Podcast Episode 9 – The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind

Disability History Association Podcast – Episode 9 (February 2019): The Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind

Director Michael Hudson discusses the history of APH, the museum’s exhibits and collections, and accessible museum practice.

Download mp3 file here.
Download pdf transcript here.

Mike Hudson has been the director of the Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind since 2005. A native of Lexington, KY, he obtained his M.A. in the History of Technology from the University of Delaware in 1987. He previously headed the collections program at the Kentucky Historical Society and has been working in the museum field for more than thirty years.

Review of Melanie Yergeau. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Raleigh: Duke University Press Books, 2018.

Reviewed by Marion Schmidt (Georg August Universität, Göttingen) Published on H-Disability (November, 2018)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Some years ago, I read Melanie Yergeau’s “autie- ethnographic” account of her experience of being invol- untarily committed to a psychiatric ward during her sec- ond week as a professor of English at the University of Michigan.[1] This was, she recounts, a surreal expe- rience, in which she faced various health care profes- sionals claiming that this was no longer Yergeau her- self acting and talking, but her condition—autism. As an autistic person, conventional theory and popular belief hold, she lacks insight into her own behavior and that of others. For Yergeau, this denial of agency and rhetoric has been a familiar situation ever since she was diag- nosed as a young adult. “Suddenly,” she writes, “with the neuropsychologist’s signature on my diagnostic papers, I was no longer my body’s author” (p. 1). Autism ac- tivists and scholars have long criticized that past and cur- rent theories of autism—from Bruno Bettelheim’s Empty Fortress (1967) to Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory of mind and mindblindess—deny autistic people subjectivity and personhood, in effect dehumanizing their very being. This leads to the ironic situation that autistic authors of- ten find their authorship questioned.

In the 2018 Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neuro- logical Queerness, Yergeau challenges this denial of autis- tic authorship and, simultaneously, questions traditional definitions of rhetoricity and personhood. Chapter 1, “In- tention,” questions the “centrality of intentionality and purpose within rhetorical tradition” that is deeply in- grained in ableist traditions of humanity and subjectiv- ity (p. 32). Yergeau points out how “demi-rhetoricity”— the assumption that autistic people possess a not-quite rhetoricity—has been used to deny their agency and per-

sonhood. Yet she also suggests that such partial or residual rhetoricity can be a tool for reclaiming autistic agency, an approach she further explores in chapter 4. Chapter 2, “Intervention,” looks at the history of applied behavioral analysis (ABA) as the most common and per- vasive therapeutic intervention used with (on?) people with autism. ABA originated in behavioral psychology and breaks down behavior into small units, in which sub- jects are then repeatedly trained or taught and in the pro- cess are rewarded for success and punished for noncom- pliance. It is not concerned with the cause or nature of the condition in question, but “with reinforcing and ex- tinguishing antisocial (or inappropriate) patterns” such as autistic stimming, echolalia, or repetitive behaviors (p. 96). Consequently, as ABA does not aim at the causes of deviance, but only at its expression, the goal is not recov- ery, but merely “faking the becoming of normativity” (p. 105). It is a highly time-intensive form of therapy, ide- ally shaping all interaction. As Yergeau remarks, for “the neuroqueer child, ABA is life!” (p. 97).

This evokes, of course, the histories of other disabili- ties, where therapy claims a civilizing effect, and it would have been useful had Yergeau drawn from these histories of psychology, psychiatry, education, and disability, and, perhaps more generally, of society and civilization. Tapping into this larger scholarship also would have been relevant to her exploration of the overlapping history of ABA as a treatment for autistic and for non-gender- conforming children or, as she puts it, queer, and neuroqueer people. In the 1960s, clinical psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas, a pioneer of ABA, ran both a Young Autism Project and Feminine Boy Project, both with the goal to normalize deviant behavior. Yergeau makes some valid and thought-provoking points about the overlap in ther- apy directed at those two groups. Yet her admitted col- lapsing of the “finer categories of autism or gender or sexuality under the broader banner of neuroqueer” evokes as many questions as it answers (p. 100). Not least—and this goes to my main point of criticism (and confusion) with Yergeau’s approach—the reduction of all kinds of difference and deviance to “neuro,” which is particularly problematic if applied to the past as in Yergeau’s explo- ration of the history of eugenics and stimming. Neu- rological identities certainly have become increasingly fashionable, yet to me their use brings up the question of the value of simultaneously deconstructing and con- structing neurological difference.

