David Bolt, ed. Changing Social Attitudes toward Disability: Perspectives from Historical, Cultural, and Educational Studies. Routledge Advances in Disability Studies Series. New York: Routledge, 2014. 190 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-73249-9.
Reviewed by Pieter Verstraete (KU Leuven)
Published on H-Disability (June, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Alas, I Was Wrong
Recently, someone working at my university organized an interesting lecture about how our society might appear if it were constructed around the notion of care and asked what the consequences would be for people with disabilities. After the information about the lecture was distributed, a physically disabled colleague expressed her interest to the organizers and asked if the room in which the lecture would take place was accessible for wheelchair users. To her surprise, the organizers told her that this was not the case, but that her name would be added to a list of those who could not be present but would like to be provided with the PowerPoint presentation of the lecture. After several interventions, including by the vice rector for diversity issues, the venue of the presentation was changed to an accessible auditorium, which then enabled the physically disabled colleague to attend the lecture.
Probably, all of us have similar stories to tell. Such narratives highlight that, although we live in an era that has become more sensitive to issues related to discrimination of people with disabilities, and many preventative legal measures have been taken, there still remains a lot to be done. Although my university steers a clear-cut, well-balanced, visible, and inclusive course, this apparently has not yet entered the thinking of all staff members. In some cases, a lack of willingness can definitely be identified, but in many other instances goodwill is not lacking. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise reasons why some people do not take into account the special needs of disabled people. Changing Social Attitudes toward Disability: Perspectives from Historical, Cultural, and Educational Studies offers a valuable framework from which to consider the above-mentioned anecdote, and innumerable others, and the related question of how we can change attitudes toward people with disabilities.
The book begins by introducing the complex relationship between actions and attitudes. Regardless of different anti-discriminatory legal measures taken all over the world in the past few decades, the introduction makes clear, disablism remains a daily reality for many. The book argues that changing the physical environment or enacting particular laws are important, but when these are not guided by attitudinal changes, to what extent the situation has improved is questionable. One example describes a fully accessible bus, driven by an insensitive driver who addresses physically disabled passengers in a discriminatory way. The value of this collection undoubtedly, and precisely, lies in the emphasis placed on the importance of attitudinal change for bringing about real, positive, and tangible differences to the lives of people with disabilities. The tripartite structure of the book—history, culture, and education—clearly highlights the challenge faced by such a venture. The attitudes explored have a long history, but the chapters are informed and given shape by current educational and cultural contexts.
The collection introduces an appealing diversity of subjects. The reader encounters disabled photojournalists, authors with schizophrenia, cyborg soldiers from the Vietnam War and the Second World War, and dyslexic and “dysrational” persons, to name only a few. Despite this diversity, the book has a clear-cut aim in mind, namely, highlighting the stubborn character of attitudes without becoming too pessimistic about the possibility of change. It is noteworthy that most contributions consist of rather short interventions that are written in accessible language, which undoubtedly will make this volume a much-welcome instrument for educational purposes. Its most important merit, at least for me, is that it brings together intriguing, appealing, and diverse case studies that can be used to recall and promote the point of view that disability is a contingent reality. That is to say, what it means to be disabled largely depends on the cultural and historical contexts that surround us. In Alex Tankard’s chapter, for instance, it becomes very clear that the way people infected with tuberculosis are represented, looked at, and spoken about changes through time. Throughout his life, the notorious killer “Doc” John Henry Holliday’s (1851-87) physical condition, caused by tuberculosis, was looked at in a rather romantic way and considered as an integral and meaningful part of his personality. Very soon after his death, however, these positive representations were increasingly replaced by reports that reduced Holliday’s life to that of a miserable and needy tubercular patient. The relativity of disability is also illustrated by Craig Collinson’s contribution on lexism and the temporal problem of defining dyslexia. By means of a hypothetical time machine, among other things, Collinson convincingly shows that people identified as having dyslexia in contemporary society would not encounter the same problems if they were transposed two hundred years back in time. Collinson, however, immediately stresses that this does not mean that the problems encountered by dyslexic people would not be real. On the contrary, the problems they encountered were real. However, they were not solely caused by biology, therefore they were not ahistorical and universal and thus open for debate.
