This winter, students are taking a course on the cutting edge of historical analysis: HIST 29318 Modern Disability Histories: Gender, Race, and Disability taught by Misha Appeltová, a Teaching Fellow in the Social Sciences. Appeltová will offer a revised version of the course again in the spring and it is open to all undergraduate students with no prerequisites. We talked with her over Zoom about the course and the field of disability studies. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is disability history?

Disability studies is an academic discipline that interrogates normative ideas about bodies and minds and seeks to understand the experiences of disability in their full complexity. It approaches disability not just as an impairment of an individual person, but as something that is produced within social, cultural and economic contexts. Within disability studies there is an understanding of disability as a social category that interacts with other categories such as gender, race, and class. For example, I just read a text with my students about a poor Black deaf man born in the Jim Crow South who was wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a woman and spent decades in an asylum. He was mistaken for a person with a mental disability because white police and asylum officials did not understand Black sign language.

Disability history examines the meanings cultures in the past gave to disability, shifts in these meanings, and experiences of people with disabilities. It uses a variety of methods, from medical and social history through material culture (including prosthetics), to the history of disability rights activism.

How did you develop the course?

When I was doing research for my dissertation, which is about the body in socialist Czechoslovakia, I came across all this material expressing panic about rising levels of obesity and proposing anti-obesity campaigns. A friend of mine recommended I look into disability approaches to obesity and how socialist experts, newspapers, films, and so on, thought about the “normal” socialist body. I first taught this class on disability history in 2017. At that time the class was a bit experimental because there weren’t many resources available for how to teach a class like this. This year it’s different—there's much more out there.

What does the class cover?

The class focuses on disability history in the English-speaking world from around 1850 to the present day. The goals of the class are to introduce students to a new category of analysis—disability—and to use it to think about pivotal moments in history over the last century. The class starts with the establishment of the modern norm of the body and mind in the mid-19th century with readings on freak shows; eugenic approaches to “feeblemindedness,” an umbrella term for a variety of physical and mental conditions; and slavery. It then moves onto the heyday of eugenics in the Interwar Period and its culmination in the murder of people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. The course also addresses post-WWII developments in medical approaches to disability, disability rights activism, and the recent emergence of public discussions of mental health.

One example of how disability studies can reframe iconic historical moments is the telephone. "Proper speech" was defined in part through criticism of sign language. Alexander Graham Bell himself was involved with the eugenic anti-deafness movement. The telephone, which we celebrate as a major technological development, was actually first developed as a tool to do away with deafness.

Finally, the course looks at how people with disabilities have organized politically and advocated for their rights, especially in the period between 1960 and 1990, culminating in the United States with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

How are disability studies and disability history related to the disability rights movement?

Disability studies grows directly out of the disability rights movement. In the 1970s and 1980s there were massive protests for basic rights as well as protests against discrimination in public life. Many leading disability studies scholars were a part of or have reflected on the movement.

The classroom can often be a place that unintentionally does not meet the needs of people with disabilities. I tried to design the course with accessibility in mind. Some aspects of accessibility are in the technical details, such as making sure all images and videos I use in teaching have captions. The most important thing is making sure that the expectations of the course are clear in advance and that there are no surprises. There are no surprise quizzes or tests, and I am flexible with deadlines as long as students communicate with me in advance.

If you are interested in learning more about disability studies, check out these texts recommended by Misha Appeltová.

Jonathan Metzl, The Protest Psychosis (Beacon Press, 2010)
Douglas Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky (New York University Press, 2001)
Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)
Stephanie Ban, "'That Noisy Mess in the East Lobby': Physical Accessibility at Chicago-Area Universities, 1970-1990," B.A. thesis University of Chicago, 2018.

Image credit on rightUniversity of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf7-03429], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. For more on the 1983 accesibility protests, see Stephanie Ban's B.A. thesis (above) or "Remembering The Ad Hoc Committee for Handicapped Access (AHCHA): Against Erasure of Disability History At the University Of Chicago" in The Activist History Reviewalso by Ban.