Chapter 3, “Invitation,” deals with the effects and con- sequences of disclosing autism diagnoses. Disclosure, Yergeau observes, is “both imperiled and politically gen- erative” (p. 140). Often, it is necessary for receiving services, yet it also renders an individual vulnerable to question and doubt, and to losing friendships or even jobs. It brings the potential to engender exchange and discussion, which are, as Yergeau argues from her own experience, “often agonistic, expectant of allistic refu- tation” (p. 33). Thus, the statement “I am autistic” or “disabled” is usually treated as “elliptic rhetoric,” a state- ment to be filled with meaning by the non-autistic per- son because the autistic speaker lacks the ability to do so. Chapter 4, “Invention,” finally, looks at the ways autistic communication can contribute to new understandings and definitions of (demi-)rhetoricity. Yergeau turns around the very traits that supposedly limit the agency and rhetoricity of autistic people—namely their partiality, residuality, and not-quite-rhetoricity, their use of em- bodied communication—as starting points for engagement. Such inventions, she emphasizes, need not al- ways be discursive, voluntary, or positive, to serve as “stimpoints” that trigger reactions from others. Autis- tic people, she writes, may, at times, live in “nondiscursive world[s]” that are “idiosyncratic or mutually unintelligible,” yet nevertheless, “these worlds hold value and meaning” (p. 34).

Overall, Authoring Autism provides many thought- provoking insights for disability scholars. This goes in particular for her engagement with disability theories, selfhood, and identity, and for pointing to the ways in which privilege is part of disability politics. It is a very dense book, packed with thoughts and observations that are perhaps best described as a meandering ambivalence, which is often a strength, and sometimes detracts. Here, it is Yergeau’s double perspective as a rhetorician and autistic activist that makes Authoring Autism valuable to a larger audience, on whom, as in my case, her finer points about rhetoric theory may be lost.


[1]. Melanie Yergeau, “Clinically Significant Distur- bance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind,” Dis- ability Studies Quarterly 33, no. 4 (2013), http:// dsq-sds.org/article/view/3876/3405.

REVIEW OF Connie L. Scarborough. Viewing Disability in Medieval Spanish Texts: Disgraced or Graced.

Reviewed by Iona McCleery (University of Leeds)
Published on H-Disability (December, 2018)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Untitled [Iona McCleery on Viewing Disability in Medieval Spanish Texts: Disgraced or Graced]

This interesting new study of disability in medieval Spanish literature will be seen as both useful and frustrating in equal measure. Connie L. Scarborough is a well-known specialist in Castilian literature (this is what is meant by Spanish literature in the title) and she knows her chosen texts inside out. The range of texts in this book is rich. Scarborough uses multiple genres: chronicles, miracle collections in verse, fables, mirrors or guides for princely behavior, troubadour poetry, courtly epic, satire, proverbs, and romance, most of which date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Historians of medicine have undoubtedly neglected some of these genres for their insights into health. The volume is useful in that it presents some little-known texts to a wider audience and draws on them quite well to provide some understanding about medieval Castilian beliefs and attitudes toward people described as sick and impaired.

The frustrating aspect of the volume is its lack of context. The author explains in her introduction: “While students and researchers in the field of Spanish medieval literature will be familiar with many of the texts I include in the following chapters, I hope they will discover the disabled characters they may have overlooked in previous readings” (p. 13). This is undoubtedly a worthy venture for such students. However, the quotation reveals the main problem with Scarborough’s book: the very narrow audience that she envisaged while writing it. At no point does it seem to have occurred to the author, or the editors of the new series Pre-modern Health, Disease, and Disability in which it is published, that this book would appeal to an audience that might know little about medieval Spanish literature (such as potentially many of the members of H-Disability).

The book starts with an introduction to disability studies and general medieval attitudes toward impair- ment and illness. It then devotes a chapter each to par- ticular kinds of impairment or illness: lameness, blind- ness, deafness and inability to speak, and leprosy, before ending with a chapter on miracles “cured by the grace of God,” which unfortunately repeats some of the earlier examples (p. 165). There are undoubtedly issues with ret- rospective diagnosis, translation, labeling, and terminology, but rather than dwelling on these aspects it is impor- tant to point out the religious framework used through- out and expressed by the book’s subtitle: Disgraced or Graced. Although in a footnote the author notes “that there was a diversity of opinion about the association of sin with disability in the Middle Ages,” the decision was taken to follow that approach without discussing any other in much detail (p. 19n25).

An extra chapter on the texts and their authors and some guidance on how to read them in relation to the politics, medicine, religions, and culture of the kingdom of Castile would have transformed this book. It would have added some much-needed depth, debate, and texture. For example, one of the most important texts is the Canti- gas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary), a collection of over three hundred poems dedicated to the Virgin Mary ordered to be compiled by King Alfonso X of Castile in the mid-thirteenth century. Readers of the present book who do not know this literary source will perhaps be confused as to why they are offered examples of healing miracles from this text in settings that range from imperial Rome to twelfth-century France to the court of King Alfonso himself. The Cantigas brings together Marian miracles from across much of Europe and includes some early Christian stories, but this is never explained.