If the collection can be used in order to demonstrate the stubborn, or stable, character of cultural attitudes and mentalities toward people with disabilities, it nevertheless does not end up with a pessimistic worldview. Several chapters convincingly demonstrate that cultural artifacts—such as memoirs, photographs, movies, digital learning environments, etc.—not only reflect discriminatory attitudes but also contain glimpses of alternative and more positive approaches to disability. In this way, the book clearly positions itself within the ongoing debates with regard to the importance and shortcomings of the social model of disability. Although none of the contributors explicitly criticize the social model—and many do include a critical analysis of the cultural, educational, and historical processes that lead to the emergence of the concept of disability as well to the embodied experiences of being disabled—the book seems to contain a shared feeling that one should not forget to also focus on the things that might help us to move forward. Stella Bolaki’s chapter about the cultural work on disability and illness memoirs, for instance, makes use of the autobiographical writings of schizophrenic people in order to demonstrate that, regardless of the dominant psychiatric discourse about schizophrenia, these individuals are still able to present themselves as authors. In other words, rather than being the passive victims of broader structures of different kinds, they find ways to express their agency. The same goes for the chapter by Alica Hall that focuses on disability and photojournalism in the age of the image. By presenting the work of two photojournalists who became disabled during their careers, Hall demonstrates that contemporary visual culture offers some possibilities for those who want to criticize and change oppressive attitudes toward people with disabilities. According to Hall, the pictures by the two photojournalists take us beyond the individual and lead us toward a public pedagogy that opens up new ways of dealing with difference in the twenty-first century.
In conclusion, David Bolt’s volume touches on several new and intriguing topics and demonstrates that the study of a rich variety of subjects, ranging from conduct disorders to art education and archaeology, can profit from an interdisciplinary approach that creatively combines disability studies, educational sciences, and cultural studies. The collection can therefore be used by scholars from different fields in order to make students sensitive to the processes and rationale of a social model perspective of disability. But it also contains promising fields of research and lines of thought that might lead us to better formulate what a cultural model of disability can look like and what its precise value is, and can be, for the twenty-first century.
The most important message contained in the book, however, is to be found in Catherine Prendergast’s contribution that zooms in on mental disability and rhetoricity. At the very start of her contribution, Prendergast refers to a chapter that she wrote more than a decade ago in which she argued that “to be disabled mentally is to be disabled rhetorically.” At that time, Prendergast was convinced that the diagnosis of a mental disability always, and generally, affected the person’s ability to act and be recognized as an author of intelligible and meaningful texts. Her chapter in Bolt’s volume is introduced as “a long mea culpa” by means of which she seeks to un-write her different thoughts of ten years earlier. Constructed around the different ways showing how mentally disabled people nevertheless claim rhetorical agency through several sources, the chapter illustrates the biggest challenge disability scholars in particular, and society in general, have to deal with in the long twenty-first century we have ahead of us—namely, to question everything that we previously considered as unquestionable. Changing attitudes perhaps relies mostly on the willingness of people to admit that they were wrong, that their ideas or actions indeed have unforeseen and negative consequences. Taking into account that our society in general, and the academic circles that we frequent in particular, positively values someone’s ability to stick to his/her own opinion, we still have a long journey ahead. Although used in a completely different context, Bolt’s expression “alas, I was wrong” seems to hold an important key to opening another door to a different, and perhaps better, future (p. 116).
. Catherine Prendergast, “On the Rhetorics of Mental Disability,” in Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture, ed. James C. Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), 57.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Pieter Verstraete. Review of Bolt, David, ed., Changing Social Attitudes toward Disability: Perspectives from Historical, Cultural, and Educational Studies.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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