to create a linear progressive narrative in which “the idea grew that each person had rights and value just for being a human.” Once this realization occurred, then, “a debate emerged in Italy about how best to reintegrate [disabled people] by means of rights, personal supports, and contextual supports.” The authors conclude that this new perspective “might be best represented” by the “normative, law-based agreement between the community and its citizens who have a condition of disability,” which when “best practice assessment and plan development” are based on “evidence and human paradigms, we can build pathways towards lives of quality and meaning” (p. 92).

Setting aside, for the moment, the fact that these conclusions do not engage with historical inquiry or disability historiography in “Italy,” one must ask why “citizens who have a condition of disability” are constructed as separate from “the community.” Additionally, one must ask why disabled people need medical doctors, political scientists, and psychologists (“we”) to build “pathways towards lives of quality and meaning.” Embedded within ableist structures and paradigms, the medical doctor, the political scientist, and the psychologist cannot see that perhaps disabled people might want to build a life of quality and meaning without them. Even if the medical doctor, the political scientist, and the psychologist had the best of intentions when they set out to write their short history of disability in “Italy,” we (disabled people and academics alike) cannot leave their methods and their conclusions unquestioned or unchallenged. If we do, then they become the masters of our (I am disabled) historical narrative and an indispensable part of continuing in their words to “build pathways towards lives of quality and meaning” (p. 92).

The authors of “A Short History of Disability in Italy” are not alone in their approach to studying disability in the past. Chapters like “Disabilities and Disability Services in Nigeria: Past, Present and Future,” “A Journey of Change: History of Disability in Hong Kong 1841-2014,” “Historical Development of Disability Services in Singapore: Enabling Persons with Disabilities,” “History and National Policy Documents on Special Education in Sweden,” and “The Italian Path to School and Social Inclusion: Problems, Strengths and Perspectives” display similarly limited thinking about disability and disabled people. In the hands of their authors, history becomes little more than preamble to a more enlightened present. This can be seen in chapter conclusions, which are not historical but rather commentaries on current twenty-first-century situations or future aspirations.

These chapters are certainly valuable in their own ways and in their own right. Among other things, they provide excellent summaries, which will be useful to people interested in getting a sense of disability services, policies, and provisions in parts of the world that are just becoming part of a global discussion of disability in the early twenty-first century. Ideally these chapters will also inspire future historians to dig in and do historical work in these areas.

Other chapters in this volume engage with history in ways that have been considered problematic or unacceptable among trained historians for decades. Two chapters, for instance, use the “great man” approach to explaining disability history. The author of chapter 1, an economist and professor of social work, argues that “we see the roots of many of the attitudes which characterized the later history of the social response to intellectual disability” in the “classical period” (p. 13). In constructing his historical survey of societal responses to disability from antiquity (the “classical period”) to the “Romantic age” (neither term is well defined), the author has a section titled “Of Remarkable Men and the Education of the Idiot,” in which he argues that Samuel Gridley Howe was “perhaps the greatest of the early American reformers,” and that the “other great figure of the age” was a white European man named Johan Jacob Guggenbühl (pp. 28-29). Of these and other great white men, the author writes, “one is struck by their commitment to social change and the commitment they showed to the causes with which they were connected. These are not disinterested professionals pursuing careers for professional and personal gain. They were people who could (and often did) have excelled in a variety of areas, but chose to concern themselves with people who until that time [the nineteenth century] were thought worth little more than pity at best. They were products of the Romantic age, passionate in the belief that society could be re-organized to end exploitation and suffering” (p. 28). Any astute reader would wonder at this romanticization of the great men of the “Romantic age.” For a historian of the nineteenth century, and more specifically a disability historian of the nineteenth century, this kind of historical writing seems passé at best, and at its very worst could be considered detrimental to the field.

