Martin Atherton. Review of Edwards, R. A. R., Deaf Players in Major League Baseball.

R. A. R. Edwards. Deaf Players in Major League Baseball. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Incorporated Publishers, 2020. 215 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4766-7017-1.

Reviewed by Martin Atherton (Independent scholar) Published on H-Disability (February, 2021) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

This book gives profiles of the lives and careers of several deaf baseball players in America from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, together with one example each from the 1940s and 1990s. The author seeks to place each individual in the wider contexts of baseball’s place in American society and how each instance reflected contemporary attitudes toward deafness and deaf people without speech. Not all the arguments put forward are fully convincing, as evidence of how these deaf individuals were supposedly challenging stereotypical attitudes and responses is not as strong or as extensive as the author suggests.

Having deaf and hearing players on the same team might be considered integration on a physical level, but this does not necessarily mean acceptance. William “Dummy” Hoy insisting that his teammates use sign language seems to have been successful, but there is no consideration of how his colleagues’ attitudes might have been influenced by his value to the team. Similarly, claims that there were close similarities with the situation faced by Black players are valid, but the level of discussion and analysis of these is not followed through to any great extent. Comparisons between Hoy’s situation and that of Jackie Robinson (the first Black player in Major League Baseball) founder to some extent due to a lack of information about Robinson or any analysis of their respective experiences.

There are two main drawbacks in this book that contribute to its weaknesses on an academic level. First, for those without an intimate knowledge of baseball’s rules, tactics, and statistics (such as myself), much of the information about each player’s achievements in the sport means little. Terms such as balls and strikes are familiar, if their determination is not, but the various percentages given and technical terms used do nothing to draw in the casual reader. The second weakness is the structure of the book, which seems to be based around a collection of individual essays. This itself is not problematic, but more assiduous editing of the material was required. There is constant repetition of detail, incidents, and claims throughout the book and even within chapters that makes the text tedious to read at times. It is not necessary to constantly remind even complete newcomers to baseball how the signaling system for balls and strikes works. The same is true of the claim that this system originated with Hoy, which appears several times in the book, giving the impression that if this argument is repeated enough times, the reader will become convinced. Devoting a whole chapter of twenty-three pages to someone who only had a very brief career in baseball seems to be justified on the grounds that he was a class warrior for all deaf people. This is framed within the context of Dick Sipek’s use of sign language and this particular argument has the benefit of drawing on quotes from Sipek himself, although there is little further evidence to support the debate.

The author clearly has a passion for this subject, but it appears that passion has overtaken any detached analysis and discussion of the subject or the individuals. After reading this book, there is very little that sticks in the mind. “Dummy” Hoy is well known and some readers may find out a little more about his career and life from this book, but the regular claims of his iconic status within the deaf community are accepted rather than challenged or assessed. The others mentioned in the book have much lower profiles so it would have been interesting to see some discussion of why this should be so, given their supposedly pioneering work in challenging misconceptions and acting as role models for other deaf people. This book may be of some interest to those interested in baseball and the role of deaf people in mainstream sport, but there is more missing from this collection than is offered.

Citation: Martin Atherton. Review of Edwards, R. A. R., Deaf Players in Major League Baseball. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

Marion Schmidt. Review of Hedberg, Ulf; Lane, Harlan, Elements of French Deaf Heritage. H-Disability

Ulf Hedberg, Harlan Lane. Elements of French Deaf Heritage. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2019. Illustrations, tables. 222 pp. $55.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-944838-56-0

Reviewed by Marion Schmidt (Georg August Universität, Göttingen) Published on H-Disability (January, 2021) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version: signs for HEAR and HEARING, ethnologist Yves Delaporte states in the foreword of Ulf Hedberg’s and Harlan Lane’s Elements of French Deaf Heritage, are different both in French and in American Sign language. The first denotes the audiological ability to hear, the other belongs to the world of those who function in the hearing world, as opposed to those who are deaf. The “signs HEARING and DEAF,” he writes, thus “function as two ethnonyms” that “split the world in two anthropological categories, ‘us’ and ‘them,’ as all ethnic groups do” (p. 9). In recent years, the claim that American deaf people form an ethnic group has aimed to place them alongside the older categorization of a sociolinguistic or cultural minority, or to replace that categorization altogether. It had first been explicitly made for American deaf people by Harlan Lane—a hearing psychologist long involved in deaf studies—and archivist Hedberg in the early 2000s.[1] This has mostly been a US framework, while deaf people and organizations in other parts of the world have not necessarily chosen this framework. While the exact reasons for these different frameworks remain to be explored, it certainly has something to do with the fluid and internationally divergent definitions of ethnic groups, and the different rights, status, and political resources (or lack of) available to ethnic minorities in various countries.

