Apparently Chase does not like working outside in the rain. She's been, well, pissy all day with me. Sorry, dear, but I can't control the weather.
Chase's, ... unprofessional demeanour today got me thinking about another facet of having her in my life.
I chose to get her. She was not forced on me. In effect, I chose to 'visualise' my deafness.
What exactly happened in the medieval period when a situation like mine today occurred? Of course, it'd be impractical to use my actual situation in, say, 1350, as I'd be deaf, mute, and dumb (in terms of medieval terminology).
Were there personal reasons for visualising an otherwise invisible disability in the medieval period? Would someone wanted to have visualised his or her disability for safety reasons? For instance, if someone was hard of hearing, would he or she want that fact to be known within the community so that if an emergency happened, he or she could feel (relatively?) secure in the knowledge that others knew what to do?
To continue the issue of safety - not to say that there aren't other issues that could be considered in light of this discussion - where does the issue of choice come in? That is to say, were disabled people in the medieval period granted the choice of deciding whether or not to disclose or visualise their disability? Did family and friends take that choice into their own hands if they felt that disclosure would benefit the disabled person in terms of ensuring his or her safety?
Perhaps most important, did disclosure act as the disabling force itself? Did the act of disclosure make it irrevocably final? This is it - I am now disabled. / This is it. Our family member/relative/friend is disabled.
If a disability was not explicitly visible, did that mean that disclosing it removed it from some intellectual and/or theoretical plane and transformed it into an actual disability, both in terms of how the disabled person perceived his or her disability and also in how others perceived him or her, particularly in terms of an identity? Objects that evoke ideas of disability have a power and ability to be transformed into the disability itself in modern society. When we think of the blind, we think of white sticks and guide dogs; the deaf evoke images of hearing dogs, cochlear implants, hearing aids, sign language, interpreters, and the like; physically disabled people appear physically infirm in that they're wheelchair-bound or have crutches or walkers or other supports that say, "I'm physically disabled!"
Is there a distinction to be made between needing and choosing to have (or use) visual objects/signifiers? Does needing a particular object merely confirm that one indeed has a disability? Does choosing to employ such an object confirm to the disabled person that he or she is disabled, perhaps even more so than someone who actually needs the object in question? Is it possible to separate objects from disabilities, or are objects so much a part of the disability (or disabilities) they are associated with that it is impossible to separate them from the larger question of disability and identity?
Case in point: When I attended Kalamazoo earlier this month, I did not bring Chase with me. (My first trip with Chase involving a plane will not be a transborder and/or international flight.)
I did not have Chase when I attended Kalamazoo in 2007, but when I went this year, I caught myself having dissociative moments, if you will: a few times, I realised that I was talking to an invisible Chase while attempting to reach for an invisible harness on her invisible back. I had to remind myself that, no, she was not with me in Kalamazoo; she was back home in Canada probably pestering my parents to play fetch with her or feed or otherwise give her some attention. (Apparently she spent most of her time checking, double-checking, and triple-checking that, no, I was not hiding in my room from her.)
Even though I did not have Chase with me, I was still deaf. The only difference was that my deafness was once again invisible until someone engaged me in conversation (or I ran into someone I knew from previous conferences who knew that I was deaf, of course). I wonder what would happen if I brought Chase to Kalamazoo next year: would people I know see her as merely another tool to help me (not that you're an actual physical tool, dear. Here's a treat - now shut up.) navigate the world as a deaf person and scholar, or would they assume that I had developed some other disability or condition since this year's Kalamazoo that necessitated Chase's appearance?
With or without Chase, I identify myself as a deaf graduate student and aspiring scholar. The more interesting question for me is that of my external identity - how do others perceive me? Am I perceived as being more 'normal' if I don't have Chase with me? Would I be seen as being disabled (or even more disabled) if Chase is with me? Does Chase appear to make me more of a person in that I'm secure enough in my deafness and my personal identity in that I am willing to advertise it to the world, or does it make me into some 'other' in that I've been 'required' to adopt Chase as a signifier of my otherwise invisible disability?
To come back to the medieval period, as any medievalist well knows, this period was loaded with symbolism and iconography. (Every period is, but the medieval period is quite remarkable for its reliance upon imagery in various mediums.) Medieval society certainly wrestled with the issue of visually representing invisible disabilities, or at least finding metaphors to describe them.* To me, this implies that medieval society was perfectly capable of understanding that disabilities could be both visible and invisible.
As such, what role did this overall idea of invisibility, visibility, and signification play in terms of defining both the idea of disability and specific disabilities themselves in medieval Europe?
The past is truly a foreign country in some respects. I just hope there are signposts where I'm going, and if not, that I remember to put some up so others can follow (and correct them if needed).
*David A. Sprunger, "Depicting the Insane: A Thirteenth-Century Case Study," in Marvels, Monsters, and Miracles: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations, eds. Timothy S. Jones and David A. Sprunger (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002), p. 223-241.
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