Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts




Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts is an interdisciplinary collection of primary texts and images about physical and cognitive disability in the long nineteenth century. Each piece has been selected and annotated by scholars in the field, with the aim of helping university level instructors and students incorporate a disability studies perspective into their classes and scholarship through access to contextualized primary sources. 

On a basic level, disability studies distinguishes between what is known as the medical model of disability, which sees disability as a personal tragedy that needs to be fixed or overcome through medical intervention, and the social model of disability, which argues that it is not the person with a disability who is defective, but the society that stigmatizes physical difference and builds the world around one standard kind of body ("Disability Definitions" Oliver). Scholarship in disability studies has suggested that the medical model of disability has its roots in the nineteenth century. Disability studies scholar Lennard Davis argues that broadly speaking, “the social process of disabling arrived with industrialization and with the set of practices and discourses that are linked to late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century notions of nationality, race, gender, criminality, sexual orientation” (Enforcing Normalcy 24). As Martha Stoddard Holmes suggests, nineteenth-century thinkers were among the first to see disability as a cause of individual suffering, which has the problematic consequence of minimizing “the importance of the material circumstances that surround all disabilities” while maximizing “the importance of personal agency while minimizing the need for social change” (Fictions of Affliction 28-9).

Following the social model of disability, rather than emphasizing individual impairments such as blindness or lameness, the reader emphasizes the technologies, institutions, and representations in literature and popular culture that shaped ideas about disability. The reader showcases cultural objects such as an ear trumpet in mourning, a journalist’s account of a visit to a school for the Blind, and Eadward Muybridge’s photographs of people with disabilities in motion. It is important to note that not every item in the archive presents a celebratory image of disability. For example, Martin Tupper’s poem “The Stammerer’s Complaint”, presents stammering as a melancholy condition. Yet, taken as a whole, the archive presents a historical picture of how disability was represented and experienced throughout the nineteenth century.

Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, has been featured in Hyperallergic, Collector's Weekly, and the Journal of Victorian Culture Online.

The reader currently comprises about 60 annotated items, and was constructed between 2012 and 2015.

Works Cited

  • Davis, Lennard. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso, 1995.
  • Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.
  • Oliver, Mike. "Disability Definitions: The Politics of Meaning." The Politics of Disablement. London: Macmillan, 1990.

How to Use

The material in Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts is approachable and searchable in several ways:

  • Under the Browse tab, readers can view all of the items in the archive as thumbnail images with an excerpt of the text. The Browse tab displays the most recently added items to the archive first. Click through to view the full image and annotation.
  • Readers can also browse by the tags associated with each item. The tags are searchable by type of impairment (e.g. “blindness”, “deafness”, “mobility”), by author’s name, and by genre.
  • The Timeline covers disability history in the long nineteenth century from 1798 up until the start of World War I in 1914
  • Under the Discover tab, readers can explore disability in the nineteenth century by themes such as technology, literature, and institutions.
  • Readers interested in scholarly articles on disability may consult the Bibliography
  • Readers coming to the site with a specific idea of what they are looking for can use the Advanced Search feature.

Project Team

Karen Bourrier

(Project Director, Contributor) is a lecturer in the CAS Writing Program at Boston University.  Her book, Strength out of Weakness: Disability and Masculinity in Victorian Fiction, is forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press. Her articles have appeared in Victorian Literature and Culture, Prose Studies, Dickens Studies Annual and the Victorian Review, and she has recently edited a special issue of Women's Writing on Dinah Mulock Craik (Spring 2013). She received her PhD from Cornell University in 2009 and has also held a SSHRC postdoctoral award at Western University.

Christopher Keep

(Project Advisor) is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, and the Associate Director for Graduate Studies for the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University, Ontario, Canada. He has published articles in numerous journals and essays collections, including Victorian Studies, Novel, Nineteenth‑Century Contexts and English Studies in Canada, and, together with Jennifer Esmail, co-edited a special issue of the Victorian Review on disability studies.

Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi

(Social Media Co-ordinator, Researcher and Contributor) is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technolgy at the University of Toronto and presently a Pre-doctoral fellow at Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Research Group The Construction of Norms in 17th to 19th Century Europe and the United States. She holds a MA from the University of Toronto and a BA from York University. Her doctoral dissertation, From the Hands of Quacks: Aural Surgery, Deafness, and the Making of a Specialty in Nineteenth Century London examines the emergence of aural surgery as a specialized branch of surgery and explores how its practitioners (“aurists”) faced challenged from both educational institutions for the deaf as well as the broader occupational field as they attempted to claim legitimacy for their field.

