On this blog, I will be sharing short biographies of important people with disabilities from world history. I want to reclaim famous individuals who are not normally thought of as disabled. I want to highlight obscure people with disabilities who have never received the attention they deserve. In this way, I want to celebrate the achievements of people with disabilities as well as the obstacles they have overcome. Disability is part of our history as well as part of our present. Impairment is a ubiquitous dimension of human diversity. It is part of what makes us human. I would rather not see impairment as a tragedy, although it sometimes is, and I do not think it is enough to see disability as oppression, though it often is. For me, the key word is “predicament”. Impairment and disability are everyday features of human life which challenge us, and with which we have to come to terms, in whatever way we can. Along the way, we should try to build a world which is as accommodating and supportive of difference, and of our common humanity, as we possibly can.
I recognise that the endeavour of disabled biography is not straightforward. Retrospective diagnosis is dangerous. Almost all the individuals I plan to describe either never thought of themselves as disabled, or else preferred not to. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is only the most famous of those disabled people who did not like to be represented as such. As a political strategy, disability “outing” could be seen as questionable as the parallel “naming and claiming” within the gay and lesbian community. As one of my first posts, I will publish an old article from Ouch, the BBC disability website, which expressed my scepticism about the whole process. Age may have mellowed my attitudes, but it has not dispelled all my doubts.
Why should I contribute to the overloaded blogosphere at all? Between 2005 and 2010, I wrote a monthly column on Ouch, as well as occasional articles in the UK print media. Now that I work in Switzerland at the World Health Organization, I have given up most of my media work, partly because of pressure of work, partly because it’s hard to contribute to UK debates when you live abroad, and partly because writing polemical articles potentially conflicts with the neutrality demanded of an international civil servant. While writing 800 words per month on a disability theme sometimes felt like a pressure – especially when I began to run out of subjects after the first few years – I miss having a platform to express my views, and a space to do something more creative than my regular work allows. I read a lot of biographies, and the obituary is the first page I turn to when The Economist arrives each week. So why not give it a try?
I hope this blog will restore my voice, by allowing me to write for public consumption, and to exercise my imagination. But I hope that it will also make a minor contribution to changing attitudes about disability, by demonstrating the achievements of disabled men and women in the past. I hope that school students who are given an assignment to research disability in history might come across this blog, and find it useful. I hope that it settles the odd pub argument, demolishes a myth or two, and provides evidence to substantiate claims. And in particular, my aim is to offer more detail than the various internet lists of disabled celebrities can provide. It is all very well to know that Antonio Gramsci was disabled, but it would be helpful to know what his impairment was, how it affected his life, and what, if anything, his experience can tell us today.
Although I live some distance from a good English-language library, with these brief lives I want to do more than offer a precis drawn from the World Wide Web or Wikipedia. I do not have the time or the historical expertise to go to primary sources, in almost all cases. But wherever I can, I want to draw on a recent biography, or reputable secondary accounts. A caution: each life will reflect my interests, prejudices and interpretations, rather than being either comprehensive or balanced. On a technical note: I will tag each entry, so that a search will reveal all the women, or all the people with visual impairment, or all the writers, or all the Americans, and so on. I will not include any living people with disabilities. I do not think it is necessary to include references in a blog like this, although I will cite my major sources in the suggestions for further reading, and I can provide evidence to substantiate claims to readers who want to go further. I will try and add at least one entry per month. Please credit the source if you wish to reproduce any of the material published here. Feedback is welcome, particularly suggestions for subjects, additions to the stories, corrections where errors have crept in, or personal responses to what is written here. Happy reading.
PS: if you’re interested about the title: it’s a quotation from American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), recently claimed as having epilepsy.