Today is Blogging Against Disabilism Day. In the last few weeks I’ve been working on my Independent Research Project (IRP) for the Access to Higher Education Diploma I’m currently studying for. The IRP is intended to be thought of as a mini dissertation – not in size (since we’re talking about 2,000 words) but in experience: the experience of selecting a topic, researching it, formulating a title and writing it. It involves writing an essay on the subject, a project diary, and a presentation to class on the subject you’ve researched. All pretty daunting. I chose to investigate the experiences of the disabled in Ancient Greece. Sadly, I can’t publish the actual essay here yet (at least until I get permission from my teacher, but I hope to, eventually) but I think I can discuss some of the things I discovered on my journey, including things I actually can’t write about in my essay or project diary, as they’re things that are more personal to me. Either way its been an amazing journey of discovery for me, and I certainly don’t view the world in quite the same way as I did before.
The Ancient Greeks, much like the Ancient Romans, have a lot of bad press. Mention them, and many images come to mind: from speedo wearing warriors roaring “We are Spartans!” in 300 to the image of a man-goat cavorting around a party, perhaps with a set of pipes, through to perhaps Pythagoras, or Aristotle, or even Socrates, even Clash of the Titans, whether the 1970s version or the more recent remake. A large part of successfully studying history is the understanding that history isn’t the same as the past – events that happened in the past are fixed, and cannot change. What can change is our understanding of those events, understanding that we view those events through a filter that we cannot completely remove, the filter of living in a different time period. To give a more modern example: it seems strange, now, in a post 9/11 world, to understand attitudes towards the Islamic faith – pre 9/11 I worked with many Muslims, and wanted to make an effort to understand their faith, so I bought a few books on the religion. I distinctly remember, a few years later, a taxi driver dropping me and some shopping off in my home and seeing those books on the shelf, and asking some very pointed questions about whether I was one of those “ragheads” (charming man, yes.) But to return to the subject: some filters, historians can be aware of, and can work on seeing through them, but still others are far more difficult to remove, if they even are aware of them.
Ableism is one such filter, especially with ancient history. Primary sources, those written at the time or very soon after the events that occurred, have a particular value to the historian, as the historian only has to work on removing their own filter, whereas with another historian’s work, one written perhaps hundreds of years after the events in question, have to be seen not just through your own filter, but also through theirs, with their own motivations for writing things, for leaving things out, for seeing things in a specific way. For example: ancient historians, particularly ones from the 18th and 19th centuries, were, like their Ancient Greek counterparts, from one very specific group: exclusively educated & literate, wealthy, able-bodied, white, free and probably aristocratic men. And that simple fact alone has had a massive impact on not just history, but its allied disciplines as well, such as archaeology. Minority groups have only relatively recently begun to explore the past, to read between the lines to see where their history is, where women’s “his”story is, where ethnic minority history is, and where disability history is.
As an example of this: something that crops up a lot in research about the disabled in Ancient Greece is the idea that the Spartans killed their disabled children. The Spartans (yes, those speedo wearing blokes out of 300) were an intensely militarilistic group of people, who allowed everything to be determined by the fact that they had taken over a huge tract of land to their west, enslaved the people there, and they had to be at the peak of military fitness in order to dominate their slaves completely. The man who was mostly responsible for instituting the changes to their society (if anyone has read The Illiad, this is a very different place to the Sparta of Menelaus and Helen) was a man called Lycurgus, a shadowy, somewhat mythological figure, who was also responsible, so Plutarch¹ tells us, for instituting the Apothotae. This was a practice where when a male child was born, he was inspected by the clan’s elders, the Gerousia. If he should be found lacking, in some way, and the elders felt he could not develop to be of the standard expected of their warriors, then he would be taken up the Taygetas, and thrown in to a chasm there. In other parts of Greece, similarly afflicted children would be exposed to the elements – left on a hillside, where there was at least the possibility that a passing peasant would pick the child up and care for it. This tale is addressed in an article written by Martha L. Edwards², where she points out that this ideology is actually based on only five primary sources: three of which are philosophical tracts, one is a biography (Plutarch’s work on Lycurgus, and Plutarch was not Spartan, and was also writing around 800-900 years after Lycurgus’ death), and the other is a second century AD tract aimed at teaching midwives what to look for in terms of the viability of a child. There’s enough in these five sources to know that exposure did happen, but its also not the automatic process that many traditional classicists and disability educators etc., have made it out to be. Even Plutarch shoots himself in the foot (pun intended) when he points out, in his biography of a Spartan King called Agesilaus II³, who was crippled. Why did the Gerousia accept him? Plutarch doesn’t discuss it.