Kim Beil

(Researcher and Contributor) is the Assistant Director for ITALIC, an arts immersion program for freshmen at Stanford University. She has also taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz and at the University of California, Irvine. Her writing has appeared in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism and X-TRA: Contemporary Art Quarterly, among other publications.

Ally Crockford

(Researcher and Contributor) is the Susan Manning Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh (Sept 2013-June 2014). Originally from Canada, she was awarded a PhD in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh in June, 2012. Her doctoral research considers the relationship between the child-figure and re-considerations of death in late nineteenth-century fiction, specifically that of Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, George MacDonald, and Henry James. She pairs this research with an interest in the medical humanities and disability history, focusing on nineteenth-century teratological reports. Ally is currently looking at the role of child’s play in the construction of the monstrous child in literature and is also researching the history of literature and medicine in Edinburgh. She has previously worked on nineteenth-century women writers, feminist and gender theory, Joseph Merrick - the Elephant Man - and diphallicism. 

Jennifer Esmail

(Researcher and Contributor) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the author of Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ohio UP 2013). Her research on Victorian deafness and disability has appeared in ELH: English Literary History, Victorian Poetry, and Sign Language Studies. With Christopher Keep, she co-edited a special issue of the Victorian Review (Fall 2009) on the topic of Victorian Disability.

Helen Goodman

(Researcher and Contributor) is in the third year of her PhD at Royal Holloway, writing a thesis provisionally entitled ‘Mad Men: Insanity, Masculinity and the Emotions in English Literature and Culture, 1850-1890′. Her interdisciplinary research draws on archival case notes from London’s lunatic asylums, alongside fiction (by writers including Trollope, Dickens, Braddon, Reade, Collins and Galsworthy), medical journalism, diaries, letters and the periodical press. She is co-editor of Beyond These Walls: Confronting Madness in Society, Literature and Art, and has book chapters forthcoming on asylum history and on masculinity and travel. Helen is also a critical submissions editor for the online journal, Exegesis, and has broader research interests in the Victorian novel, the history of psychiatry and medicine, masculinity and gender studies, disability studies and Victorian popular culture. 

George Gordon-Smith

(Researcher and Contributor) is a doctoral candidate in the English department at Emory University. He is completing his dissertation, which explores literary representations of disabled slaves in nineteenth-century American literature. His research interests include critical race and disability theory, nineteenth-century American and African American literature, the history of science and scientific racism.

Kylee-Anne Hingston

(Researcher and Contributor) is a PhD student and sessional instructor at the University of Victoria, where she is writing her dissertation on focalization and disability in Victorian fiction. Her master's thesis, written at the University of Saskatchewan, was on disability and disease in the fiction by L. M. Montgomery. She has published articles on disability in Montgomery’s novel Blue Castle (1926), and more recently, on disability in Wilkie Collins's No Name (1862) and in Dinah Mulock Craik's The Little Lame Prince (1874).

Keren Hammerschlag

(Researcher and Contributor) is a Wellcome Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for the Humanities and Health at King’s College London, undertaking research on the theme of medical portraiture. She has published on Victorian art, group portraiture, and medical self-portraiture in Visual Culture in Britain, Nineteenth-century art worldwide, Women: A Cultural Review, and Medical Humanities. From September 2013 she will be a Postdoctoral Research Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. She completed her PhD in Victorian Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2010 with a thesis entitled ‘Death and Violence in the Art of Frederic Leighton.’

Gretchen E. Henderson

(Researcher and Contributor) is the author of books including The House Enters the Street, On Marvellous Things Heard, and Galerie de Difformité (a hybrid novel engaging the Ugly Face Club, inviting readers to intervene in the history of "deformity"). Her writings have appeared in a wide variety of scholarly and creative journals. Among other awards, Gretchen has received a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship from MIT and is currently writing Ugliness: A Cultural History.

Jennifer Janechek

(Researcher and Contributor) is a PhD student in the University of Iowa English department. She received her Master of Arts degree in English literature from the University of South Florida. Her research interests include Victorian technologies of mobility as well as the construction of disability and the disabled subject in Victorian literature.

Nadine LeGier

(Researcher and Contributor) is a doctoral candidate the Department of English, Film and Theatre at the University of Manitoba. She holds a B.A. in English from Saint Mary’s University and a master’s degree from the University of Guelph, where she worked as an RA on The Orlando Project: Women’s Writing in the British Isles From the Beginning to the Present. She is currently editing her dissertation, “My Letters Are All Talk”: Community in Nineteenth-Century Epistolary Narratives of Deafness and Disability, which explores the significance of familiar letters to the disability life-writing genre during the Victorian period.