The author of “Changing America’s Consciousness: A Brief History of the Independent Living Civil Rights Movement in the United States” takes a similar approach. Despite the recent proliferation of historical work on the disability rights and independent living movements in the United States, the chapter presents a now dated linear historical narrative of disability in the United States from colonial times to the late twentieth century. The main ideological focus of the piece, however, is the great white men, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Ed Roberts, who led, either through (often disguised) example or activist leadership, the movement for rights and independent living. In a departure from other chapters, this chapter, which takes an older approach to thinking about the disability rights movement and its historical narrative, ends in the early 1990s. It does not interrogate battles over community living and disability rights that have taken place at the local, state, and federal levels over the last nearly thirty years.

The general lack of engagement with historiography and historical methods can be seen in The Routledge History of Disability’s introduction, which makes only passing reference to the “minimal literature relating to histories of disabled persons” and cites only nine sources in its list of references, none of which are histories (p. 2). There is no mention in the introduction, for example, of the vibrant ongoing debates among historians of disability and historians of medicine. Nor is there any engagement with the massive proliferation of literature on industrialization, freaks and freak shows, eugenics, and Nazi Germany, despite the presence of chapters, or sections of chapters, on each of these topics in the book.

As mentioned at the outset of this review, The Routledge History of Disability should be recognized for its global reach. The range of geographic areas included in the volume is impressive. Given the strength of Routledge in academic publishing, this book will no doubt become a reference book used in libraries throughout the world. But, unfortunately for disability historians and disabled people, the book raises as many questions as it attempts to address.

Although thirty to thirty-five years old (depending on who you ask), disability history is still a relatively nascent field within the larger historical profession. It is still in its formative stages, fluid and receptive to change both from within the profession and from outside of it. The lack of a rigid historical canon, or a firmly entrenched hierarchy of interests and concerns, is what makes disability history—and disability studies more generally—such a vibrant and pathbreaking field of study. But does that openness mean that anyone can write disability history? Would professional disability historians presume to write a social work textbook? Would they presume to train K-12 educators, or practice medicine or psychology? Perhaps the editors’ intent was to explode disciplinary boundaries. If that is the case, then the editors should have stated that at the outset.

Interdisciplinary collaborations are common in disability studies. They are what make disability studies such an innovative and exciting field. But The Routledge History of Disability, with the exception of those few chapters noted above, does not model the pioneering interdisciplinary collaborations common among other edited volumes within disability studies and disability history. One is left asking: Does interdisciplinarity in this case mean that one can write in any field they choose regardless of their training and research background? Do we (academics) want to ignore disciplinary boundaries completely? And perhaps more important, do we disabled people want our histories written by the physicians, social workers, therapists, counselors, and educators who, despite their best intentions, have historically subjugated, segregated, and oppressed us—often in the name of “helping” us? Coalitions, collaborations, and allies are imperative to our movement and to many of our academic pursuits. They were important in the past and they will be important in the future, and we must work to foster them and make them grow. But does that mean giving up disciplinary rigor or the narration of our own past? Ableism is an insidious and powerful thing that extends beyond any one actor or group of actors.

After taking several tours through this volume, which contains a handful of stellar contributions, I found myself asking whether we (disabled people) want our past colonized by the very people we have sought to resist. Is the history presented in The Routledge History of Disability—one that focuses on government interventions, schools, hospitals, asylums, and doctors, psychologists, social workers, educators, and other professionals or similarly situated elite members of society—our only history? Are there other stories that can be told? Can we approach old topics from new perspectives? Can we show the power of disability history to communicate with, and sometimes completely reshape, other more well-established sub-disciplines within history? The Routledge History of Disability covers an impressive array of geographies, but sometimes coverage is not enough; coverage does not always result in engagement with the intellectual, social, or political issues at stake in writing disability histories.

Reviewer’s note: I am the editor, with Catherine Kudlick and Kim Nielsen, of the Oxford Handbook of Disability History (2018). The thoughts expressed in this review are my own.

Citation: Michael Rembis. Review of Hanes, Roy; Brown, Ivan; Hansen, Nancy E., eds., The Routledge History of Disability. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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