“How Can We Write the History of Disability?”
In Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb, What is History, Now? How the Past and Present Speak to Each Other (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2021).
“Understanding disability requires acknowledging the variability of human experience. Writing disability history necessitates centering disabled people: just as race, gender, and sexuality are used as analytical lenses for examining historical events, so too, can disability. After all, as historian Douglas Baynton asserts, ‘Disability is everywhere, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write.’ Examining history through disabled people, rather than the perspectives of able-bodied society moves us away from the medical gaze and challenges tropes of how disabled people are represented in these histories.”
Available September 2021
Pre-order: Weidenfeld & Nicholson
“Respiratory Technologies and the co-Production of Breathing in the Twentieth Century”
co-authored with Coreen McGuire and Jenny Hutton
Manchester University Press, 2021
This chapter explores the interrelationships between embodied knowledge and assistive technology. Its primary focus is on interwar developments to respiratory technologies in Britain, but explores more broadly the extent to which consideration of users and user involvement has featured in the design of various technologies to facilitate breathing. We use underutilized primary sources from the National Archives and the Royal Institution to examine mechanical respirators such as the Bragg-Paul Pulsator, then develop this user-focused framework to consider the later rise of ambulatory oxygen for home use. Considering how users have mattered in respiratory assistive technology highlights the problems with prosthetic designs which fail to consider the full social worlds of the user. Understanding these problems necessitates awareness of the longer history of their development and the longer-term problems inherent to ownership of the air. This relates to the politics of nationalized healthcare because ambulatory oxygen was outsourced from NHS pharmacy control in 2006. We therefore conclude this article with a discussion of how profit-driven technology currently affects users’ ability to engage with assistive technologies.
Available September 2021
Preorder: Manchester University Press
Though the history of closed captioning has largely been framed as a history of legislative changes for accessibility and technological progress that turned captioning decoder set-top boxes into decoder chips, it is also a social history.
Captioning emerged out of protest.
Psyche, April 28, 2021
Expanding the breadth of hearing aid design beyond discretion opens possibilities for imagining how fashion and style merge to celebrate, rather than diminish, deaf identity. Some people prefer concealable aids, and that’s OK too; deaf experience is a spectrum and there’s no one way of being deaf. However, moving away from the expectation that assistive technologies need to be concealed or minimised requires a shift in how we perceive disability. That is, disability isn’t the opposite of ability. It’s a variation in the human condition, a boundless way of interacting in the world. It’s beauty in all forms, but it’s underrepresented and stigmatised in the media. Shifting our expectations for design-as-discretion will thus radically transform how disabled people are represented in society, and disintegrate ableist stereotypes.
co-authored with Liz Jackson
FutureTense, February 5, 2021
In disability-centric designs, there’s a very specific way that internal grassroots efforts are sold to the powers that be. Executives are pitched on the mass appeal of accessibility, on the basis that by designing for a disabled person, everyone benefits. This highly simplistic view has become one of the core tenets of so-called inclusive design. And while there is a traceable history of this phenomenon, when pursued as a corporate strategy, it risks causing more harm than the design solves.
Nuncius: Journal of the Material and Visual History of Science 35.3 (2020): 606-631.
This paper examines the lived experiences of Canadian machinist and double-amputee Andrew A. Gawley (1895–1961), whose prosthetic “steel hands” rose him to fame during the mid-twentieth century, to analyze how disability objects can illuminate complex tensions of unruliness to represent a fraught epistemological materiality. Drawing on Williamson and Guffey’s “design model of disability,” I argue that Gawley’s prostheses are physical and tangible representations of his need to achieve functional normalcy. His self-reliance and identity was not only premised on ability, but dependent upon the complex unruliness ascribed within the prostheses, such that the sensationalized freakery of the “steel hands” become as crucial to Gawley’s identity as his performances of normative masculinity.
The University of Chicago Press, 2020
At the age of four, Jaipreet Virdi’s world went silent. A severe case of meningitis left her alive but deaf, suddenly treated differently by everyone. Her deafness downplayed by society and doctors, she struggled to “pass” as hearing for most of her life. Countless cures, treatments, and technologies led to dead ends. Never quite deaf enough for the Deaf community or quite hearing enough for the “normal” majority, Virdi was stuck in aural limbo for years. It wasn’t until her thirties, exasperated by problems with new digital hearing aids, that she began to actively assert her deafness and reexamine society’s—and her own—perception of life as a deaf person in America.