Without engaging with these debates, Elements of French Deaf Heritage classifies French deaf people as an ethnic group by identifying ethnic markers, such as group identity, shared history, and myths. Hedberg and Lane undertook the tremendous task of combing through around twenty thousand pages of primary sources—school chronicles, the deaf press, memoirs, etc.—to identify French deaf schools and leaders, organizations and events, and French deaf artists active in the nineteenth century. They organize this content in four chapters, each with a short foreword on characteristics of ethnic affiliation. In its organization, the book is a chronicle or short encyclopedia, although one that would have profited from more thorough editing. While the entries seem to have been written to be read in isolation (some passages are repeated verbatim), they often refer to earlier entries. The reader may, therefore, sometimes become frustrated and confused by the piecemeal information on various people, institutions, or events. When read separately, the cross-references often remain unclear and are hard to follow. Perhaps the sometimes seemimgly unfinished nature of the book is due to the fact that Lane passed away in 2019 before seeing the project through to completion.

The first chapter focuses on schools as crucial locations of “ethnic acculturation.” A short introduction explains how schools often served (and still serve) as the first location where deaf children meet other deaf people, learn sign language, experience cultural and community norms, form lifelong friendships, and find, in deaf teachers, important role models. This introduction is followed by a chronological list of the 106 deaf schools founded in France since the eighteenth century. They cover the schools’ histories from their foundations to the present or until their closure. Listed are founding figures, notable alumni, and ties with important events or organizations. Not least, they chronicle in detail the debate over the use of sign or spoken language as the preferred or exclusive method of education. Here the authors state that education in French Sign Language was the norm during the nineteenth century, a claim they use to argue (rightly) that deaf children today should have a right to education in sign language. Yet their own research reveals a much more piecemeal history in which attitudes toward sign language depended on the respective school founder: were they deaf or hearing and where did they receive their own education? This fine-grained picture is in accordance with recent research in European deaf history that has made visible variations in approaches to deaf education between the apparent monoliths of French manualism and German oralism.[2] The history of French schools for the deaf also shows the important role of the church and religious orders in providing education and the effect of secularization during the late nineteenth century. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, there is a missed opportunity to engage with French social and political history. As it is, the authors just mention in passing that there might be a connection between the insistence that deaf people speak French and the wider policy of linguistic unification during the French Third Republic, a theme that would have been well worthy of exploration. This is also a missed opportunity to engage comparatively with the larger scholarship on deaf history, for example, with Douglas C. Baynton’s work on deaf people’s changing position in the increasingly nativist nineteenth-century US, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language (2011).

The second chapter, “Founders of the Deaf-World,” presents short biographies of fifty-one prominent deaf people and their affiliations with other deaf people and institutions. All but three of them are men. The entries are presented within five subchapters that aim to offer a periodization of French deaf history. Here, a short overview of the key events and developments characterizing each of these periods would have been highly useful. Instead, the reader has to piece together this information from the individual bibliographic entries. Of the five periods, the first three, covering the time before, during, and after Abbé de l’Epeé and Abbé Sicard reformed deaf education during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, cover ground typically described in the history of deaf education but offer the additional benefit of giving attention to the often overlooked and crucial role of deaf people. The following section on the “deaf revolt of 1830,” when students of the Paris School for the Deaf who, in 1830, protested against the fact that many of their teachers did not know how to communicate in sign language, has the most potential of offering new insights to deaf history in English.

