[Part I is here, and Part II is here.]
And we come to the end of Disabled Histories with a discussion of memory in terms of the deaf community, although this micro-discussion could certainly be expanded to include other disabilities and other historical epochs.
The genesis for this series was a comment in Catherine Kudlick's essay on disability history regarding the creation myth of deaf culture and history with the Abbé de l'Epée. Historical memory in terms of deafness thus begins with Epée: no earlier nor later. In his study of the importance of memory in constructing the French past, Pierre Nora wrote that "[m]emory is always a phenomenon of the present, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past."
The deaf community has always struggled to create a tangible history of its own, to find a way to link its present to its past and its memories. The recent attempt to create Laurent, a deaf community in South Dakota, signifies this. Communication in the town would have been limited to American Sign Language (ASL), but the community's memories and history are signified in the name Laurent, which evokes Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchman who was educated in Paris and moved to the United States in 1817 to establish the first American school for the deaf. The town would thus have strongly associated itself with Kudlick's "creation myth."
How do deaf communities, when everything befor Epée is essentially prehistory, construct their own history? What do they choose to include in their history, their memories? The difficulty with the above-mentioned "myth" is not necessarily that it is a "myth," but, rather, that it needed to be invented in the absence of a lengthier narrative based on history and memory. How and why do they signify a certain point - in this case, Epée - as the beginning of their history, their creation?
Part of this is the fact that deaf people began describing the deaf experience in documents that have since become historical source materials for current scholars working with deaf history, with the result that deaf history, as defined by "the deaf experience," is considered to begin with Epée. Another part of this is because it seemed a natural point to fix the beginning of deaf history. This issue is moot in a way, given the fact that History has fixed its dating system according to the life of Jesus, with the identifiers of BC (BCE) and AD (CE) marking time, even though there are other calendrical systems and means of marking time.
The fixing of deaf history as beginning with Epée indicates that memory is important in analysing and understanding deaf history: the ability to describe and explain the deaf experience, and the attendant feelings, experiences, and memories, is of equal value to, if not more important than, dates and places. This is perhaps the crux of the whole issue in terms of disability and disabled history: disability history is easy enough to research and write, as it's based on facts and figures, but the experience itself cannot easily be gleaned, and that is precisely what constitutes a disabled history - the history of the disabled experience, of what it is like to be disabled or to interact with those who are disabled or considered to be such.
This reliance upon - need for - memory in order to capture what is certainly a very common experience the world over throughout history demonstrates how transient and transitory disability history really is. The absence of references to disability is not necessarily a condemnation of disabled people and their experiences throughout history; it could just as easily be an acceptance of those people and their experiences through the understanding that disability and the disabled experience are both one and the same or as distinct as one wishes them to be. A fleeting reference to deafness in Quintilian or two more substantial, but still brief, references in Augustine could quite easily - and sensibly, I think - be read as proof that deafness - and disability in general - was a commonplace sight and experience that it did not warrant much mention in historical source material precisely because it was not an extraordinary thing and thus (more) worthy of mention.
This opens up the possibility that disability history is not necessarily disabled because there aren't many references or source materials available; disability history could just as easily be disabled because we, as scholars, are disabling it by attempting to build it up into something extraordinary enough to be worthy of study as a sub-field of history and thus separating it from the human - and historical - experience. I'm not by any means attempting to argue that disability history is unworthy of historical study in any form. My point is that as scholars, we consider references to disability to be extraordinary when they are to be found in the most mundane of places, just as most history is. History is the great equaliser in a sense: all facts, however mundane or extraordinary they may be, are waiting to be found and interpreted - that some have been discovered before others does not mean that those that are to come eventually will not be as useful as those that have come and those that have since long gone.
1 Catherine J. Kudlick, “Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other’,” American Historical Review 108 (June 2003), 763-793.
2 Kudlick, 783.
3 Pierre Nora, ed. Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past. Vol. 1, Conflicts and Divisions, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 3.
4 New York Times. "As Town for Deaf Takes Shape, Debate on Isolation Re-emerges." 21 March 2005. (It appears that since then, the plan has fallen through.)
5 Wikipedia's article on ASL is not the best, but it's a decent-enough place to start.
6 A brief autobiography written by Clerc is included in Deaf World: A historical reader and primary sourcebook, ed. Lois Bragg (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 1-9. Also see Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (New York: Random House, 1984), which Lane wrote from the perspective of Clerc.
7 It could be argued that deaf history should more properly begin with Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Spanish Benedictine monk who taught two deaf aristocratic boys how to read and write in the seventeenth century, not with Epée.
8 In Book 11, chapter 3.66 of his Institutio Oratoria (Institutes of Oratory), the Roman orator Quintilian notes that hand movements and nods can express meaning in oratory, and that such gestures are to the deaf instead of speech (in mutis pro sermone sunt).
9 St. Augustine, The Greatness of the Soul and The Teacher, trans. Joseph M. Colleran (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, 1964). The first reference is in De quantitate animae (49-50) and the second in De Magistro (136).
12 hours ago