Disability: a new history



Download 49,35 Kb.
Date conversion24.10.2017
Size49,35 Kb.


DISABILITY: A NEW HISTORY
EPISODE 5: Finding a Voice

Presenter: Peter White
Academic Adviser: David Turner
Producer: Elizabeth Burke for Loftus Media

www.loftusmedia.co.uk

BBC Radio 4

Friday 31 May May 1.45pm

(with a repeat in the Omnibus edition Friday 31 May 8pm)











DISABILITY : A NEW HISTORY

EPISODE 5: Finding a Voice




PETER WHITE




This week has been full of surprises for me, surprises after 30 years of making programmes about disability. I hadn’t expected dwarfs delivered to your door in a box, disabled beggars who were more like entrepreneurs. But perhaps today’s discovery has, for me, been the most startling. It’s a book which very few people know about, and even fewer have read: a personal exploration of what it’s like to be disabled in the 18th Century. It’s full of insights we like to think of as modern, and it’s beginning to be regarded as a landmark in the history of disability. The book’s author was an 18th Century MP, William Hay. He was born with spinal curvature; his essay on deformity was published in 1754. It was a success at the time but then disappeared from view to be rediscovered recently by a new generation of historians. And it really speaks to us now; it’s funny, direct and very positive. We’ve given William Hay a whole programme to himself so we can hear his voice.





WILLIAM HAY (from his ‘Essay on Deformity’) (ACTOR)




I am scarce five feet high, my back was bent in my mother’s womb. Those who had the care of my infancy, out of tenderness tried every art to correct the errors of nature, but in vain. When they could not do that they endeavoured to conceal them, and taught me to be ashamed of my person, instead of arming me with true fortitude to despise any ridicule or contempt. This has caused me much uneasiness in my younger days, and it required many years to conquer this weakness.




PETER WHITE




And so William Hay begins his Essay on Deformity, which he wrote when he was nearly 60. David Turner, of Swansea University, sees this as a landmark publication.




DAVID TURNER




I think one of the things I really love about Hay’s book really is the way in which it both describes the lived experience of somebody with a physical disability in 18th Century London. You get a really vivid picture of what it’s like to walk down the streets, of people being insensitive towards you, hurling abuse in some cases. But at the same time you get a real sense in Hay of how the experience of living with his disability, of trying to see himself without the shame that he’d been taught to view his disability. How that made him become a better person.




WILLIAM HAY (ACTOR)




I am in danger of being trampled on, or stifled, in a crowd, where my back is a convenient lodgement for the elbow of any tall person that is near. When I have been drawn into a country fair, cock pit, bear garden or the like riotous assemblies, after I have got from them I have felt the pleasure of one escaped from the danger of a shipwreck. I once accidentally accompanied one of our greatest generals to his troop of horse grenadiers. I never was more humbled than when I walked with him among his tall men, made still taller by their caps. I seem to myself a worm.

But is the carcass the better part of the man? And is it to be valued by weight, like that of cattle in a market?






PETER WHITE




That’s really interesting, because he has to walk the line, he’s laughing at himself and almost catching himself at it, that’s when you hear the flashes of anger and assertiveness. Naomi Baker of Manchester University.




NAOMI BAKER




William Hay’s an interesting character, and his essay’s full of contradictions. So anything that you say you can almost say the opposite. I think there is a large extent to which he’s internalised negative judgements about his ‘deformed’ body, as he refers to it. And he accepts, almost, that he should be ridiculed and he ridicules himself, doesn’t he, as a way almost of countering that and taking control of that.




PETER WHITE




Is this, do you think, an early form of something which disabled people are often accused of by other disabled people, which is this self-deprecatory attitude to kind of make yourself acceptable? Like, ‘I know what you’re laughing at and you can laugh at it ’. Am I reading that in?




NAOMI BAKER




I think he almost openly admits that at one point in the essay when he says, ‘All you can do is bear the abuse like a man, and forgive it like a Christian and counter it by ridiculing yourself first’. He kind of admits to that and so obviously that’s a very compromised and difficult position that he’s in.




WILLIAM HAY (ACTOR)




I always had an aversion in my childhood to dancing masters and studied all evasions to avoid their lessons when they were forced upon me. For I was ever conscious of myself, what an untoward subject they had to work on. Ridicule and contempt are a certain consequence of deformity, and therefore what a person cannot avoid, he should learn not to regard.




PETER WHITE




Hay may not want to be defined by his body, but he takes the body very seriously; his views on diet and exercise wouldn’t be out of place in a set of government guidelines to a healthy lifestyle.




WILLIAM HAY (ACTOR)

FX of popping cork, sounds of revelry




No thank you sir!

I hold as articles of faith that the smallest, smallest liquors are best, that there never was a good bowl of punch, not a good bottle of champagne, burgundy or claret. That the best dinner is one dish, that a fast is better than a lord mayor’s feast.






NAOMI BAKER




I think he’s actually trying to make a fairly radical point here, which is that ‘deformity’ is not (again that’s a term that he would use to describe his body) that ‘deformity’ is not the same thing as disease or as ill health. And although this might seem obvious to us, and it might seem it’s difficult to get to the bottom of what he’s saying, I think he’s countering quite a strong idea in his culture which did very much associate irregularity or deviance from the normative body with ill health and disease. And he’s very strongly saying that that’s not the case, and that not only is he not unhealthy but he’s actually healthier than the norm.




