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Discover the cultural history of disability and its impact on notions of selfhood through this carefully curated selection of content, from eBook chapters on disability in Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany, and a Lesson Plan tracing representations of disability though time, to a chapter from the recently published Cultural History of Disability set, which is exclusive to Bloomsbury Cultural History.

Image showning a disabled soldier.
The disabled soldier (Wikimedia Commons)

Disability and Masculinity in Weimar Germany

The metaphor Stahlbad (steel bath) was often used by German politicians to describe the First World War and the rejuvenating effect it would have in toughening up national ideas of manhood. In this chapter Sabine Kienitz studies the physical traumas of war disability, and its impact on body image. With approximately 2.7 million German men left with disabilities by the end of the war, the physical trauma of combat was combined with experiences of marginalisation and a loss of their masculine identity. In a society that constructed and reinforced ideas of manhood through physical capability and work, disabled veterans who were not able to carry out physical labor lost a sense of self, setting in motion what Kienitz calls ‘the reinterpretation of ascriptions by others’.

Image showing a mad man
Title page of [A] New Mad Tom of Bedlam, 1695? (By permission of the British Library)

Mental Disability in the Renaissance Period

Bloomsbury Cultural History provides exclusive online access to the entire Cultural History of Disability set. This chapter from A Cultural History of Disability in the Renaissance explores contemporary perceptions of mental health and the stereotypes that reinforced them. The terms used to describe mental disability during the early modern period were vague, and often “social opinion was the best way to determine who was or was not mad”. Sonya Loftis examines this ambiguous understanding of mental illness, with a focus on melancholia as a symbol of madness, and the relationship between mental disability and the supernatural. Though material from the period is sketchy, the records of Bethlam Hospital, also known as Bedlam, are used to discover the treatment of those who suffered from mental illness.

Image showing a paralympic athlete in Rio
First Day of Athletic Races at the Paralympics Rio 2016 (Wikimedia Commons)

Promoting Cultural Change in the Twenty-First Century

Modern advocates for change in society’s ideas about disability contend that it is not an inherently defined condition, but rather a cultural construct of society itself. This chapter describes how deep-seated prejudices are reinforced by legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which marked disabled peoples as a separate community thereby reinforcing the divide. Inclusion in social activities plays a key part in realising a cultural norm that includes rather than isolates those with disabilities. Explore how changes in sports, notably the Special Olympics and Paralympics, encourage such shifts in belief and promote cultural change round the world.

A meeting of deaf workers of the “Paris Commune” factory with the Stakhanovite Smetanin in 1935 (Courtesy of Viktor Palennyi of the All-Russian Society of the Deaf)

Deafness and Selfhood in Soviet Russia

The Milan Conference of 1880 banned sign language in schools for the deaf, declaring that oral speech was superior to the gestured word. The perceived dominance of speech has come to define the struggles of Western deaf history, and the isolation of those unable to communicate. However, the All-Russian Society of the Deaf (Vserossiiskoe obshchestvo glukhikh, VOG), a deaf-run state organization founded in 1926, provided frameworks for deaf people to establish themselves as equal citizens, advocating alternative methods of sensory perception and sign language, thereby questioning the deaf identity that had developed since the Bolshevik Revolution. Read more about the issues of hearing and speech in the Soviet deaf community, and the implications such limitations had on structures of selfhood and identity.

The Cripples (1568) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Cultural Representations of Disability (Wikimedia Commons)

Cultural Representations of Disability

Bloomsbury Cultural History offers an exclusive Lesson Plan by Dr Ella Houston that traces representations of disability through history, from antiquity to the twenty-first century. It provides thorough and comprehensive coverage of this important topic, exploring disability as a lived experience that is shaped by the culture and society of the time. Each week-by-week section examines representations of disability within a different historical framework and offers selective key reading, thought provoking discussion questions and suggested homework tasks. Explore the full Lesson Plan, a helpful research tool for students conducting independent study, as well as tutors creating their own academic programme.

Image showing a loathly Lady
Cultural Representations of Disability (Wikimedia Commons)

Facial Disfigurement in Middle English and Early Modern Gawain Romances

Disability and disfigurement within literature is often viewed as a plot device, establishing the body as a site of great meaning that can reinforce - and also challenge - social perceptions of ‘normal’ or ‘otherness’. This chapter explores disabling facial disfigurement in the middle English and early modern Gawain romances and ballads, from the perspective of chivalry and courtesy. Focusing on the ‘loathly lady tales’ of King Arthur and his court, the chapter places the tales within their social, political and historical context, exploring the agency of gazing and empowerment. The loathly ladies’ intrusion into the affluent court of King Arthur and the chivalric elite exposes the injurious nature of desire, levelling the dichotomies between assumptions of beauty and deformity.

Homepage image: Australian Paralympic Committee via Wikimedia Commons