A contextual chapter might also have allowed space to provide more awareness of the work that scholars of medicine and literature, especially in the modern Iberian Peninsula and in the United States, have done in several languages on medical texts, institutions, diseases, and practitioner-patient relationships during the period and region in question, and beyond. At no point is any of the work of Luis García Ballester on health in medieval Castile cited. No attention has been paid either to Catalan, Portuguese, or Navarrese texts and contexts, despite all the work that has been done on wider Iberian health by many scholars, or to the great need for comparison across kingdoms and across Europe. In fact, there seems to be no secondary literature cited at all on anything published since 2014, which is a problem in a fast moving field. A major omission is Jonathan Hsy’s essay on disability in the Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature (2015), which engages with one of Scarborough’s key texts: the Arboleda de los Enfermos (Grove of the Sick) by Teresa de Cartagena, in which, uniquely for this pe- riod (the mid-fifteenth century), she describes her personal experience of being deaf.

Having said all this, it is essential to say that this book is full of fascinating examples worthy of much more comparative in-depth study. Some of the motifs that it describes—for example, the associations between ill- ness and imprisonment—are striking. It is also true that many of these texts express profoundly moralistic atti- tudes that link impairment and punishment in negative ways. Studied in isolation without much context, these examples might confirm some modern views that life in the Middle Ages was grim and that medieval society was profoundly prejudiced against those perceived to be im- paired. Future work needs to take these representations of illness and subject them to much deeper analysis that takes into account genre, transmission, translation, and style, while setting them side by side with historical and bioarchaeological evidence that might provide a differ- ent picture. This book is recommended for its presenta- tion of less well-known texts in a very readable way, but in the future there should be much more collaboration between scholars from all the disciplines keen to under- stand disability in the past. It is not just a question of the sciences and the humanities working together—often put forward as a desideratum in the history of the health of past populations—but also a question for more of the humanities subject areas to work together toward their common goal of understanding the human condition.

Review:Bianca Frohne Cordula Nolte, Uta Halle and Sonja Kerth, eds. Dis/Ability His- tory Der Vormoderne: Premodern Dis/Ability History.

Untitled [Will Rogers on Dis/Ability History Der Vormoderne: Premodern Dis/Ability History]

Bianca Frohne Cordula Nolte, Uta Halle and Sonja Kerth, eds. Dis/Ability His- tory Der Vormoderne: Premodern Dis/Ability History. Affalterbach: Didymos-Verlag, 2017. 512 pp. EUR 58.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-939020-83-7.

Reviewed by Will Rogers (University of Louisiana, Munroe)

Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

It seems that one of the challenges of working in, and with, disability studies is recognizing that definitions and pressures affecting those who are disabled or impaired are often local and specific—one needs to attend to individual cultural and social conditions for studying how those with impairments or disabilities lived and how they are depicted in literary and historical sources, among others. At the same time, concepts and approaches can, and should, be borrowed from these more local environs for other contexts and more global articulations of the lived experiences of the impaired and disabled; indeed, our views of certain kinds of identity and disability might inform and elucidate other, seemingly unconnected expressions of disability or impairment. One of the major impediments of such borrowing is linguistic barriers and the tendency of citing, especially in the Anglo-American academic world, English-language materials. Thankfully, Premodern Dis/Ability History: A Companion is different. This collection, handbook, and guide seeks something quite ambitious: a kind of survey of the field of disability studies, with a focus on premodern subjects, topics, and areas of concentration. And the Companion’s bilingual nature will appeal to specialists of the premodern world, especially scholars working with Germanic materials or early English texts and subjects.

The volume is capacious, presenting overviews of the book itself at the beginning and then the field of premod- ern disability studies in section 2, before moving to more specialized topics such as “Environments and Communi- ties” (section 4); “Agency” (section 7); and “Experiences and Interpretations” (section 8). While much of the book is in German, these opening sections—the overviews and