WILLIAM HAY (ACTOR)




Another great preservative of health is moderate exercise. I have on occasion rid 50 miles in a day, or walked near twenty.

Let me now consider the influence of bodily deformity on a man’s fortune. Among the lower class he is cut off from many professions and employments, he cannot be a soldier, he cannot be a sailor, he can’t climb the rigging. In higher life he is ill-qualified for a lawyer, he can scarce be seen over the bar. The improvement of his mind is his proper province. He cannot be crowned at The Olympic Games, but he may be the poet who celebrates them.






PETER WHITE




I wonder what he would have made of last year’s Paralympics! Chris Mounsey of the University of Winchester has come recently to Hay’s work.




CHRIS MOUNSEY




I love the way he gives us a list of ideas; that is if you’re disabled in any way you can’t be a dancing master, but you can be a school master, you can’t be an actor but you can be a producer of plays, you can’t be a herald in a profession but you can be a merchant, you can’t be a soldier but you can be a strategist. He says ‘Use what you’ve got, use your brains, use the part of yourself that is not disabled.’




PETER WHITE




And again that’s very modern isn’t it? This idea that you take what you’ve got and you say to people when you lose a job maybe as a disabled person, ‘Well I can still work for your company ‘cause I understand it, I’ll do something else’.




CHRIS MOUNSEY




Absolutely, and it was one of the first things I was asked when my vision became impaired, was I going to retire? I said, ‘Why? What else would I do if I retired? For goodness sake my life is my work, let me do what I can do’.




PETER WHITE




Hay himself had a very successful career as an MP for Seaford in East Sussex. As well as his ‘Essay on Deformity’ he published two editions of a political pamphlet about the problem of poverty. I wonder, what influence did his disability have on his thinking as a politician? Tim Hitchcock of the University of Hertfordshire.




TIM HITCHCOCK




Frustratingly, or surprisingly, there is very little relationship between his disability and what he does in Parliament and his best known bit of parliamentary work was a bill he promoted in 1736 to reform the old Poor Law. Hay was actually trying to create more work- houses.




PETER WHITE




So this was in no way really trying to improve the lot of vulnerable people, as we would perhaps call them?




TIM HITCHCOCK




Absolutely not, it is entirely about disciplining people to work.




PETER WHITE

Q

And that would include people with disabilities?




TIM HITCHCOCK




They made no distinction.




PETER WHITE




I mean, what’s fascinating about that is when Hay finally writes his pamphlet it is quite perceptive in modern terms, of the idea of disability and the way it’s seen. But it sounds from what you say as if he doesn’t see that as applying to lots of other people?




TIM HITCHCOCK




The pamphlet is incredible and beautiful and it really is a kind of psychological exploration, in many respects, but I don’t think that he applied any of that thought to an empathetic engagement with the poor.




NAOMI BAKER




He’s a real snob I'm afraid, he very much displaces ideas of monstrosity and deformity onto the vulgar, onto the mob. He talks about them having prominent bellies and that being a sign of their indulgence of their appetites, and how that means that they’re the ones who are ugly, they’re the ones who are unhealthy. And he differentiates himself very much from them.




PETER WHITE




So, on the one hand he’s coming up with what we would say are quite modern ideas like ‘disability pride’, in a sense, although he would never have used a phrase like that. That on the one hand, but on the other hand this idea that he’s actually superior to the kind of people who insult him.




NAOMI BAKER




Absolutely, because he thinks that he lives by his mind. And I think it’s very interesting that the very last terms he used to describe himself, in the main part of the essay, are when he says he’s a ‘rational creature’. And that’s how he wants to be seen, he’s a rational creature, he’s someone who’s in control of himself. And that’s how he defines beauty and that’s how he defines healthiness and he’s insisting that he is healthy, in the sense the culture would recognise, and it’s the people who are not who are the ones who are deformed and ugly.




PETER WHITE




William Hay is in some ways an uncomfortable role model for the disabled trailblazer, very much a privileged man of his time. Still, for Chris Mounsey, Hay’s work remains an inspiration for disabled people now. In him disability had found a voice.




CHRIS MOUNSEY




I think it’s very complex because there’s a certain sense of ‘you’ve just got to get on with it’, and there’s a certain sense of having to live with the body that you have been given. But then there is also a sense of horrendous injustice, you know when he says, ‘It is the back in alto-relievo that bears all the ridicule.’ He had a twisted back ,and people made fun of him and he hated going out in public because of the way he was treated. It was disgraceful. That’s why disability history is so important! Because we need everyone to know that we are human beings and we always have been human beings.




PETER WHITE




Chris Mounsey, and making these programmes has made me realise too just how much these previously hidden histories do matter. I’ve been particularly struck this week by the extent to which we’ve always judged people’s worth on whether we like the look of them. Even though concepts of beauty change from century to century. And how there’s always been disabled people strutting their stuff, making their mark.

Next week I’ll be examining the moral panic over disability created in late Victorian England by the embryonic science of genetics. And we hear the rare and ghostly voices of disabled children from the past.











The database is protected by copyright ©sckool.org 2016
send message

    Main page