The third chapter, “Ethnic Affiliation in the Deaf-World,” provides an overview of deaf organizations and the deaf press as important factors for establishing ethnic affiliations. The informative chronological list of nineteenth-century deaf organizations shows how widespread these were in France. The chapter also provides a short history of congresses on the deaf, where hearing people defined how deaf people should live, act, and learn. Most famous is the 1880 congress in Milan where hearing educators passed the resolution of banishing sign language from deaf schools in favor of the exclusive use of oralism. Lane and Hedberg contrast these meetings with the international congresses of the deaf—1889 in Paris, 1893 in Chicago, 1896 in Geneva, and again in Paris in 1900—where deaf people advocated for the use of sign language and for their right for equal participation in society. Whether one needs to define these meetings and their activities of “honoring founders, narrating legends, visiting cultural sites” as one of the “hallmarks of ethnic groups” is a more disputable claim (p. 146).

In chapter 3, Hedberg and Lane also look at the history of the French deaf press and its role in creating a sense of community. The opinions expressed in the different newspapers and journals reveal the debate and conflict among deaf people between sign language versus oralism and about deaf people’s role in society. The authors attribute this “extensive in-fighting” to the “truth … that when an ethnic group cannot safely express its anger to its overlords, it will express that anger instead to its peers in ‘horizontal’ violence” (p. 150). Certainly, these conflicts mirrored the values of the larger hearing society, but this interpretation fails to engage with the by now considerable scholarship on multiple, intersectional, and sometimes conflicting deaf identities. Readers might like to know, for example, how French deaf people’s identities were affected by the stark political and social changes in nineteenth-century France—revolution overturning monarchies, the founding of the Third Republic and its mission of cultural unification, and the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society. Likewise, it would have been useful to see an exploration of deaf people as part of different communities, as, for example, Mark Zaurov has shown for German deaf Jews in Gehörlose Juden: Eine doppelte kulturelle Minderheit (2003). Hedberg and Lane, in contrast, present a deaf history that is almost exclusively male and allows for no ambiguities or intersectional identities.

The fourth and final chapter turns to deaf people in the arts. Over almost thirty pages, it provides an interesting overview of their life and work and path into the arts. The mostly short biographic entries provide a starting point for future research on the influence of these deaf painters and sculptors on the French art scene in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is followed by a short appendix that lists the characteristics of ethnic groups and the ways French deaf people fulfill them, and, strangely, by a longer appendix doing the same for American deaf people. These two added-on parts highlight the tension or mismatch between the book’s chronological organization and content, and its claims about ethnicity, which often seem superimposed. Hedberg and Lane’s use of ethnicity is perplexingly one-dimensional, based on a rather simplified reading of Anthony D. Smith’s The Ethnic Origins of Nations (1986). Smith’s larger work, however, spanned the 1980s to the 2000s and was influenced by the ethnic revival of the 1990s and not the least by the attempt to understand the atrocities committed in the name of ethnic purity. These aspects of ethnic identities and communities, and with it the huge field of ethnic studies, are completely omitted by the authors. There cannot be any question that deaf people form sociolinguistic communities that need to be recognized and protected in their linguistic and cultural rights. Whether to call them ethnic communities seems to me mostly a matter of political framing in more or less receptive national settings. Pursuing this framework, however, warrants a critical and comparative engagement with the larger scholarship.


[1]. See Harlan Lane, “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World,” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 10, no. 3 (2005): 291-310; and Harlan Lane, Richard Pillard, and Ulf Hedberg, The People of the Eye: Deaf Ethnicity and Ancestry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[2]. For example, see Florian Wibmer, “Zur Geschichte der Gehörlosenpädagogik in der Habsburger Monarchie,” in Zwischen Fremdbestimmung und Autonomie: Neue Impulse zur Gehörlosengeschichte in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, ed. Marion Schmidt and Anja Werner (Bielefeldt: Transcript, 2019), 323-50; and Rebecca Hesse, Alan Canonica, Mirjam Janett, Martin Lengwiller, and Florian Rudin, Aus erster Hand Gehörlose, Gebärdensprache und Gehörlosenpädagogik in der Schweiz im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Zurich: Chronos, 2020).

