Disability history: shaping a new field
August 11, 2008 -- After two decades of growing interest in the history of disability as a social, cultural and political phenomenon, disability history scholars are grappling with questions about how to develop this emerging field: where to publish research, how to find disability in historical archives and how to interact with related fields of inquiry. Such topics were up for debate at a recent conference on disability history held at SF State.
"How do we do this kind of history?" said conference organizer Paul Longmore, professor of history and director of the Institute on Disability at SF State. "What are the theoretical questions we need to ask and the practical tools we use?"
At one of the most popular sessions, faculty and students from around the world compared notes on the need for an international journal of disability history. While disability studies journals already exist, there is no repository for research that looks at disability through a historical lens. "In Japan there are scholars interested in disability history but they have no outlet in which to publish," said Yoshiya Makita, a native of Japan currently pursuing a doctorate at Boston University.
"In Holland there are hardly any scholars who identify themselves as disability historians but there are many in other disciplines that cover the topic," said Annemieke van Drenth, senior researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands. "A journal would help show the collective identity of the field and would help legitimize disability history."
Other sessions focused on developing disability history curricula at the high school level and career development issues facing both historians with disabilities and young scholars trying to advance in a field that is still gaining recognition.
Also on the agenda were panel presentations where scholars from nine countries shared new research on the histories of disability and veterans, disability and race, disability and parenting and cultural representations of people with disabilities.
Longmore, a pioneer in this young field, was delighted with the quality of research presented. "We had papers presented on topics that have never been written about before," he said. "Looking at the past helps us understand the social tensions and concerns of our own era." For example, in a panel discussion about disability in progressive era America, Professor Douglas Baynton from the University of Iowa presented how the immigration restrictions of the early 1900s shaped America's intense fear of disability and the evolution of categories and concepts of "normality."
Jointly hosted by SF State, the Disability History Association and the Disability History Group of the United Kingdom, "Disability history: theory and practice" was the first of its kind to be held in the United States.
-- Elaine Bible
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