Through lyrical history and personal memoir, Hearing Happiness raises pivotal questions about deafness in American society and the endless quest for a cure. Taking us from the 1860s up to the present, Virdi combs archives and museums in order to understand the long history of curious cures: hearing trumpets, violet-ray apparatuses, pneumomassages, electrotherapy machines, airplane diving, bloodletting, skull hammering, and many more. Hundreds of procedures and products have promised grand miracles but always failed to deliver—a legacy that is still present in contemporary biomedicine.
“Materializing User Identities & Digital Humanities”
In Bess Williamson and Elizabeth Guffey (eds.), Making Disability Modern: Design Histories (Bloomsbury, 2020)
This chapter “describes how new technologies are reshaping the practices of collecting, exhibiting, and interpreting artifacts of disability history. Because disability is so often hidden in the historical record, Virdi argues digital tools from social media, ranging from hashtags to online exhibitions, are particularly useful for their ability to cut across institutional collecting practices. However, she also suggests the need for critical consideration of new online projects, as they may replicate existing biases. And perhaps this opens a newer chapter in our understanding of the design model of disability. Here, it may be argued, the role of users in shaping the meaning and form of “disability things” can be newly discovered. Historians and other digitally adept scholars can now link technological histories to the populations that they aimed to serve.”
Edited by Iain Hutchison, Martin Atherton & Jaipreet Virdi.
Manchester University Press, March 2020
Disability and the Victorians brings together in one collection a range of topics, perspectives and experiences from the Victorian era that present a unique overview of the development and impact of attitudes and interventions towards those with impairments during this time. The collection also considers how the legacies of these actions can be seen to have continued throughout the twentieth century right up to the present day. Subjects addressed include deafness, blindness, language delay, substance dependency, imperialism and the representation of disabled characters in popular fiction. These varied topics illustrate how common themes can be found in how Victorian philanthropists and administrators responded to those under their care. Often character, morality and the chance to be restored to productivity and usefulness overrode medical need and this both influenced and reflected wider societal views of impairment and inability.
Canadian Medical Association Journal 191.7 (19 February 2019): 192-194.
In 1923, American news dispatches announced that King Alfonso of Spain had summoned a famous New York osteopath to treat his 15-year-old son, Infante Don Jaime (1908–1975). Deaf and mute following a severe case of mastoiditis, Don Jaime was judged “incurable” after Spanish specialists unsuccessfully operated on him in 1912. According to court insiders, an osteopath took only 20 minutes to perform a bloodless and painless operation that miraculously cured the prince. Who was this osteopath who had succeeded where all others had failed? Reporters deduced that one man fit the bill: Brooklyn-based Dr. Curtis H. Muncie (1887–1963), who happened to be sailing on the Majestic, which was bound for Europe, to promote his “constructive bi-digital intra-aural” technique, otherwise known as the “Muncie Reconstruction Method” or simply “finger surgery.” The technique required Muncie to insert his fingers through a patient’s larynx to manipulate the Eustachian tube and manually correct aural defects causing deafness. Allegedly, it had a 90% success rate in incurable cases.
From adolescence I was told that pain is a normal part of growth. My pain was simply the pain of my body growing, a marker of my journey towards adulthood that began with menarche (the first occurrence of menstruation). Like many other girls, I was embarrassed, perhaps even frightened, by the first spots of blood. Whispered solutions and targeted advertising had instructed me what to do, and my mother’s realisation of this new change reassured me I was doing things correctly.
What is the nature of pain? How do we talk about pain and assess it seriously when the history of modern medicine is built on the transfer of authority from the patient’s subjective experiences to the physician’s objective diagnosis? This is not a broad, sweeping history. It’s a personal one. I am one of an estimated 200 million women worldwide whose body has experienced extreme pain and physical distress that has been routinely dismissed by physicians. It is only pain, I was repeatedly told, as the agony engulfed my life.
30 November 2018
In 1972, the longest-running and most aggressive sexual sterilization law in Canada was finally repealed. Yet, policies of sterilization still persisted, revived under the guise of ‘family planning’ and targeting women and men declared incapable of responsible parenting. Sixty Indigenous women are currently filing a class action lawsuit alleging forced sterilization dating back 30 years in Saskatchewan. Some of the sterilizations occurred as late as 2017. They are each claiming seven million dollars (US $5.6 million) in damages. The women allege their fallopian tubes were tied without their consent, or that they were pressured into undergoing the procedure by doctors and told that it was reversible. Some were pushed into signing consent forms while they were in active labour or on operating tables. These women were told that they ‘could not leave until their tubes were tied, cut or cauterized,’ or that ‘they would not see their baby until they agreed’.
co-authored with Coreen McGuire
British Journal for the History of Science 51.1 (March 2018): 123-146.