Citation: Marion Schmidt. Review of Hedberg, Ulf; Lane, Harlan, Elements of French Deaf Heritage. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021

Michael Rembis. Review of Wong, Alice, ed., Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century

Alice Wong, ed. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. New York: Vintage Books, 2020. xxii + 309 pp. $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-984899-42-2

Reviewed by Michael Rembis (University at Buffalo (SUNY)) Published on H-Disability (January, 2021) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century is part of the larger Disability Visibility Project led by Alice Wong in partnership with StoryCorps, a national oral history organization. What began as a “one-year campaign” to record disabled people’s oral histories and archive them at the Library of Congress has grown into a multimedia movement (p. xvii). The Disability Visibility Project had approximately 140 oral histories on record with StoryCorps at the time Vintage published Disability Visibility in 2020. Wong admits that the project has “always been a one-woman operation,” but, she notes, “this doesn’t mean I do everything alone.” Collaborating and partnering with other disabled people is what makes the Disability Visibility Project thrive. The relationships forged through the project and the book bring Wong “epic, Marie Kondo-level joy.” Wong writes that what she has “always been hoping to accomplish is the creation of community” (p. xviii). With both Disability Visibility and the larger project of which it is a part, Wong is succeeding in achieving her goal.

Disability Visibility is a collection of thirty-seven first-person accounts of what it means to be disabled in an ableist world and of what it feels like to be part of a broad, and growing, disability community and of disability rights and justice movements. Most of the book’s entries are only a few pages. They range from the poetic to the pragmatic. They are all politicized in their own way. The essays in part 4 are more overtly political. Contributors identify as women and men, as queer and nonbinary, as black, as Asian, as white, or as some mix of racial-ethno-religious backgrounds. Some have been disabled all or most of their lives, others only for a few years. Authors identify as living with the effects of brain injuries, tumors, chronic illnesses, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida. A few identify as Deaf, deaf, blind, deaf/blind, or simply, and quite powerfully, as disabled.

As Wong notes at the outset, these are twenty-first-century disabled voices. Contributors are at ease using such words as “Crouzon syndrome,” “congenital idiopathic nystagmus,” “fibromyalgia,” “Ehlers-Danlos syndrome,” “dysautonomia,” “multiple sclerosis (MS),” “spasmodic dysphonia,” “lipomyelomeningocele spinal bifida,” “bipolar,” and “myalgic encephalomyelitis” (p. 263). Some contributors write about “having” cerebral palsy or a “rare genetic disorder.” Others lament loss and value recovery. A few refer to people as “able” and “able-bodied.” One writer calls the day she began taking psychiatric medication “one of the greatest days of [her] life” (p. 187). It seems from this collection of essays that the days when, as an act of solidarity and as a conscious disavowal of the “medical model,” we would limit our referential range to “disabled” and “non-disabled” are behind us. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha declares, we have “succeeded in getting more people to buy into being disabled” over the last thirty years and it has engendered a shift in focus and priorities of the most active among us (pp. 259-60). Our fight no longer seems to be with the medical gaze. We have moved from institutions, rehab centers, and doctor’s offices to “a million weird little groups and actions and projects”; from occupying federal buildings and lying in the streets, to using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; from disability rights to disability justice (p. 260).

These essays suggest that the time may have arrived when in our academic and activist work we can begin to think of medicine as something other than a villain. Yet these essays also reveal that it is not the time to dissolve the divide between the fight for disability justice and the growing power and reach of a global medical-pharmaceutical industry. Every person on the planet should have access to reliable, efficient, effective, and informed health care when they need it. This does not mean, however, that disabled people must have their “activities of daily living” medicalized and made part of a “rehabilitation” plan. Our trips to the movie theater and the grocery store, our friendships, and our sex lives should not be scheduled and supervised by Medicaid Service Coordinators, nurses, physicians, and support staff (unless we request their presence). Disability Visibility provides a vision for some of the ways society can be restructured so that we all have access to the things, and the care, that we want and need without exposing ourselves to the damaging, and sometimes deadly, effects of living a marginalized and medicalized life.

