New book returns disabled narratives to history

A book co-edited by University of Manitoba associate professor Nancy Hansen was recently released in paperback. Titled The Routledge History of Disability, the book discusses the ways disabilities and people with disabilities have been represented and treated across the world from the age of antiquity up to the modern day.

Hansen, who is also the director of the U of M’s master’s program in disability studies, said the book is an exciting opportunity to create a more diverse understanding of disability.

“So often in disability history and disability issues, there seems to be a North American, western European approach to everything,” she said.

“But myself and the other editors, we try to get a more global perspective on the whole disability history phenomenon, and culturally too, I think was really important — there are different cultural perspectives with regard to disability.”

Two of the book’s three editors have disabilities, and all three editors of another of Hansen’s recent projects, Untold Stories: A Canadian Disability History Reader, are disabled.

“It’s exciting that disabled people are having more of a say in the perspective of how disability is presented, to provide a broader, wider, more complete context of lived experience with disability,” Hansen said.

“We’re putting disability back into the historical landscape.”

One billion people worldwide experience some form of disability. In Canada, 13.7 per cent of the population lives with a disability and one in 10 working-age Canadians is disabled. As “the world’s largest minority,” Hansen said, allowing disabled voices to take their place in expressing their own history has an important effect similar to that of supporting any other minority.

“I think that it’s important to recognize that the level of disadvantage experienced by many people with disability, by many disabled people, has historical roots,” Hansen said.

“It’s not simply as a result of disability. There has been a sort of historical displacement or historical erasure of disability for a long time, and our understanding of disability right now is based on the last 150 years […] Even though it’s been present, the value of the presence of disability has not always been recognized.”

The U of M’s master’s in disability studies features a course in disability history, which Hansen says is constantly evolving. From year to year, it covers time periods ranging from disability in ancient history to how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting disabled populations, as well as topics like Indigenous perspectives on disability and physician-assisted suicide.

“We cover right from the earliest times to the present day and look at connections and intersections with other parts of history that we may think we know, but really putting disability back into the picture again,” Hansen said.

“Many of the historical figures that we recognize have some form of disability, but that element of their biography is often removed, I think, in a way that a lot of traditional historians have kind of left that disability element out because it appears they think that touching on the disability somehow detracts from the significance of what these people have accomplished.”

Despite considerable recent work in the field, Hansen’s specialty is not actually history, but rather human geography, or the study of how humans interact with their environment and each other in specific areas and places. Hansen explained the field acts as a useful framework to understand what disability means in various contexts.

“Regardless of what type of disability or impairment that an individual has, space, place and time always factors in because we’re always working within a non-disabled time frame, there’s a certain expectation of the way things are done, or the manner in which things are done, or the time it takes to do something,” she said.

“So, looking at space, place and time enables one to put a magnifying glass on to what’s actually happening here.”

Above all, however, Hansen’s passion is creating space for disability to be acknowledged and supported in all academic fields and all areas of life.

“Nobody is just one thing,” Hansen said.

“We’ve got to get beyond siloing stuff and recognize that disability is intertwined with a whole lot of other elements, right, and marginalization can occur on various levels at the same time, and inclusion can happen on various levels at the same time.

“So, I think it’s really important [that] what disability studies does is expect disability, because whether or not it’s recognized, it’s present.”