The provision of standardized hearing aids is now considered to be a crucial part of the UK National Health Service. Yet this is only explicable through reference to the career of a woman who has, until now, been entirely forgotten. Dr Phyllis Margaret Tookey Kerridge (1901–1940) was an authoritative figure in a variety of fields: medicine, physiology, otology and the construction of scientific apparatus. The astounding breadth of her professional qualifications allowed her to combine features of these fields and, later in her career, to position herself as a specialist to shape the discipline of audiometry. Rather than framing Kerridge in the classic ‘heroic-woman’ narrative, in this article we draw out the complexities of her career by focusing on her pursuit of standardization of hearing tests. Collaboration afforded her the necessary networks to explore the intricacies of accuracy in the measurement of hearing acuity, but her influence was enhanced by her ownership of Britain’s first Western Electric (pure-tone) audiometer, which she placed in a specially designed and unique ‘silence room’. The room became the centre of Kerridge’s hearing aid clinic that, for the first time, allowed people to access free and impartial advice on hearing aid prescription. In becoming the guardian expert and advocate of the audiometer, Kerridge achieved an objectively quantified approach to hearing loss that eventually made the latter an object of technocratic intervention.
Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 45.4 (2017): 531-544.
During the 1920s, the American Society for the Hard of Hearing (ASHH), an advocate group with over 165 chapters across the United States, and its affiliate organization, the League for the Hard of Hearing, launched several public awareness campaigns. These campaigns focused primarily on encouraging the public to receive a hearing test and proper examination from an otologist, emphasizing that ninety percent of all hearing troubles were correctable if diagnosed and treated early enough. By the 1930s, the ASHH and League outlined a new direction for their organization, one that further strengthened bonds between otologists, public health agencies, and social welfare. Focused on the concept of “hearing conservation,” this network claimed that hearing was a finite sense that disintegrated over the course of an individual’s life. Through the conversation of hearing campaign, the League and ASHH transformed hearing loss from a physiological defect that isolated the deaf individual, to an issue at the national forefront, reinforcing the otologist’s claim that deafness was a public health concern.
“Between Cure and Prosthetic: ‘Good Fit’ in Artificial Eardrums”
In Claire L. Jones (Ed.), Rethinking Modern Prostheses in Anglo-American Commodity Cultures, 1820-1939
Manchester University Press, 2017.
Placing the history of artificial eardrums against the backdrop of medical consumerism and advertising culture, this chapter reveals how the commericalisation of assistive technologies can blur the boundaries between prosthetics and cures. Unlike assistive aids to hearing, artificial eardrums were initially constructed as a surgical prosthetic, a replacement of a damaged part to become integrated with a user’s body. By the 1880s, however, the device captured the imagination of British and American inventors and new manufacturing firms who distanced the surgical mark of the device while still adhering to standards of its design. As the device was invisible to both the observer and the wearer, their promotion as ‘cure’ rendered deafness as a sigma, a misery that required medico-technological intervention to integrate the deaf person into hearing society.
The Atlantic, 4 August 2016
That the hard of hearing should feel compelled to disguise their impairment with an invisible technology says a lot about how hearing loss is stigmatized. Invisibility is a popular selling point for hearing aids. At all costs, it seems, the technology must be contoured and fitted into the intricate parts of the ear rather than exposed for the world to see. The shame of mishearing, the embarrassment when the hearing aid “whistles,” the listening but not communicating—all of this threatens vanity, because deafness is still confused with understanding. “What are you, deaf?” dismisses hearing-impaired people as dumb, when we are only deaf. So we mask our hearing aids, and pass as hearing, believing we can magically eliminate our hearing loss. And this is a problem, because deafness is a difference, not an impairment.
Bulletin of the History of Medicine 87.3 (2013): 349-379.
Aural surgery is a branch of nineteenth-century medicine and surgery providing specialized treatment for ear diseases. During the 1830s, faced with a “popular prejudice” against the curability of deafness as well as intraprofessional rivalries and continuous accusations of quackery, aurists found their surgical authority questioned and their field’s value threatened. In an attempt to bolster aural surgery’s reputation, in 1841, the aurist John Harrison Curtis (1778–1856) introduced his new diagnostic instrument, the cephaloscope, which could not only improve diagnosis but also provide approaches for regulating aural knowledge, thus strengthening aural surgery’s authority. This article examines the motives underlying Curtis’s introduction of the cephaloscope and the meanings it held for the occupational group at large.