The essays gathered in Disability Visibility are at once deeply social and communal, and intensely and intimately personal. Nearly all of the contributors write about the importance of love and relationships, and what some call “interdependence,” in forging and sustaining life—in thriving in a brutally ableist world. At the same time, each of the authors contemplates their own embodied life. They write about self-catheterization and incontinence; about trauma, fatigue, and overstimulation; about lying in bed for days, weeks, and even months; and about having their limbs moved by other people, or getting dressed or positioned in their chair, or having their ass wiped by someone who is there to help them. More than one author talks about the importance of having—and creating—clothes that fit disabled bodies properly. Contributors write about “brilliant disabled” brains, disabled poetics, and disabled praxis, about making “something disabled and wonderful out of the disabled knowledge our bodies and minds know” (pp. 153, 258). As more than one author notes, disability affects “every moment of our lives” (p. 152). Bearing witness to the ways disability shapes what we do, who we are, and how we think, these beautifully and lovingly crafted essays bring the limits of the “social model” into stark relief. Although none of the authors explicitly address the “social model,” the cumulative effect of this volume is a powerful unveiling of all of the benefits of thinking about more than just the external forces that constrain us. Perhaps more important, Disability Visibility pushes beyond an irreverent and romanticized rendering of all of the wonderful possibilities disability engenders to get to the gritty, and sometimes shitty, realities of disabled people’s everyday lives. As Britney Wilson’s essay on using paratransit in New York City reveals, we cannot afford to abandon structural and systemic change, but we must reenvision that change from a more radically embodied disability perspective. The essays in this volume show us that disability justice is social justice.

There are many wonderful affirming and provocative moments in Disability Visibility, but one particularly troubling passage has stuck with me. In her essay, Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, “I’m never eager for any disabled person to die, but I gotta say, if the old racist parts of white disability studies and disability rights die out—and they will—we will have an opportunity. Right now, the old Disability Rights guard is angry at disability justice people because … we aren’t racist and we’re not just focused on policy work…. What happens if we can take over the Centers for Independent Living, the disability studies programs—or make something entirely new and different?” (pp. 259-60). Now, in the midst of the disproportionate lived realities of COVID-19 and the divisive politics of the Trump administration, is not the time to be heralding the death of disabled people. When I think of an old guard in the fight for rights and justice, I think of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, of Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, of Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, of Cesar Chavez, Angela Davis, and Shirley Chisholm. I think of Stonewall. I think of the hundreds of thousands of disabled people forced to survive and ultimately die in institutions. I think of people like Judy Heumann and Ed Roberts, who had to fight just to go to school with their friends and neighbors. I think of the nine black teenagers who walked into the high school in Little Rock in 1957. I think of the Section 504 sit-ins, and the Black Panthers, who provided hot meals to the disabled folks in San Francisco so that they could persist in what became the longest occupation of a federal building in US history. I think of places like Warm Springs, the campus of the University of Illinois, and Berkeley, where people were able to come together to form friendships and build a movement. I think of kids dragging themselves up the Capitol steps because they wanted Congress to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. I think of the activists in ADAPT (American Disabled for Attended Programs Today) who got out of their chairs and laid on the ground in front of buses, or crawled up the bus steps. I think of the policy changes that were required to close the hundreds of “snake pits” throughout the country and to send disabled kids to school. And I think of the policy changes that will be needed to end the police murder of disabled people of color and to free the tens of thousands of people (mostly people of color) with developmental disabilities and mental health problems incarcerated in jails and prisons. We cannot have justice without rights, and we cannot have rights without changes in policy. The dominance of white (and I would add elite heteronormative) disability studies must end; there has been every indication over the last decade and a half that it is ending. We do not need to wish for the death of our disabled elders, or of anyone else, to make that happen.

Stacey Milbern, in her essay, has offered an alternative way to think about the past and those who have come before us. She writes that she thinks about “crip ancestorship” often (p. 268). Her ancestors are “disabled people who lived looking out of institution windows, wanting so much more for themselves.” She believes that our disabled ancestors “laugh, cry, hurt, rage, celebrate with us.” Most important, she believes that our ancestors “learn as we are learning, just as we learn from them.” Milbern writes that “We grow knowledge and movements with them. We crip futurism with them. We demand and entice the world to change the way things have always been done, with them. We change ourselves with them. They learn through us. When we become ancestors, we will also continue to learn” (p. 269). We all live and learn together.