Caroline Lieffers

(Researcher and Contributor) is a PhD student in the History of the Science and Medicine at Yale University. Her research interests include the histories of disability, medicine, and domestic life in nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain, America, and Canada. She has published articles in the Journal of Social History and Women’s History Review, among others.

Daniel Martin

(Researcher and Contributor) is an Assistant Professor of English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford. He is currently writing a book project on stuttering and unconscious habituation in Victorian medical, elocutionary, and literary cultures. His most recent publications include an essay on the seduction of moving images in Bram Stoker's Dracula in Victorian Literature and Culture (2012) and a chapter on Wilkie Collins and risk in The Blackwell Companion to Sensation Fiction (2011). He is also serving as guest editor for a special issue of Victorian Review on "Victorians and Risk," to appear in 2014.

Theresa Miller

(Researcher and Contributor) is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia whose research seeks to apply cultural and literary disability studies to an analysis of the fiction and non-fiction writing of the nineteenth-century author Dinah Mulock Craik. Theresa’s research interests include nineteenth-century literature and culture, identity, feminism and disability studies.

Melina Alice Moore

(Researcher and Contributor) is a doctoral student in English at the City University of New York Graduate Center. She holds a B.A. in English from Smith College and a master's degree in Liberal Studies from the Graduate Center. Her research interests include eighteenth and nineteenth-century British women writers, feminist and gender studies, disability studies, and life writing.

Matthew Rubery

(Researcher and Contributor) is Reader in Nineteenth-Century Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. He is author of The Novelty of Newspapers: Victorian Fiction after the Invention of the News (Oxford, 2009), editor of Audiobooks, Literature, and Sound Studies (Routledge, 2011), and co-editor of Secret Commissions: An Anthology of Victorian Investigative Journalism (Broadview, 2012). His research on the first books recorded for people with vision impairments featured on the BBC Radio 4 program “Word of Mouth” in January 2013. His current project is titled “The Untold Story of the Talking Book.”

Leah Thomas

(Researcher and Contributor) is an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of Languages and Literature at Virginia State University. She has served as Associate Editor of ABOPublic: An Interactive Forum for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830 and now serves as its Editorial Advisor. Her research focuses on digital literary cartographies and the intersectionality of cartography and literature by reading maps as texts. 

Ryan Sweet

(Researcher and Contributor) is an AHRC funded PhD student at the University of Exeter, where he is currently writing a thesis on the cultural and literary history of human prosthesis from 1840-1914. He wrote his MA dissertation on the fictional representations of ocular prosthesis in the period 1838-1904 and his BA dissertation on the portrayal of physical disability in the novels of Victorian sensation fiction writer Wilkie Collins. In addition to his research, Ryan is also enrolled as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and is the Book Reviews Editor of the interdisciplinary academic journal Literature & History, which is published biannually by Manchester University Press.

Clare Walker Gore

(Researcher and Contributor) is a PhD candidate in the faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, where she also received her BA and MPhil. Her doctoral thesis is on representations of disability in the nineteenth-century novel, and she has a particular interest in the work of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Yonge, and Dinah Craik. She has presented her work at King's College London, the Université Diderot Paris and Emory University.

Vanessa Warne

(Researcher and Contributor) is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Film and Theatre at the University of Manitoba, where she also holds a cross-appointment with U of M’s Interdisciplinary Disability Studies Master’s Program. She has explored the relationship between disability and nineteenth-century literature in publications on Poe’s “The Man that Was Used Up,” on the representation of artificial limbs in Victorian poetry and short fiction, on visual disability and mobility in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and on the proliferation of finger reading and the development of a print culture for visually disabled people in Victorian Britain. Her current project, funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant, is a monograph on finger-reading, touch, visual disability and literacy in Victorian literature.

Rachel Herzl-Betz

(Researcher and Contributor) is a doctoral candidate in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. Her dissertation explores the impact of Victorian material culture, technoculture, and thing theory on the representation of disabled characters' perceptive abilities between 1830 and 1890. She has published articles in Dickens Quarterly and Persuasions, and has a chapter  forthcoming in Fabricating the Body: Effects of Obligation and Exchange in Contemporary Discourses (2014).

Kristen Starkowski

(Researcher and Contributor) is a candidate for the Ph.D. in English at Princeton University and a Beinecke Scholar. She earned her B.A. at Colby College with majors in English and sociology. Her research interests include Victorian literature, disability studies, Charles Dickens, penny dreadful fiction, and the concept of care.