Other things I’ve learned, for example, include the simple fact that some things just don’t change. Lysias, an Orator, was hired to defend a disabled tradesman who was accused of faking his disability. He’d applied to the Boule, the Athenian council for a pension, given to the disabled who were economically needy. “I have no income besides this pension and if you deprive me of it, I am in danger of ending up in the most dreadful position.” Sound familiar?
In researching this essay, I’ve also had to research this from the viewpoint of disability studies, as well as historical studies. I’ve learned that disability actually isn’t really about someone not being able to do something cos some part of their body doesn’t work properly. Its about society setting up the conditions so that those problems cannot be overcome. For example: its fairly well accepted, I think, that deaf people were doing okay before the late 19th century: the thing that changed things for so many deaf people was the invention of the telephone, which barred deaf people from so many jobs. Not news to many, I expect, but for me: it was the first time I’d really thought through the implications of my deafness and how people around me regard it.
Perhaps, though, the single most important passage I read, was from a book called Disability and Society: Emerging Issues and Insights by L. Barton (1996). Its from chapter three, Theories of Disability and the origins of the oppression of disabled people in Western society by C. Barnes. Starting on pg 56 is the following passage:
Today, the importance of desireability of bodily perfection is endemic to Western culture. In terms of the oppression of disabled people, it finds expression in genetic engineering, pre-natal screening, selective abortion, and the withholding or rationing of medical treatments to children and adults with impairments, institutional discrimination against disabled people in education, employment, welfare systems, the built environment, and the leisure industry, and the proliferation of ‘able bodied’ values and misrepresentation of disabled people in all forms of the communications media. Moreover, it is only within the last decade that this cultural or ideological hegemony has begun to be seriously challenged.
Its made me think about the impact that my deafness has had on me, the impact that society’s disabilism has had on me, the barriers its placed in front of me. I wonder where I would be now if things had been different, if the barriers that were placed in front of me all my life were removed, if I had gone to a local high school as a teenager with the kind of support I get now, from the college, would my life be different? Almost certainly, yes.
I went to Cambridge University a few weeks ago for an interview. In the end they chose not to offer me a place, quite why, I am not yet sure (I can ask for feedback after next week, which I will do). It was a mature woman’s only college, and a copy of the College’s history was available in reception, free, for anyone to take home, which I did. In it, I discovered that Cambridge (as an institution) had a history of being fairly discriminative to women, as a group, from things such as undergraduates stamping their feet for every step a woman undergraduate took coming through the lecture theatre if she was late, through to female fellows not being offered dinner at another college if they were called to lecture there, through to active male favoritism for posts within the college. Lucy Cavendish was founded in the mid 60s to provide a place for mature women students to study without that discrimination, and I found it incredibly inspiring.
And with that knowledge rolling around in my head, and the disabilism stuff I’ve been finding out, I wonder: is there a place in this world, for a University for the disabled? Its not a new idea: Galladet University in the USA pioneered the same for the deaf in 1864, and it is still the only institution, worldwide, which is designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students. Is such an idea feasible, desirable, even, by disabled people themselves, or do they prefer integration? I don’t have any of the answers, only questions.. lots and lots of questions.
¹ Plutarch’s Greek Lives: Lycurgus.
² Edwards, M. L. (1997) The Cultural Context of Deformity in the Ancient Greek World – ‘Let There Be A Law That No Deformed Child Shall be Reared’. In: Ancient History Bulletin, 10th July 1997. Calgary: Department of Classics, University of Calgary.
³ Plutarch’s Greek lives: Agesilaus.