Disability Visibility is a barometer, a bellwether and a beacon. Each of its entries reveal in beautifully rendered prose and poetry a measure of our current climate. Taken collectively, the essays show us where we need to go. Wong’s curatorial brilliance is a welcomed guiding force. A hope that I hold for the next volume is a deeper engagement with more ordinary disabled folks. Wong culled thirty-two of the thirty-seven essays included in Disability Visibility from other sources. The contributors to this volume are professional writers, research scientists, university professors, medical doctors, Ivy League educated lawyers, and presidential appointees. One writer was named “Person of the Year” and another a “Top 30 Thinker Under 30.” One writer spent one hundred thousand dollars on a “chair and the van to transport it” (p. 131). Some of the authors included in this volume are able to live their lives on “crip time” without worry of losing an hourly wage. It is delightful to see disabled people reach such heights of relevance and influence, but we also need to hear from those folks who do not have nearly as impressive credentials. This is something of which Wong and her contributors are well aware. Most of the contributors are mindful of their own privilege, and Wong writes that while the recently achieved visibility of disabled people is “exciting and important, it is not enough.” She encourages us to “expect more.” “We all deserve more,” she writes. Wong demands that there must be “depth, range, nuance to disability representation” (p. xxi).Disability Visibility provides readers with depth, range, and nuance in its rendering of disabled lives. It pushes us into our future. It should become essential reading for anyone involved in social justice movements.

Citation: Michael Rembis. Review of Wong, Alice, ed., Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL:

Nancy Hansen. Review of Taussig, Rebekah, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body

Rebekah Taussig. Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body. New York: HarperOne, 2020. xiii + 237 pp. $25.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-06-293679-0

Reviewed by Nancy Hansen (University of Manitoba) Published on H-Disability (February, 2021) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

When I was approached to write this review, I initially thought that Sitting Pretty would be yet another “tragic,” “brave,” “overcoming,” or “heroic” disability tome. However, I was happily and importantly mistaken. This autoethnography is a refreshing, realistic counternarrative to majority understanding of life from a seated position. To provide context, the author had an established social media presence @sittingpretty before writing the book. A wheelchair user and educator, Rebekah Taussig is letting the reader in on a personal knowledge journey that is by no means maudlin, harsh, or sentimental. Full of thoughtful insight and humor, the book presents a straightforward conversation beginning with disabled people’s cultural invisibility and representation. 

An American living in the midwestern United States, Taussig, the youngest of six children, acquired disability from early childhood. She talks about creativity in a nonconformist body that, particularly in one’s early years, is not different or strange, good or bad: it is simply your body. Taussig discusses the necessity for chronic creative approaches when the disability and impairment is not expected, or planned for, in the majority culture. Moving through adolescence, she carefully traces her gradual acclamation of the broader social trope of the “burdensome” or “problematic” disabled body indicative of endemic ableism/disableism. She views current definitions of able-bodied and ableism as overly simplified. We have to move away from the all or nothing binaries and out of long-established cultural comfort zones. Taussig explores the seeming naturalness of disability deprivation, exemplified by poverty and unemployment.

Taussig poignantly discusses assumptions of asexuality and intimacy, and the overarching cultural discomfort with disability and sexuality. She relates how the subject is dismissed and/or ignored while simultaneously caught up in ideas of bodily perfection, invisibility voyeurism, and freakery. She underscores the narrow configuration of the “acceptable” body and the copious amounts of physical and psychological energy required to make others feel comfortable with those who fall outside the “lines.” The author’s discussion of the medical and social models of disability illustrates the need for a serious philosophical shift in the understanding of disability beyond one-dimensional understandings of “weakness,” “defect,” “incapacity,” or “cure.” An interesting exploration of the impact of the systemic perception of disability demonstrates that the process is not straightforward.

What is meant by social citizenship is analyzed by way of perceived role expectation, position, utility, and lack of presence. The cultural narrative of disability is rarely developed by disabled people’s experience. Disability is often “understood” in terms of loss, functionality, worth, cost, and premium, particularly in the midst of a profit-driven medical system when decisions are made in all aspects of life. Benefits and supports that are often tied to income level dictate employment decisions or lack of them. Social marginality is maintained and reinforced.