sections on rationale and methodology—are bilingual in the purest sense. There is an opening statement, which explains how to use the book, which is printed first in German, “Wofür und für wen ist Handbuch?” and then followed by its translation in English, “How to Use This Book.” Writing about the number of specialized books and handbooks for disability studies currently available, and which focus on “the subjects, theories, methods and sources of dis/ability history,” the editors explain the need for a volume that focuses on premodern expressions of disability (p. 18). Indeed, as opposed to companions to modern disability studies, “there are few reference books which provide fundamental knowledge for the study of dis/ability in the medieval and early modern era,” even as other forms (articles, monographs, edited collections) have dealt with the history of disability and impairment (p. 18). These comments are central to the book’s aim and purpose—none of these sections is meant to be exhaustive—as this handbook offers a basis for knowledge without presenting any claim to unanimity. As the editors point out in this section, “due to the heterogeneous and fluid character of current research, controversial ideas and attitudes concerning theories, models, terminologies and spellings (dis/ability, disability) are prevailing“ (p. 19). This opening guide concludes with a note on the format of the individual entries, which appear in German and English. For the German articles, an English summary appears first, which will be of great use to readers of the book as a way to access work on disability histories in the premodern era. Inclusion of English summaries offers scholars assistance, especially if their first language is not German. This commitment to open- ness defines the volume, from its format and languages to its methodological and theoretical commitments, as the handbook voices an ongoing debate on the role and shape of premodern disability studies.

Following the guide to the handbook, Uta Halle con- ceptualizes the state of the field, represented by this volume, in “A Work in Progress: The Research Programme, Premodern Dis/Ability History,” establishing some over- arching concerns and directions for the handbook as a whole, and the state of the field for premodern disability histories. She voices the effect that history of disability has had, not only on more general histories of the pre- modern era, but also on the theories, methodologies, and terms of modern disability studies. She argues that “dealing intensively with a historically and culturally unstable phenomenon such as dis/ability enables us to continuously question, or challenge, established analytical categories and concepts, and to sharpen our analytical tools” (p. 27). What follows is quite helpful: Halle outlines the various questions and concerns that a history of premodern disability offers, including the shape of terms and concepts from medieval Europe that reflect an identity based on impairment or disability, and considering whether these impairments or disabilities occasioned any kind of notice, special treatment, or importance in terms of daily social life. Besides these questions, Halle also offers a rationale for centering this study of premodern dis- ability on medieval literary texts and gives an overview of the state of German research into disability histories. The structure and concision of her rationale commends the various sections. For this reviewer, however, the discussion of the field in Germany was new information, and Halle’s guidance provides structure on how to approach the handbook.

calization of identity” (p. 132). Highlighting ethics of the body based both upon care of that body and a real- ization that the dominant subject is “partial, incomplete,” dismodernism voices much of what premodern disability histories have expressed about the nuanced view of the disabled body.

Later in the handbook, Bianca Frohne’s “The Body in Pain,” found in Section 8, fleshes out some considerations of how pain intersects with a number of different fac- tors, including disability and cultural contexts. She notes that, in the face of “further research from the perspective of premodern dis/ability history, it seems promising to also ask specifically how the body-in-pain was perceived of in premodern times, and how it was linked with medi- cal, emotional, sensorial, and religious concepts“ (p. 410). These histories and depictions of bodily pain, in Frohne’s view, not only reveal the ways in which pain could be expressed and felt in literary texts, but also how it ar- ticulate other characteristics and meanings of the body. Indeed, as the quotation indicates, looking at pain also means examining histories of the senses and how emo- tional responses might be shaped by pain. This article, while brief, is an example of the kind of work one can expect from the handbook. Cognizant of how premod- ern disability studies overlaps with other areas of histor- ical inquiry, this view of the body in pain nevertheless touches on a range of different genres, texts, and illus- trations, moving from medical texts to miracle accounts.

Histories of disability and impairment, situated as they are in this handbook, demonstrate how modern notions of disability might benefit from these examples from their past. But this handbook offers more than a connection between the past and present. As a literal and figurative translation of work on disability in the past and in the present across German and English, the hand- book implicitly highlights one of the central emphases of disability studies: access. Indeed, as Tanya Titchkosky reminds disability scholars, disability and access are tied, as “disability is a concept that gives access, not only to calamities, world events, and undesirable states of af- fairs, but also to people. The disabled, people with dis- abilities, disabled individuals—these terms, too, represent concepts used to notice and orient self and other”.[1] It is not the reviewer’s intention to tie access and disability to language variation and translation. Instead, this work speaks to a scholarly ethics that evokes a central concern of disability studies: the centrality of access not only to disability identity and the lived experience of people with disabilities and impairments, but also for those who publish and read about it (groups that are not mutually exclusive). Because Anglo-Americans often study exclusively English materials, work done in other languages is frequently unread. But Dis/Ability History Der Vormoderne Ein Handbuch strikes its reader as a volume interested in access from the beginning of its front cover, where the title is presented first in German, then English, along with the often challenging work which follows that title. Note

[1]. Tanya Titchkosky, The Question of Access: Dis- ability, Space, Meaning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 5.

If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability

Citation: Will Rogers. Review of Cordula Nolte, Bianca Frohne, Uta Halle and Sonja Kerth, eds., Dis/Ability History Der Vormoderne: Premodern Dis/Ability History. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018.