Taussig presents an interesting discussion of the illusion of inclusion and the taken-for-granted aspects of the body, physicality, and disability accommodation beyond ramps and accessible toilets. There is a need to move beyond these simplistic understandings. Examining concepts of speed, space, and time provides the basis for a far more nuanced understanding of disability and society. Similarly, the author highlights the need for the “sisterhood of feminism” to truly engage with disability issues in a substantive manner. Furthermore, there is a detailed analysis of unexpected, uncontrolled encounters with strangers and their concepts of kindness toward disabled people, what it demonstrates and reflect.

The author advocates moving beyond a best-intentions and better-than-nothing approach to access and inclusion. Taussig provides a useful list of resources and individual contacts for further information and research. Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body is a modern approach illustrating the impact of ableism in the daily lives of disabled people. This is a much-needed resource.

Citation: Nancy Hansen. Review of Taussig, Rebekah, Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL:

Beth R. Handler. Review of Kirby, Jill, Feeling the Strain: A Cultural History of Stress in Twentieth-Century Britain

Jill Kirby. Feeling the Strain: A Cultural History of Stress in Twentieth-Century Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019. x + 259 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5261-2329-9

Reviewed by Beth R. Handler (Independent Scholar) Published on H-Disability (March, 2021) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)

Printable Version:

Echoes of the Past: A Historical Lesson on the Stress for Our Current Times

Occasionally one is presented with an opportunity to review a book that is not only a wonderful and interesting read, but also timely. Jill Kirby’s Feeling the Strain: A Cultural History of Stress in Twentieth-Century Britain is not only a well-written, interesting, and scholarly interrogation of the evolution and experience of the construct of stress across the decades, but a transcendent work in its capacity to offer a valuable perspective on our contemporary global Covid-19 pandemic-altered lives. Kirby’s account of stress, with its first-person perspectives offered through careful selection of source material and descriptions of its manifestation and effect across all social strata, particularly in the war years, echoes our globally shared experiences with the pandemic beautifully. Having not myself equated our experiences with those of people living through world wars, I was stunned by the parallels of conditions and contemporary responses to life under the stress of the current pandemic reflected in her narrative.

Although most contemporary citizens of complex, modern societies have some conceptualization of stress and can articulate the experience of it, few have given much thought to, or examined, the true nature of that construct as thoroughly as has Jill Kirby. Few, if any, have previously offered such a readable, informative, and comprehensive developmental story and analysis of “stress” as is offered in Feeling the Strain. While it is short in length, the book is long in interesting historical information and analysis.

Within the pages of this well-written book is a multilayered history of stress not only as a medical condition but as a shared, interpreted human experience across and within subgroups. In Feeling the Strain, the reader is engaged in the consideration of stress as a responsive human condition, as well as how that condition is defined, interpreted, and experienced in relation to the societal constructs and economic realities across and within the decades examined. Of particular note are the astute interpretations and rationale provided throughout.

Feeling the Strain is fundamentally a chronological examination of stress within British society across the twentieth century. Through a thorough and excellently articulated study of materials including self-help books, oral histories, and a variety of archived reports from studies on stress, Kirby creates a multifaceted, engaging chronology of stress within the milieu of each individual decade. More specifically, she offers readers an opportunity to consider the guiding principles and mores of the contemporary society within each decade as reflected in the recognition and interpretation of stress. Kirby dissects responses and definitions within each decade further through consideration of occupation, gender, and class.

The book reveals that stress as a human condition lacks objective, historical definition. Moreover, the right to experience stress and interpretations of that experience are grounded in class, gender, and occupation. Kirby presents firsthand accounts to support interpretations of physical and emotional “nervousness” as conditions of those with power, education, and responsibilities of industry. Stress was, more so in the earlier decades of the century than later, viewed as a condition created from working or living conditions, and complaints of stress were viewed as reflecting weakness of character, thus creating potential for loss of employment and respect. Kirby’s consideration of, and approach to, physical manifestations of stress (e.g., headache, gastric distress, etc.) is very interesting. The patterns of justification and acceptance of physical ailment over complaints of mental ill health through the decades and across groups resound with great familiarity. This is but one example of many throughout where the reader will find commonality with the voiced experiences of those generations expressed within the text.

Personal and societal economics as they relate to the manifestation and interpretation of stress emerge not only in a rich chronology, but as a complex portrayal of hegemony. Employers’ interpretation of worker stress (caused by working conditions and limited financial reward and manifesting in physical or psychological ailments) as irrational or unfounded and reason for dismissal, is shown to generate additional stress associated with concern over potential termination. Simultaneously, an employer or supervisor experiencing job-related stress is celebrated for their dedication and the brain-taxing work that has resulted in its manifestation. Throughout the book, Kirby revisits the themes of class and power as they relate to differential definitions and responses to stress, demonstrating repetition of thought despite significant changes to societal conditions across the decades and within societal subgroups.

The chapters that focus on the latter half of the century provided a mirror of my own experience and understanding of stress. The text rang true as I read accounts of stress in the workplace or home. Kirby captured the shifting responses and interpretations of anxiety, boredom, and angst that I witnessed in my parents as they negotiated the changing dynamics of the mid-twentieth century. I saw my own experiences, interpretations, and responses to stress reflected in the narratives and descriptions presented. The narrative style, application of first-person voice, and interpretation grounded in deep historical and sociological knowledge not only captures the reader’s interest, but generates contemplation and reflection, creating a meaningful connection to the ideas being presented.

Although I found the entire book to be interesting and engaging, several discussions stood out as exceptionally well presented. The initial discussion focuses on the role and growth of the self-help book as a means of defining and responding to one’s own stress. As the growth of psychology for the masses occurred, and as engaging a professional specifically for mental health and stress became more acceptable, the cottage industries associated with providing that assistance emerged and flourished. While the expansion of those industries took a backseat during the war years, they emerged with gusto again in the later decades of the century. Not only does Kirby provide an interesting, comprehensive, balanced consideration of the emergence and evolution of psychological responses to stress, but she offers a much broader portrayal of the diversity of access, interpretation, and responses across different segments of the societal spectrum.

Before concluding, I would be remiss if I did not give attention to the skillful and effective application of thematic strands. One would expect any book focused on aspects of British society to reflect class differences, but Kirby effectively uses voices from the data sources to give authenticity to experiences across groups. Of particular note is the clarity with which she presents conditions in the lives of women that not only create stress, but that regulate options for its management. She makes clear that conditions that stimulated social change, such as World War II creating demand for women’s factory labor, generated new opportunities for women, bringing interest and purpose beyond housework and child-rearing to their lives. However, such changes have sometimes been short-term, as when women lost their newfound jobs when the war ended and men returned home. Likewise, the exodus from cities to suburbia brought a loss of community, the nonstop workday, and boredom. While all aspects of this text are well written, supported, and interrogated, Kirby’s consideration of stress on women across the decades offers an interesting and important presentation and analysis that is greatly needed in the literature.

Feeling the Strain: A Cultural History of Stress in Twentieth-Century Britain is not only a very nice piece of scholarship; it is a very readable and insightful consideration of the human response to the condition identified as “stress,” as it transcends decades. Through Kirby’s skillfully applied lens, we see the ebb and flow of stress as it is manifested in work, home, and self, across and within social strata. We see how conditions beyond our control such as war, and by extension our contemporary global pandemic, contribute to wholesale depression and stress. As noted at the beginning of this review, I felt this text was timely and I continue to marvel at just how much of our shared, as well as my own, experience was echoed in the voices and situations revealed on so many pages. Beyond offering a wonderful and interesting history of stress, Kirby offers us something else; she offers evidence that despite the situations that cause great stress, humans are resilient and persevere. As the book was written before COVID-19 entered our vocabulary, let alone dominated and decimated lives, creating immense stress across the globe, Kirby could not have intended this book to offer readers a reminder that generations before ours have also felt strain resulting in mental anguish and stress. After reading the book, I felt that Kirby had confirmed that, like those prior generations, we too will respond to our contemporary shared strain, and that humanity will continue, perhaps better for the experience.

Citation: Beth R. Handler. Review of Kirby, Jill, Feeling the Strain: A Cultural History of Stress in Twentieth-Century Britain. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL: